Daesh is now the biggest threat to world peace. It occupies a third of Iraq and Syria and has established the Islamic State within defined borders, on solid land, with a separate flag, a lot of money, and an oil economy that sustains the idea. It also has a system of governance that appeals to many. That is what makes it different from Al-Qaeda. And more dangerous. It has plans to expand its territory, and for that looks to contiguous lands where disorder and chaos reign.
This brings into play the larger Middle East and the Levant, thanks to the strategic positioning of both Iraq and Syria, both socio-cultural and geographical centres of the Arab world. For this Daesh has the neo-cons in Washington to thank who came up with that brilliant idea of an Arab Spring that found an early winter. What we have now is an omnipresent Daesh – ask the Parisians or the Belgians; and Al-Qaeda which must seek newer frontiers in Mali to compete for the fertile recruiting grounds in the Muslim world.
With Iraq now lost to the global order after the demise of the ‘despotic’ Saddam – ‘Bambie’ Blair having recently sworn to the fact – the next in line is Syria where the current world order now anchors its unravelling. Once, and if, established there with surer moorings the IS is unlikely to yield its intended drive to a trans-national presence, with Abubakar al-Baghdadi, the unchallenged leader of its ideological and political direction. This is roughly the scenario that has sucked the likes of the US, Russia, Nato, and the rest of the west into this whirlpool of an ultimate civilisational face-off – as Samuel Huntington prophesied for other reasons, and as Al Baghdadi hopes it will become.
However, this has not been without some significant help from the Muslim world. Two fault-lines within the Middle East are existential: the Israel-Palestine overhang, and a foundational Shia Levant-Sunni Peninsular divide. Between such foundational and overhanging dissonance there is room for deliberate strife and manipulation, mostly for political gains and at times for ideological domination. The gift of oil and gas by providence to this land is another factor enticing extraterritorial tinkering. The presence of Israel in the midst, literally, is like leaving a smouldering matchstick in a huge pool of this oil and gas mix.
And then another geographical travesty. Turkey is conjoined with Iraq and Syria in a trinity occupied by the Kurds who are divided among the three nations. Each of these nations is wary of them because Kurds seek independence, with a likely aim to merge in a single homeland called Kurdistan. The US wants this neat arrangement to work in the name of freedom of the oppressed, and to see another Sunni island of stability find root in the midst of this strategic quagmire (pun).
It is just convenient that Kurdistan can also be US’ other foothold in the region along with Israel to firmly plant both its feet in this strategic geo-economy. And to that end it helps the Kurds with money and arms to fight for their cause and take the space away from Assad. Except that the Turks don’t much like the scheme because they too will lose territory were Kurdistan to see the light of the day.
The presence of two competitive forces eyeing Assad’s land, Daesh and the Kurds, also means that they will face each other off as well. This for the moment is quite acceptable to Assad. That makes the Turks even more wary of the Kurds and Assad. Also, it does not help that Assad is an Alawite Shia; but it is unlikely to be the main driver of Erdogan’s dismay of him seeking his eviction. It has far more to do with Turkey’s fear of a secession keeping Erdogan’s interest rather restricted in the on-going game.
And because Daesh takes on the Kurds in its expansionist drive, Erdogan has a soft heart for the movement. To help Daesh, Turkey not only buys its oil, it facilitates its movement trough its territories for outside trade as well. That brings in the money that sustains Daesh. Most refugees in and out of Syria also route through Turkey, which is convenient except when they create mayhem in Paris or Brussels.
The GCC countries, Saudi Arabia leading them, of course find a suitable proxy in Daesh, which if successful in countering both a Shia Assad, and a Shia Maliki in Iraq, will punch an irrecoverable hole in the brewing Shia Crescent from Iran to the Levant.
Iran, now restored to its eminence, has negotiated for itself a mainstream role in Middle Eastern politics. This has dented the Saudi supremacy in the region and added to its apprehensions; the test of it came about rather quickly when most of the west simply abstained when Iranians, through the Houthis, upset the equation in Yemen.
The Iranians, Assad’s forces, and Hezbollah continue to be the only boots on the ground facing Daesh off, as Ayaz Amir correctly noted in his last piece. When, and if, the IS is routed, the footmarks that will writ large will belong to these boots restoring the ‘crescent’ in its full vigour. A burgeoned Iran will irk the US. France and Russia along with Nato assist from the air in this half-war. Except that the US/Nato, and till recently France, were not attacking Daesh but Assad’s forces.
Russia, on the other hand, attacks Daesh to support Assad. Yet both the US/Nato and Russia are purportedly fighting on the same side but with diametrically opposing objectives. The US/Nato want Assad out, while Russia wants Daesh neutralised – which really means keeping Assad in.
Following the Paris bombings, though, the equation seems to have changed. France is now bombing Daesh with the Russians, while the US/Nato are working on a political formula to gain an ouster of Assad before their air power too can begin to neutralise Daesh. In the meantime Brussels buckled itself down in anticipation of a Paris redux by Daesh.
The US policy on Syria and Daesh remains in a flux; probably waiting for Donald Trump to untangle it in due course (sure pun). Even without a Trump, were an American city to be attacked, the imperial rage will unleash yet another geopolitical nightmare. Perhaps leaving Assad in for a while and focusing only on Daesh may just help us avoid a civilisational conflict that the Pope correctly calls the ‘third world war’.
When on the G-20 sidelines President Obama asked President Putin to join him for an impromptu summit around a snack-table he was in fact recognising the crucial role to which Putin’s Russia had risen in world politics. When Russia moved into Syria with a quantum of force that could only be missed at one’s peril, it indicated how vexing the Middle East has become, resolving which is beyond the pale of a single power, even if it be the sole superpower.
The event marks the limits of political power in an increasingly interdependent world. The US, for all its purposefulness in the Middle East, is unclear what its immediate interests in the region are. Put differently, it will retain the primacy of its interest – the safety and security of Israel – even if the entire region remains embroiled in a self-debilitating internecine conflict.
Success against Daesh is the only option for the sake of this world. For that to happen, all sides must fight for the same objective. At present the major players are resolving the dilemma of who is a bigger threat: Assad or Daesh. The combined wisdom of this world’s top minds simply cannot unlock this grid. What comes next will be later. In the meanwhile Brussels remains buckled down while the New York mayor has clarified that there is no imminent threat.
If the venture fails, Russia will be well advised to prepare for another backlash at home emerging from the Caucuses. That may yet realise an unsaid American interest of checking a rising Russia in its tracks. Except that the rest of the world, mostly Islamic, would by then have been coloured black.