I’m brassed off with the Iranians. I’m brassed off with the Yanks and the Poms and I’m brassed off with their regional allies. I’m brassed off, full stop. Why? Well, I had written an article for this forum based on the assumption that by now ISIS would be reeling. But all we see is dithering and vacillation while a bunch of cut-throats straight from the piratical 17th century Caribbean throw their weight around and not only get away with it but become more and more what they claim to be – the Islamic State (see my earlier article “ISIS – hostishumani generis and the spectre of legitimacy creep”). And so my article went into the Recycle Bin where it was subjected to that scrunchy sound that you get when you click on ‘Empty’.
Here’s what should have happened.
After they got thrashed in Tikrit, ISIS should have been on the ropes in Mosul now – remember the Iraqis telling the world Mosul would come under attack in May? Well, that was before 2000 of their courageous, well-equipped soldiers ran from a couple of hundred ISIS attackers charging in on the backs of pick-ups in Ramadi, I suppose. Now it’s up to a motley assemblage of militias together with some Iraqi army units who are hopefully less inclined to emulate the Road Runner at the sight of a ute to try to take the place back. What a farce!
Not that everyone has been tearing their hair out in response to the events in Ramadi. They suited the powers that be in Teheran rather well. Those militias are mostly Shia and under Iranian control. (I’ll bet you a pound to a peanut half those militiamen are Iranian troops in mufti!) The message is clear: without Iranian military involvement, ISIS will not be defeated.
This gives Teheran immense leverage both within the region and outside. Fundamentally, the fate of ISIS is in Iranian hands. If they were to decide to get really serious by sending dinkum army units in – preferably the crack ones – they could erase the Islamic State from the map in a few short weeks. So why aren’t they doing that? Answer: they naturally want to milk this situation for all it’s worth. ISIS isn’t an ‘existential threat’ (to use a trendy expression that has entered the vocab in relation to ISIS) to Iran, at least not currently. What Teheran wants out of this situation is major geopolitical advantage through the consolidation of the Shia Crescent (see my recent article “Yemen and Islam’s internecine war”) and getting the West off their backs about their nuclear programme. But the West and their Sunni allies don’t want to play ball, and so the Iranians are holding back. Hence ISIS will at best be contained in Iraq for the time being while they are making significant gains in Syria – the regime in Damascus is the one on the ropes right now. Not that that matters to the West and the Saudis and their Sunni allies, because they don’t like Bashar al-Assad. Oh the giddy machinations of the Middle Eastern geopolitical merry-go-round! Meanwhile, over in Palmyra, among other places………
Not that everything is going quite the way ISIS would want either, as they are being forced to approach what they envision as the end-game by a rather circuitous route, and the ‘real enemy’ is proving to be difficult to lure into their trap. ISIS’s end-game vision is no secret – they are very open about their eschatology (end-time doctrine) in their glossy English-language magazine Dabiq*. The ‘Army of the Just’ (i.e. ISIS) and the ‘Armies of Rome’ (whom they take to be the US and Western Europe) will gather in the field of Dabiq, a city in northern Syria. There will be one helluva scrap, during which both sides will suffer terrible losses. Then, as the Armies of Rome are about to throttle the Army of the Just, there will be divine intervention to settle the matter – in favour of the latter, of course. And thus we enter the ISIS version of the Millennium.
But between now and that eagerly-awaited Armageddon there are some dicey strategic mid-game decisions to be made. They have to decide how many material and human resources they are prepared to commit to the defence of Ramadi and, a bit later, Mosul if/when push comes to shove there – every man killed in Iraq is a man who will not be on the field of Dabiq for the final showdown. I would give quids to be a fly on the wall at a meeting between Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his military strategists.
My best-case scenario involves Teheran deciding to go in boots and all and finishing ISIS off. First Mosul, then the big one – Raqqa – alongside the Syrian army, Hezbollah and other militias. End result: no more ISIS. (We can safely surmise that surrender won’t be a viable option for ISIS fighters and it would all end in a bansai-charge by the last defenders bristling with explosives.) There is something tantalisingly neat and tidy about this scenario. It won’t be the Armies of Rome that gather to destroy ISIS, but armies of regional actors – to add insult to injury, armies of heretics and apostates. What began as a threat with global ramifications is reduced to a regional kerfuffle centred on a band of pretentious head-cases who got too big for their boots – the sort of thing the Middle East has seen umpteen times in the course of many millennia.
The winners would be the regimes in Teheran, Baghdad and Damascus. There would also be huge sighs of relief from surrounding countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. The Russians would be beaming with delight at having backed the right horse while the West would be able to say that they made it all possible through the damage inflicted on ISIS by the air campaign. The Kurds would come out of it smelling of roses and their demands for independence would be sympathetically heeded by the West (‘Kosovo 2’ coming up?). Even the Saudis would be pleased on balance, although they’d be apprehensive about an ‘Islamic State in Exile’ popping up next door in Yemen. The only real losers are ISIS and perhaps Turkey who did inestimable damage to their image by sitting on their hands as a massacre was about to take place in Kobani.
Surely this scenario is so good for just about everyone that it simply has to happen. The fly in the ointment is the realisation on the part of the West and the ‘Saudi camp’ that the biggest winner of all is Iran, and you bet they’ll be making hay while the sun shines. Until now, the West and their Sunni allies have been kidding themselves that the Baghdad regime can, with a bit of help from their friends, handle the situation. Hopefully the Ramadi debacle has gone a long way towards shattering this delusion.
Worst case scenario: the Islamic State effectively controlling most (or even all) of Iraq, annexing Syria, and expanding into surrounding nations. Even worse, in some ways, is the IS having to be dealt with by the world as a genuine, if rogue, nation-state, and largely on their terms at that. The in-between scenario isn’t much better, viz IS not winning in Iraq but taking over Syria which they would turn into a springboard for further aggressive expansion. It’s all just too awful to contemplate. But if the West and the ‘Saudi camp’ remain bloody-minded about the regime in Damascus and in their dealings with Teheran, it just might go that way.
* Readers please be warned that this downloadable magazine contains high-resolution colour pictures that are best described as gruesome. If you are of a sensitive disposition, please stay away from it. I am myself of a delicate emotional nature and stopped reading it after they proudly posted close-ups of a man (the captured Jordanian pilot) in a cage being burned alive.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.