A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Multiple Takes, Including My Own, on The Conundrum of Confronting ISIS without Helping Your Rivals

Nobody likes ISIS, at least no recognized nation-state. Everyone wants to see ISIS defeated. Saudi Arabia and Iran agree. Iran and the US agree. The Sunni world and Asad's Syria agree. Turkey and the Kurds agree.

Or rather, they all agree that ISIS must be stopped. They agree on that, but they do not agree with each other. The US may look the other way at Iran's operations inside Iraq, but it will not openly coordinate operations, nor will Iran. Turkey wants ISIS destroyed but it wants to do so without strengthening the Turkish and Syrian Kurds, and its ultimate goal is to get rid of Asad, so in a position where it's perfectly placed to relieve Kobanê, it seems instead to be becoming the anvil that blocks escape from Kobanê, as the hammer of ISIS presses the PKK and YPG against the Turkish anvil. The conflicting interests of the anti-ISIS players is paralyzing normal military responses. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has its limitations.

Several useful perspectives on this:
  • Mark Katz, who does both the Middle East and Russia, is reminded of a historical resonance at LobeLog: "ISIS and the Bolshevik Precedent." Every party inside Russia except the Bolsheviks, and all the outside powers, wanted to stop the Bolsheviks. You know what happened.
You know why. Though they're carrying the burden of the fight at Kobanê and elsewhere, their links with the PKK make them anathema to Turkey, and the West is more comfortable with the Iraqi Kurds. (Though of the two main parties in the KRG, the US seems most comfortable with the KDP, who aren't involved inside Syria, since the PUK's Iranian ties are awkward.) I may have missed it but I've yet to hear an American news channel even utter the word "Rojava," the Syrian Kurds' term for Syrian Kurdistan. They're invisible, and they're carrying the fight.

Not much can change, especially if the US, which keeps wishing for a ground force to cooperate with in Syria, sees the only one in the front line, the Syrian Kurds, go under.

And it seems somehow relevant to quote again the old joke about the Polish official who is asked, "If Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia at the same time [as of course happened in 1939], which would you fight first?" The Pole replies, "Germany, of course. Business before pleasure."

Priorities need to be in order.

Each party needs to calculate what its real interests are: defeating ISIS or achieving some local victory over a longtime rival. Without that, Katz's Bolshevik comparison could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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