ISIS vs. the World: “The Enemy of my Enemy is My Friend”

The Middle East has developed more hot spots than asphalt on a scorching summer day and I continue to sort through articles in search of an understanding of the underlying dynamics at work.  The most illuminating short piece I have found is by Adam  Taylor in the Washington Post from August 22.   There he nicely summarizes what seems an almost surreal situation in which former enemies seem close to becoming strange bed fellows out of the common desire to crush ISIS.

Flag of islamic state of iraq

Flag of islamic state of iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It reminds me of the ancient proverb about friendly enemies quoted in the title of this post.  Or as Taylor describes the current situation:  “One remarkable result of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been how it seems to be shifting broader conceptions in the Middle East. It sometimes looks like enemies are becoming potential allies – and even old friends are starting to look a little suspicious.”

While I suggest you read the article, here is a thumbnail sketch of its content along with a bit of me inserted here and there.

In order to stop ISIS it seems necessary to root them out of Syria as well as Iraq and that means some sort of working relationship with the Assad government, that same government President Obama has railed against for many months now.  Awkward.

On the other hand, recall that the U. S. did cooperate with Syria and Russia in the removal of chemical weapons there which meant the U. S. was actually shoring up the regime in a defacto way at least for the months it took to complete that deal.  This at the expense of the Free Syrian Army and other so-called moderate anti-government forces.  How is this so different than that?

Cooperation with Iran seems likely, too.   Maybe more likely.  I know, also awkward, but Iran  is the major supporter of the Iraqi Shia who must be counted on to fight ISIS, since we don’t want to put our own boots on the ground (well, not more than a thousand or…?).   Prime Minister David Cameron, for one,  has suggested talks with Iran and other Mid-East nations to develop  cooperation to fight ISIS.

While at least some cooperation with the likes of  Assad’s government and Iran seems in the cards, there is also reassessments being made of  our allies-for-the-most-part like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.   These countries (or at least wealthy citizens in them) have been the chief donors to ISIS in its battle vs. Assad.   Now that ISIS has spread like a wildfire, these donors may have had a change of heart, though I can’t gauge that and Taylor doesn’t try.

However, he does give  a good example of how the success of ISIS has made some former backers cringe. Turkey is an enemy of the Assad regime and “had shown a remarkable tolerance for Islamic State fighters until very recently, allowing fighters to use Turkish towns as way stations for arms and supplies. Turkey is now working with the United States and European governments to crack down on Islamist fighters.”

Clear as mud?  Well, read the Taylor article and I think it will be a bit clearer.



IRAQ: Paths off the Mountain and Towards Forming a New Government

In my previous post I mentioned what was a crisis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq where tens of thousands of Yasidis were trapped by ISIS.   Since then a path down the mountain leading to a circuitous route to freedom in Kurdistan has been opened up and only a few thousand still remain on that mountain, so that potential “genocide” has been averted. 
Also, I mentioned that steps were being taken to replace Prime Minister Maliki with another man from his own party.  At the time Maliki seemed willing to resist the change by any means possible, which could have prolonged the gridlock.   However, yesterday he decided to step down opening the way to form a new government under Haider al-Abadi, a member of his own party who is acceptable to most factions there, in addition to both the U. S. and Iran, the two foremost external power brokers. 
That is great news, but Haider al-Abadi will have a huge challenge to face in developing some degree of national unity, enough to gather its forces and crush ISIS, with likely considerable outside help.   We can only hope he is up the task.  It will be a very tricky process indeed. 

For those looking for background information to both situations mentioned above, I suggest clicking this article in the Wall Street Journal published a few days ago.   Even if you don’t wish to read the article you might find a map there enlightening as it locates Mount Sinjar and the escape path as well as areas under ISIS and Kurdish control, a fluid situation to be sure.

IRAQ: Some Good News Amidst the Bad and the Terrible

Kurdish Peshmerga

Kurdish Peshmerga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The terrible news is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is still threatening the annihilation of “tens of thousands”  (originally 50,000) of a small sect called Yasidi’s trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq.

ISIS also continues to threaten a  Kurdish city named Erbil where we have a consulate.   And those are only the negative highlights.   ISIS threats keep popping up.

The good news is these events have triggered air strikes in both areas by the U. S. which have curbed ISIS efforts in those spots for the moment.  I have read of a pathway off the mountain, but also that ISIS is still advancing, so the situation remains dangerously unclear.   From the perspective of stopping ISIS, the announcement that the CIA is beginning to send arms directly to the Kurds is more good news as they they are pro-American, unlike many Iraqis, and  have a security force, the pesh merga that is willing to fight.  Ironically they are outgunned by the ISIS forces who captured many arms and military vehicles that we had supplied to the Iraqi forces who fled their advances.

Of course arming the Kurds is tricky business  given their inclination to establish an independent state rather than remain a part of Iraq, while U. S.  policy aims for a united Iraq.  However, this kind of situational dilemma is the rule not the exception when dealing with the Greater Middle East.  There are no potential solutions without possible negative repercussions.

