Islamic State vs the world

2014-08-24 15:00

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The locus of power in the Middle East is shifting and governments are doing what they can to prevent any kind of consolidation, writes  Immanuel Wallerstein

In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the caliphate of the Islamic State seems to have frightened everyone involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance.

All of a sudden, we find Iran and the US, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Islamic State from expanding and consolidating itself.

Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of this month.

Nouri al-Maliki has been ousted as prime minister of Iraq under the combined pressure of the US, Iran, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Kurds, primarily because he resisted including a significant role for Sunnis in the Iraqi government.

And why was that important? Because for all these actors, it seemed the only way to undermine the Islamic State from within.

The US has committed its drones and a military force of about 1?000 to safeguard Yazidis and Iraqi Christians from slaughter (an operation requiring de facto assistance from Assad), stopping the advance of the Islamic State on Erbil – the Iraqi Kurdish capital – and probably other things after an ongoing assessment in the field.

US President Barack Obama refuses to indicate an end date for this operation and therefore almost certainly will have left unfulfilled his promise for a total withdrawal from Iraq during his presidency.

The Turkish government has closed down the open border for anti-Assad forces into Turkey, previously a key element in its Syrian policy.

Former US senator Joseph Lieberman, an ardent supporter of Israeli policies, has praised Obama for what he has just done, while the Iranians have abstained from criticising him. The Saudis, who can’t seem to decide on their Syrian strategy, have apparently decided that silence is the best tactic.

So what’s next? And who is profiting from this realignment? There appear to be three obvious short-term winners.

The first is the Islamic State itself. The re-entry of the US into the Iraqi military struggle enables the Islamic State to portray itself as the major force defying the devil incarnate – the US.

It will serve to bring many additional recruits, especially from the Western world.

And one can expect that it will try to engage in hostile activities in the West. Of course, this short-term advantage would collapse were the Islamic State to suffer serious military reverses.

But it would take some time for this to occur, if ever. The army of the Islamic State appears still to be the most committed and trained military force in the region.

A second major winner is Assad. The outside support for anti-Assad forces has always been far less than decisive, and it is likely to dry up even further as ever more Syrian opponents line up with the Islamic State.

The third major winner are the Kurds, who have consolidated their position within Iraq and improved their relations with the Kurds in Syria. They will now be receiving more arms from Western countries, making their military an ever stronger force.

Are there clear losers? One, I suspect, is the US. Unless the Islamic State was to crumble in the near future, this military effort will soon expose the limits of US military abilities as well as the inconsistency of its public positions concerning Iraq, Palestine and Ukraine.

There are at least three groups whose immediate future as winners or losers remains unclear. One is Iran. If the US and Iran are on the same side, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, can the US refuse to come to a compromise with Iran on the issues of nuclear energy? The Iranian position in this negotiation is at least strengthened.

A second is Hamas. The Israelis are already under heavy international pressure to reformulate their positions concerning Palestine. Will this emphasis on the dangers of the Islamic State serve as additional pressure? Probably, but the Israelis will stall as long as they can.

The third is Russia. As I write this, the Kiev government is resisting the entry of Russian trucks that the Russians say is a humanitarian mission to aid the trapped and suffering inhabitants of Lugansk, which is surrounded by Ukrainian troops seeking to starve them into surrender.

Is this truly different from the efforts of the Islamic State to starve the Yazidis on their mountain top into submission? If the US and western Europe are in favour of humanitarian aid in one place, can they sustain the position of being against it in the other?

– Distributed by Agence Global

Wallerstein is a senior research scholar at Yale University

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