With the killing of the second American journalist on September 2, there is intense ‘shock and awe’ in the US at the brutal and cold blooded manner of the retaliation by the ‘Islamic State’. The ‘Islamic State’ is in no sense a State in the political lexicon of our times and it just remains a band of armed terrorist group that has forcibly occupied a part of the State of Iraq and has not been recognized by any other State in the region (not even by Pakistan and some of the Gulf monarchies who were in such a rush to recognize the Islamic State of Afghanistan founded by the Momeen-ul-Amin Mullah Omar in 1996).
How does the mightiest power on earth fight such a monstrosity as the Islamic State? It has chosen to do so only by deploying its air force and unmanned aerial vehicles to drop bombs, hoping to smoke it out of existence. The latest spate of bombings, in the last week of August, by the American air-force on a cluster of villages in Amerli, in northern Iraq to prevent the slaughter of a largely Shia population by the barbaric soldiers of the Islamic Caliphate, was second such exercise, after an attack on the Sinjar mountain to protect the besieged Yazidis earlier.
If the recent experience of the American ‘War on Terror’ that started with a similar strategy in Afghanistan to bomb Al-Qaeda out of existence that later became a full-scale land war with hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the US and NATO countries occupying Afghanistan for over 12 years is anything to go by, then the IS (earlier ISIS) too is unlikely to be smoked out of existence by the American air force and drones.
Interestingly, the bombing in Amerli was accompanied by an un-coordinated but seemingly joint effort of American aerial support to the foot soldiers of an Iranian militia called the ‘Asaib Ahl-ul Haq’, according to the New York Times. Any suggestion of a joint operation has been quickly denied by the US administration as that would have been sternly rebuked by the Gulf monarchs who cannot make up their minds as to who poses a greater threat to their survival – the ISIS, Iran or the US.
The options for the Americans in their fight against the ISIS are indeed very few and almost all of them would annoy their allies in the region. When the ISIS broke out (much like Ebola), in early June with the capture of Mosul, the US administration was not sure how to respond to this force. Most Republicans said ‘Let the Muslims kill themselves, why should we bother?’ The confusion was similar to the days when the US Administration did not know how to react to the emergence of Mullah Omar as the Commander of the Faithful in Afghanistan in 1996.
Though the Western media is unable and unwilling to name the regional players who have fathered the ISIS, the widely held belief in the Arab street is that it is the ‘Americans who have created the ISIS’! Their argument is simple and obvious. ‘How come such a fierce band of Islamic fighters is not fighting the Israeli State that is carrying out the worst bombing on the innocent Sunni Muslim population in Gaza, but is busy killing more Muslims in the Islamic heartland’? So it is created by the Americans to protect Israel!
More educated Arabs would trace the history of this violent force to the American invasion of 2003 that destroyed the central authority of Saddam Hussein over all the diverse tribes and let loose the dogs of war. This resulted in the creation of a diverse mix of militias that mushroomed in the fight against the US invasion. Both the Shias and Sunnis of Iraq had one common enemy, but that was to change soon. To harness one of the enemies and to divert its focus, David Petraeus (Commanding General, Multi National Force -Iraq, February 2007 to September 2008) came up with a brilliant strategy. After advocating for a ‘surge’ in US troops he helped create and arm a Sunni militia called the ‘Sons of Iraq’ to fight the Shia militias, particularly the ones led by Moqtada al-Sadr. The ethnic fault lines were hardened. The failure of the Shia-led Iraqi Central Government to integrate the ‘Sons of Iraq’ into the regular armed forces had left a large group of well- trained, well- armed ex-Baathist militia that had no jobs and fixed salaries. Since the demobilization of the Baathist forces, there was no major Iraqi Sunni force, besides the rag-tag groups of Al-Qaeda and the Army of the Naqshabandi order. These militias had to depend on kidnappings, extortion and the more lucrative business of smuggling oil. They soon realized that control of oil wells is the best way to smuggle it. Hence the march of the ISIS has been to those areas that have oil wells and not to Baghdad. Of course, there are ‘foreign fighters’ (the Western media interestingly does not count the US, British and other NATO allies deployed in any distant land as ‘foreign fighters’) in the ISIS and they come from Syria, Saudi Arabia and the usual suspect places such as Chechenya, Pakistan (mostly from Wazirstan), Turkey, and a handful from the US, UK, France, India and Maldives as well.
Now that President Obama has rightly recognized the primary threat in the region and has put his force to fight the main enemy — the ISIS, over the secondary and tertiary threats that exist between the various regional powers and their proxy terrorist outfits, what exactly are his options? Who are his likely allies in this fight? The obvious answer is – the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’, for that is the only country that has a stake in protecting, first and foremost the Shia population, second the territorial integrity and demographic mix of both Iraq and Syria and third, opposes the creation of a new state of Kurdistan, in which its interests coincide with that of Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
The fact that Iran quietly nudged its protégé Noori al-Maliki out of power in Baghdad and helped the US in putting up a less discredited regime in position to assuage the feelings of the Sunni power brokers and that the soldiers of Moqtada al-Sadr were mobilized to fight the ISIS forces and that both Ayotallah Sistani and Ayotallah Khamenie have rallied their followers to fight this evil force while the Saudi Kingdom and other Gulf Monarchs were yet to make up their mind, should have clearly convinced the US administration as to who its ally is in this fight. But admitting Iran as its frontline ally in the war against the latest terror outfit would have angered everyone from the Republican Party to the Jewish lobby in the US, to Benjamin Netanyahu, not to mention the Sunni brotherhood of the GCC. And the US President, even when he is fighting the most dangerous terrorist outfit in the world, has to answer his critics as to why is he protecting the Yazidis (in Sinjar mountains) or the Shia population and is angering the larger Sunni constituency, whose rulers have been his steadfast allies.
Now as he contemplates sending the planes to bomb ISIS’s bases in Syria, President Obama is confronted with the more serious charge of supporting the most discredited President in the region – Bashar al-Assad, who has survived three years of proxy war by the combined terror outfits funded, armed and sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Destroying the ISIS in Syria will certainly strengthen Assad, an ally of Iran and Russia. To say that bombing ISIS bases in Syria would strengthen the ‘moderate opposition’ is a meaningless argument, for there is no moderate opposition. It is like the ‘Good Taliban’ argument. Only a dead Taliban is a good Taliban.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey did not fund, arm and support any ‘moderate opposition’ in Syria, for that would have meant support to the rise of democracy which would be an existential threat to the monarchies. They funded and armed Jubhat ul-Nusra, Liwa al-Tauhid and many other terror groups, sections of which have now morphed into the ISIS. Unless you cut off the head of the snake, the tail keeps growing. But who is the snake depends on which side of the Gulf you are. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is the snake; for Iran it is the ISIS first and its sponsors next. And this perception is partly shared by President Obama, though it is unlikely to be the basis for a joint action. A common enemy does often become a powerful uniting force, but the fact that the US has so many friends and not a single ally to fight with speaks volumes about its foreign and defence policies in the region.
The unintended consequences of American action in the region have often shaped the countries far more drastically than that suited either American interests or that of its allies. And the present campaign of bombing out the gravest threat to the region may unwittingly end up strengthening the rulers in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan, a daunting prospect for America’s allies.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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