ISIS and the West’s Coalition of the Barely-Willing ~ by RICHARD SILVERSTEIN
In 1991, George Bush created what was then called the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to defeat Saddam Hussein. Yesterday, the U.S. met with members of what it hoped would be a new coalition of similarly willing nations dedicated to defeating ISIS. The problem is that it’s a fractious coalition. If George Bush thought he had it rough, Obama and Kerry have it much tougher.
The nations comprising and bordering ISIS-held territory (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey) have widely disparate interests in general and specifically related to ISIS. Turkey originally encouraged the formation of Syrian rebel forces to battle Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It also allows the smuggling and sale of ISIS-harvested oil in the Turkish black market. It is terribly awkward for Erdogan to pivot from support for such rebel groups to fighting them. Nor does the U.S. have especially warm relations with Turkey, which has been disappointed by the weakness and hesitation of Obama’s Middle East policy. Our strong endorsement of Israeli interests hasn’t helped matters either.
Syria is the white elephant in the room: while the coalition members detest ISIS, they detest Assad almost as much, and don’t wish to do anything that may help him. And if ISIS is weakened or destroyed, it can’t help but bolster the Syrian regime.
Iraq is rapidly turning into a failed state. Its military practically doesn’t exist–riven as it is by poor training and supply, ethnic rivalries, and a corrupt officer corps. The only coherent fighting force in Iraq are the Kurds, and their interest is in protecting the territorial integrity of their enclaves, not necessarily the integrity of the entire country.
Iran is the country with perhaps the most to lose or gain both from the confrontation with ISIS and participation in the coalition. But there’s the rub: whatever the U.S. may want to happen regarding Iran, it has two restive Sunni powers (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who want nothing to do with Shiite Iran. They both told Kerry that if Iran attended the Paris meeting they wouldn’t. That effectively sunk what could’ve been a constructive development.
We’ve said that we’d like Iran to play a role in the fight against ISIS. But we’ve essentially said we can’t be seen to be coordinating our strategy or tactics with the Iranians due to the antipathies of the Sunni despots. Anything that happens must be done on the sly. The Iranians are a proud people used to being trampled upon by Great Powers. That prospect doesn’t encourage them. It’s a pity we’re locked into the lose-lose proposition, because the U.S.’ long term interests in the region lie much more with Iran than the Qatari or Saudi strongmen.
Iran looks at the bind the U.S. has gotten itself into and laughs derisively. Ayatollah Khamenei dismissed any participation with the U.S. in anti-ISIS efforts saying the U.S. can’t be trusted. He tried to rub salt in the wound by publicly exposing U.S. requests that Iran join these efforts, and telling the world that he rejected them out of hand.
Though a harsh rejection, no one should be surprised. ISIS is an important issue for Iran since it threatens to overrun the Shiite regions of its neighbor, Iraq. But the nuclear issue is no less critical. And there is much unfinished business regarding it. Though negotiations toward an agreement are proceeding, and hopeful murmurings have been heard, nothing is assured. For Iran, an honorable resolution of this issue and the reopening of relations with the U.S. on mutually respectful terms, are critical. The Grand Ayatollah is in effect telling us he’s heard nothing that persuades him there will be marked changes in America’s approach to Iran in the near term. So he sits back, bides his time, and watches as the U.S. president elected to end a war, proceeds to get himself back into the one he hoped to end. When your enemy is sunk in quicksand, a cardinal rule of politics is to sit back and enjoy it. Don’t give him a helping hand.
Another lesson that the U.S. and Israel have never learned, and which is important if you want to play any role in the region, is that determining when NOT to act is sometimes more important than determining TO act. In other words, there are times when standing back and allowing your opponent to overplay his hand is the better part of valor. A nation that believes it must always DO something to advance its interests or prevent them from being threatened, is a nation that will make mistakes and blunders. Action can harm your interests. Though inaction too can bring risks, caution is often the preferred option.
There is no doubt that some form of action is needed to suppress ISIS. But going on a holy war, which seems to be the path chosen by Obama, aiming for the total eradication of ISIS, is a fool’s errand. Some of the hesitation of our putative allies may lie in their realization that more finesse and less firepower is called for.