Also, I realize that for many that this involvement raises the specter of the U. S. becoming deeply committed in Iraq as we did before.   But this is an emergency situation what with a power vacuum in that country leaving it ripe for ISIS advancements and slaughter throughout.    Right now ISIS seems the biggest threat to  overall stability in the region making them the enemy of basically all nations nearby.   Finding ways to defeat them seems the top priority, so much so that I can imagine cooperation, open or covert, with the likes of Iran and Russia despite our generally adversarial relations with them.    Perhaps we can even learn to stomach Assad if our interests momentarily correspond.

The strength of ISIS is also its weakness.  It is so fanatical and frightening that even al-Queda disowned them.   The rich backers from Sunni Arab states that supported the rise of ISIS  – foremost  Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait – must have second thoughts now that they appear a threat to their own homelands.  Backing them had meant at the time backing their fight with Shia dominated  states, like Assad’s Syria, not Sunni dominated countries like their own.

So ISIS has few friends and many enemies.   The biggest problem right now is that the efforts to stop ISIS  lack unity.  A  huge stumbling block has been the refusal of Prime Minister Malaki to step down, even though he has no backing among Sunni and Kurds and even the Shia have largely turned against him.   The good news is that the parliament has coalesced around selecting Haider al-Abadi, a member of his own party, to replace him.

Malaki’s  fate seemed to be sealed several days ago when the top cleric in Iraq, Ali-Sistani, announced he must step down, a sentiment that was then echoed by the leadership in Iran, who had supported him in the past.   But just yesterday it seemed he might employ military force to retain his position.  However, about two hours ago came reports that Malaki has told the military to stay out of the political process which suggests he will launch a legal challenge to the change but otherwise submit.

What I have just written as a brief summary of events is expanded in an article yesterday in the Washington Post  by Loveday Morris and Anne Gearan.   The first part of the article deals with the Prime Minister appointment and the second part with the Yasidis and the Kurds in northern Iraq.   It obviously doesn’t include Maliki’s statement regarding the military which came this morning.

P.  S. – For those who read my previous post where I said I would write next about Israel  and Hamas, well, the above news usurped center stage, especially as Israel and Hamas are slated to begin a three day (or however long it lasts) cease fire.

THE MIDDLE EAST: You Can’t Tell the Players without a Program

With Syria and Gaza undergoing ongoing hell and ISIS viciousness spreading from Syria, romping about northwest Iraq and knocking on Baghdad’s door, it is all too much to grasp, which is why I have delayed posting.   I could not figure out what to talk about in a short space.

Map of predominantly Sunni or Shi'a regions in...

Map of predominantly Sunni or Shi’a regions in the world .  Click to enlarge.   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I want to rough out an admittedly simplistic picture and then discriminate more in future posts.

There are numerous cross cutting currents creating shifting schisms, but seeing events there as an age old struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims helps explain much.

We are talking about an area of the world that has festered for centuries through animosities between these two dominant Muslim sects.  As indicated in the map to the right, worldwide there are far more Sunnis, but the balance in number is closer in the Middle East, with the strongest Muslim state there being Shia controlled Iran.

What had prevented all out conflict over the past century between the two sects were brutal strongmen who kept the lid on these nations (often just a collection of tribes cobbled together as such by European imperialist force early last century).   A  number of these dictators have fallen in recent years, including Saddam Hussein toppled by us, and more recently others deposed through what was called the Arab spring, but now seems more like the Arab wildfire.

Now that the lid is off in the region all hell is breaking loose.  If you look at the fighting  in the Middle East, you can see the battle lines drawn largely between Sunni and Shia, including terrorist organizations each supports.   Iraq was Sunni dominated under Saddam even though there are a greater number of Shia there.   Once he was deposed, the Shia became dominant with our help.  Since we left they have become increasingly supported (and dominated)  by their fellow Shia in Iran.

The invasion of  radical Sunni ISIS from Syria is a challenge to that dominance, supported so far by many Sunni there, though that could change in response to the ruthless way the ISIS zealots deal with any opposition to their inflexible beliefs.

Moving over to what seems a never ending civil war in Syria, you will see dictator Assad, a member of a Shia offshoot called Alawites, battling predominantly Sunni revolutionary groups, the most famous being ISIS, which has made its name by expanding to Iraq after fortifying its position in Syria.    ISIS has been bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two Sunni nations counterbalancing the aid Shia Iran sends to the Assad regime.   Also, Hezbollah, an Iranian backed  terrorist organization based in Lebanon now seems to be more involved in the  Syrian fray as well.

While the traditional split between Sunni-Shia Muslims sheds light on what is going on in the region, it leaves many cross currents in the dark.   For example, while  Saudi Arabia has supported ISIS in the past, that was because they were fighting for the  Sunni cause in Syria.   However, ISIS has exceeded everyone’s expectations and now has troops on the Saudi border and a vision of restoring a Caliphate (Muslim empire) in the region.

My guess is that the rich and powerful in Saudi Arabia have no desire to become subservient to this vision.  While they were happy to back Sunni radicals against Shia governments, they do not welcome them approaching their own backyard.

Because of the stability issue, there are also conflicts among Sunnis regarding the Israel/Gaza situation, a topic I will address in my next post.