How the Islamic State is turning the Middle East upside down


A picture made available by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows President Bashar al-Assad speaking after being sworn in before members of the People's Assembly at the Presidential Palace in Damascus on July 16. (SANA/EPA)

One remarkable result of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been how it seems to be shifting broader conceptions in the Middle East. It sometimes looks like enemies are becoming potential allies – and even old friends are starting to look a little suspicious.

Are we really likely to see any shift in how the United States and Europe views the Middle East? It's hard to say. But things certainly look a little more confused than they did a few years ago.

Reassessing our enemies ...

Given the transnational nature of Islamic State, many foreign policy voices are unconvinced that fighting the group only in Iraq will prove effective. On Thursday, for instance, Gen. Martin Dempsey said that Islamic State could not be defeated without addressing “both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” between Iraq and Syria.

While Dempsey would not predict that additional airstrikes would occur, others were more forceful in their language.  "Since they erased the Iraq-Syria border, we should take them up on it," Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said Wednesday, "and go after them both in Iraq and in Syria. They don't respect the border, but neither should we."

At a Pentagon news briefing on Thursday, Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said he believed it is possible to contain Islamic State militants, but that in order to defeat them, the portion of the organization that resides in Syria will have to be addressed, as well. (AP)

There's an obvious problem with that: By attacking Islamic State in Syria, the U.S. could well end up weakening the Syrian rebels whose plight they once championed, and strengthening Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime. "I am no apologist for the Assad regime," Crocker said. " ... But in terms of our security, ISIS is by far the largest threat."

Some have even suggested working with the Assad regime in a bid to destroy the Islamic State. "Americans are understandably reluctant to help Assad because he is a depraved dictator who responded to the Arab Awakening by turning his military against the Syrian population," Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor and terrorist analyst, explains. "But Washington also needs to consider how best to protect the American population."

"Whereas Assad has never posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, ISIS is actively scheming to carry out a mass casualty attack against us," Abrahms adds. "From a U.S. national security perspective, ISIS is the more immediate threat."

Such ideas are horrifying to many who remember the brutal methods used by the Assad regime throughout the Syrian Civil War. Aboud Dandachi, a displaced Syrian living in Istanbul, tweeted that Abhrams was a "terrorism expert who loves despots."

Iran, another country often at odds with the U.S., is also being reevaluated. Not only is the country's Shia Islamist government clearly opposed to the Islamic State, it holds vital sway among Iraq's Shia political community and provides vital military support to Assad's government and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.

Cooperation with Iran, unimaginable in most circumstances, now seems to be on the table. When David Cameron wrote in the Daily Telegraph about Iraq's crises last weekend, for example, he singled out Tehran as a potential ally. "We must work with countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey against these extremist forces, and perhaps even with Iran, which could choose this moment to engage with the international community against this shared threat," the British prime minister said.

In the United States, the idea of working with Iran has been floating around for months. In June, both Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama indicated that they were open to working with Iran to stabilize Iraq and contain the Islamic State. The idea even got limited support from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.).

There are tentative signs that these words could come to fruition. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Iran's foreign ministry said that talks with foreign nations, including Britain, on how to deal with the Islamic State had begun. There were even erroneous reports that Iran had offered to deal with Iraq if sanctions were lifted. While this was eventually found to be a translation error, it seemed remarkably plausible for a moment.

... and reassessing our friends

On Wednesday, a German government minister made waves with an unprompted comment during an interview. "You have to ask who is arming, who is financing ISIS troops," German Development Minister Gerd Mueller said in an interview with broadcaster ZDF. "The keyword there is Qatar — and how do we deal with these people and states politically?"

Qatar is big player in the Middle East and an important economic partner for  the United States and Europe. It's a serious charge to say that they support the most notorious extremist group on Earth, and Mueller (well known for his opposition to the Qatar's World Cup bid, incidentally) presented no evidence.

Even so, it's not that much of controversial viewpoint: By one 2013 estimate, the tiny, oil-rich country had put as much as $3 billion into funding anti-regime Syrian rebels. Many people believe a good chunk of that money has made it into Islamic State hands.

Qatar is just one nation that has been accused of directly or indirectly aiding Islamic State. In an interview with French journalists in June, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki also pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia, a key economic and political partner of the U.S. in the Middle East. "I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements. I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them," Maliki said. The U.S. dismissed Maliki's accusations.

Kuwait, another key U.S. ally, was singled out in a December 2013 report from the Brookings Institution for allowing private funds to reach extreme Islamist groups. "There is evidence that Kuwaiti donors have backed rebels who have committed atrocities and who are either directly linked to al-Qa’ida or cooperate with its affiliated brigades on the ground," the report found.

Some of the states that have tacitly supported Islamic State now seem to be turning their back on them. Turkey, which shares a border with Syria, had shown a remarkable tolerance for Islamic State fighters until very recently, allowing fighters to use Turkish towns as way stations for arms and supplies. Turkey is now working with the United States and European governments to crack down on Islamist fighters.

It's also true that there's a conspiracy-theory-like edge to some of the allegations of funding. Hard facts are in short supply, and some of the accusations are countered by other evidence: For example, one document that showed Islamic States' operating budget between 2005-2010 found less than 5 percent came from outside sources, according to a report from McClatchy newspapers.

Even so, Mueller's comments show that the idea that U.S. allies have aided Islamic State is persuasive – and they may be hard to shake. In the future, there may be far more skepticism about their motives, and more concern about how our allies are using their money. It's another example of the remarkably broad impact Islamic State is having on our conceptions of the Middle East.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said many foreign policy voices are unconvinced that fighting the group only in Syria will prove effective. Many are unconvinced that fighting the group only in Iraq will prove effective. The post has been updated.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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