“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, defending his decision to regard Stalin as an ally after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
If the brutal fanatics of ISIS and their new “Islamic State” in parts of Iraq and Syria were really an existential threat to the United States, then President Barack Obama, using the same logic, would now be treating the governments of Syria and Iran as allies. But he isn’t.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has just ended a recruiting tour of the Middle East, signing up Arab states and Turkey for a new coalition that will allegedly “degrade and ultimately destroy (ISIS).” Moreover, it must do so without ever requiring U.S. “boots on the ground”: the American public would not stand for any more of that.
The U.S. will happily provide air strikes if others will do the dying on the ground, of course, and the Iraqi government will go along with that deal since it has just lost a third of its national territory to ISIS. But it will take a long time to rebuild the Iraqi army after its recent collapse—and the only other U.S. allies who are willing to die to stop ISIS are the Kurds.
Jordan will supply intelligence services. Turkey will make it harder for would-be jihadis to cross its borders with Syria and Iraq (the route by which most of ISIS’s foreign recruits have traveled), but it will not let the U.S. use Turkish air bases for military operations. Egypt murmurs words of encouragement but makes no specific commitments.
Almost all the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait included, have promised to stop the large flow of donations from wealthy individuals to the various jihadi outfits in Syria (including, at least until recently, ISIS). The United Arab Emirates reportedly even offered to carry out air strikes against ISIS. But it’s hardly a mass mobilisation, and it doesn’t involve any “boots on the ground”.
There are plenty of boots available if Washington wants them, but they are on the wrong feet. The Syrian Army has been fighting the jihadis for almost three years now, and after its initial losses it has managed to hold its own against them everywhere except in eastern Syria. Elsewhere, it has actually been gaining back ground for more than a year now.
Then there is Iran, a big, industrialised country whose armed forces do know how to fight. Iran provided the key support for the local Shia militias that stopped ISIS from sweeping into Baghdad last summer, and it has been providing indispensable support to the Syrian government for years.
Finally, there are the “wrong” Kurds. The Kurds of Iraq can be part of the coalition, because they have their own self-governing region and are legitimate recipients of American military aid. But the Kurdish nationalist forces of northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, who have lots of combat experience and have been holding their own against ISIS, are classed as “terrorists” by Washington and so cannot be part of the gang.
But Washington has not asked these major players to join its new coalition. Indeed, it has invited everybody in the Middle East to join except those who are actually willing to fight ISIS on the ground. How peculiar.
There are reasons for this odd behaviour, of course. The obsessive American mistrust of Iran goes back to the hostage crisis of the late 1970s, and is reinforced by Israel’s paranoia about Iran.
Turkey would go ballistic if the United States started arming the Kurdish rebels of the PKK, who have fought a long and brutal war (currently in remission) against the Turkish state. And it’s just too abrupt a U-turn for Obama to start doing business with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom he was getting ready to bomb just one year ago.
Maybe a rebuilt Iraqi army can drive ISIS out of Iraq eventually, although ISIS has lots of local support in the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. But where does Obama think the troops will come from to drive ISIS back in its Syrian heartland?
His only answer is to build a new “Free Syrian Army” composed of “moderates” who will fight on two fronts, defeating ISIS while also overthrowing Assad. But that’s ridiculous, since the old FSA has almost all been absorbed into the various jihadi groups in Syria. There is nothing left to build on.
For added comic effect, this new Free Syrian Army will be trained in Saudi Arabia, the principal supporter and paymaster of those same jihadi groups until ISIS scared it into hedging its bets.
One is tempted to think that Obama is not really all that worried about ISIS as a strategic threat. One is further tempted to speculate that he has learned not to care too much about what happens in the Middle East any more. But those are subjects for another day.