All fish live in water; dolphins are fish; therefore dolphins live in water. The construction of logical arguments such as this may not apply to politics. Don’t they say that politics defies logic? Nowhere is this truism more evident than in the crises involving ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The Syrian government fights ISIS a.k.a as ISIL and IS. The United States also fights ISIS. Therefore, a logical conclusion could be that the US is with the Syrian government. But in reality, the US is not with the Syrian government.
The ISIS fights the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. So does the US. On this score, it is logical to assume that the US is with the ISIS. But it is not.
Even the cliché ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hound’ looks inadequate to describe the conundrum. The confusion is further compounded by other complications. For instance, regional players Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are now bombing the same rebels whom they once armed, funded and trained. Even now they arm and train ‘moderate’ rebels, although there is no guarantee that these moderate rebels would not change sides and become ISIS fighters. Syria watchers say almost all the rebel groups are Islamist in nature.
Adding another dimension to this conundrum is the Iran factor. Together with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria and Iran form a Shiite Crescent, which also includes the Shiite-dominated sectarian government of Iraq. The United States’ Gulf allies fuelled the rebellion in Syria, a Sunni majority country ruled by a pro-Shiite Alawaite president, with the intention of neutralising Iran and installing a puppet Sunni regime in Syria.
But today, these Gulf countries and Iran fight a common enemy: ISIS. But hang on. Don’t come to any logical conclusion. The situation differs from theatre to theatre. While Shiite Iran fights ISIS in Iraq by arming and training Shiite militia groups, the Sunni Gulf Arab countries wish for an ISIS victory in Iraq. Again in Iraq, the US provides air support to Iranian-backed Shiite militia forces that once killed American soldiers but now fight ISIS. Hang on. No logical conclusions, please. This does not make Iran a friend of the United States.
The situation changes in Syria where Iran protects the Assad regime while the US and the Gulf Allies fight ISIS.
The Iranians, who want to see ISIS defeated in Iraq, will be more than happy if the US and its Gulf Arab allies get bogged down in their military campaign against ISIS in Syria. This is because the longer this campaign takes, the weaker Syria’s rebels become and the stronger the Assad regime will emerge eventually.
Then take Turkey, which claims that it is in the US-led coalition to fight the Syrian regime and ISIS. But when ISIS fighters advanced towards the Kurdish city of Kobane on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border, Turkey played a different game. Instead of attacking ISIS, Turkish warplanes targeted the positions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. Not only that, Turkey caused an uproar when it denied on Tuesday a US claim that Ankara would allow its air bases to be used by the coalition forces to launch air attacks on ISIS positions just a stone’s throw away from the Turkish border.
Turkey has also refused to arm Syrian Kurdish fighters who are defending Kobane. It has also dismissed a PKK request to send reinforcement to Kobane to help the Kurds battling ISIS. Turkey’s stance may have drawn criticism from the West. But analysts say Turkey has seized the opportunity in the battle for Kobane to allow both its enemies – the Kurds and ISIS – to kill each other.
So here, while the US is bombing ISIS positions in Kobane and helping the Kurdish fighters to defend their city, Turkey, a US ally, seeks to bleed the Kurds to death. Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has insisted that ISIS and the PKK are both terrorist groups and both must be confronted.
Then there are claims that the ISIS was created by US and Israeli secret service units with the ultimate objective of a regime change in Iran. Many of ISIS leaders were trained by US military experts in bases in Jordan in the early days of the Syrian civil war in 2011. No wonder ISIS fighters are at ease with US military equipment that fell into their hands when the US-trained Iraqi soldiers fled in the face of ISIS advance in Iraq in April this year.
Award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in an article in the New Yorker in 2007 predicted that the then US administration’s policy of undermining Iran would backfire.
“The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”
Iran is not naïve to believe that an ISIS defeat would usher in peace to the troubled region. If ISIS is eliminated, then the next target would be Syria and Iran itself. It is in this light that Iran’s alleged role in the crisis in Yemen makes sense. While the West and its Gulf allies turn their attention towards the fight against ISIS, Iran-backed Houthi rebels – who are Shiites – are making lightning military gains in Yemen with the once pro-Saudi government there being reduced to a puppet of the Houthis. A final Houthi victory will be a major security threat to Saudi Arabia as the rebels will be in a position to disrupt oil supplies and vessel movements in the Red Sea.
As countries with conflicting aims and ambitions weave a tangled web of alliances in the fight against an enemy shrouded in cloaks of mystery and intrigue, President Obama on Tuesday said the fight against ISIS “is going to be a long-term campaign.”
Giving it a codename ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’, Obama told defence chiefs from more than 20 countries in the coalition on Wednesday, “There will be days of progress and there are going to be some periods of setbacks… (but) our coalition is united behind this long-term effort.”
So it seems, there will not be an easy or early solution to this logic-defying Middle Eastern conundrum.