After half a century of stasis, there are big new strategic realities in the Middle East, but people are having trouble getting their heads around them. Take the United States, for example. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state in President Barack Obama’s first administration, is still lamenting her former boss’s failure to send more military help to the “moderate” rebels in Syria.
“The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told Atlantic magazine recently. She’s actually claiming that early and lavish military aid to the right people would have overthrown Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, while freezing the al-Qaeda/ISIS jihadis out. If only.
Clinton travels a lot, but she never really leaves the Washington bubble. There are intelligence officials there who would gladly explain to her that almost all the desirable weaponry sent to the “moderates” in Syria ends up in the hands of the jihadis, who either buy it or just take it, but she wouldn’t listen. It falls outside the “consensus”.
Yet that really is how ISIS acquires most of its heavy weapons. The most striking case of that was in early June, when the Iraqi army, having spent US$41.6 billion in the past three years on training its troops and equipping them with American heavy weapons, ran away from Mosul and northern Iraq and handed a good quarter of them over to ISIS.
In fact, that’s the weaponry that is now enabling ISIS to conquer further territory in eastern Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan. Which, in turn, is why Obama has now authorized air strikes in Iraq to stop ISIS troops from overrunning Irbil, the Kurdish capital.
By now, he has also presumably abandoned his proposal of last June to spend US$500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition fighters. (They were then supposedly going to overthrow Assad with one hand while crushing the jihadis with the other.)
But Obama has not yet dropped the other shoe. A lot of people have not dropped their other shoes yet. They all know that the whole strategic environment has changed. They realize that may require new policies and even new allies. Changing horses in midstream is always a tricky business, so the realignments are only slowly getting under way, but you can see where they are going to go.
The proclamation of the “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq has huge implications for every country in the Middle East, but for most of the great powers—Russia, the United States, China, India, Britain, France, and Germany—it is almost the only thing they still care about in the region. They all have Muslim minorities of their own, and they all want the Islamic State stopped, or at the very least isolated, contained, and quarantined.
That means that both the Syrian and Iraqi governments must survive, and they will probably get enough outside help to do so (although it will take time for the U.S. and the major European powers to switch sides and openly back Assad). The army of the Iraqi Kurds might hold its own against the Islamic State if it had better weapons, so it will get them (although Baghdad will not welcome a more powerful Kurdish army).
Containing the Islamic State to the north will be a simpler task, because Iran and Turkey are very big, well-organized states whose populations are relatively invulnerable to the ISIS brand of Sunni fundamentalism. But to the south of the Islamic State is Saudi Arabia, and that is a country that faces some tough decisions.
The Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam that is Saudi Arabia’s official religion is very close to the beliefs of the jihadis who now rule the Islamic State to their north. Much of their financial support and even their weapons have come from Saudi Arabia. But the rulers of that kingdom would be extremely unwise to assume that the jihadis regard Saudi Arabia’s current political arrangements as legitimate, or that gratitude would restrain them.
Nor will the long-standing U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia endure if Saudi ties to the jihadis are not broken. Riyadh will have to decide, and it will be aware that its oil is no longer so vital to the United States that it can have it both ways.
The Iranian-U.S. rapprochement will continue, and the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions will be settled amicably despite Israel’s protests. Indeed, Israel may come under irresistible U.S. pressure to stop whacking the Palestinians or the Lebanese Shias every couple of years, stop the settlement program, and get on with the two-state deal. Washington would very much like Israel to stop alienating the people it needs as allies.
Further afield, General Sisi’s new regime in Egypt can count on strong American support, and may even be encouraged by Washington to intervene militarily in Libya and shut down the Islamist militias there. Tunisia will be the only remaining flower of the “Arab Spring”, although there has also been a certain amount of progress in Morocco. But in the heartland of the Arab world, war will flourish and democracy will not.