by Mark N. Katz
All the major actors in the Middle East oppose the rise of the extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, ISIS has managed to incur the enmity of a highly diverse set of actors who often oppose one another. These include several sets of antagonists such as the United States and the West on the one hand and Russia on the other; Iran and the Assad regime in Syria on the one hand and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia on the other; Israel on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other; and the Kurds on the one hand and Turkey (which fears Kurdish nationalism) on the other. Even al-Qaeda opposes ISIS.
The fact that all the important actors in the region oppose ISIS has given rise to the hope that this radical Sunni group can be defeated. The experience of the Bolsheviks nearly a century ago, however, shows that this might not occur. Indeed, the current situation is reminiscent of Russia after the Bolsheviks seized power there in late 1917. The harshness of their rule quickly resulted in numerous opposition groups rising up against them inside the country. External powers also recognized the Bolsheviks as a threat, and several supported their internal opponents or even directly intervened both in the final year of World War I and for a few years afterward. But even though many internal and external actors wanted to defeat the Bolsheviks, these actors ultimately worked at cross-purposes, which helped the Bolsheviks not only survive but also gain control over most of the former Tsarist Empire and pose a threat to many other nations for years.
Today, as with the threat posed by the Bolsheviks, the common threat posed by ISIS provides no guarantee that the groups who oppose it will put aside their differences and work together to defeat it. Indeed, while hopes for a grand alliance against ISIS have been expressed in many quarters, the achievement of this goal has so far proven elusive—and will likely remain so.
Many of the principal actors in the region are worried not only about ISIS, but also other threats, including one another. Iran and Russia in particular regard the Syrian government—a minority Alawite regime—as an ally and do not want to see it replaced by a Sunni majority regime that would be hostile toward them. Saudi Arabia and several other Sunni Arab states, in contrast, see Iran—along with its Shi’a allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen—as the principal threat and accordingly regard the replacement of the Assad regime as important for their security as the defeat of ISIS. Turkey, for its part, sees ISIS as a threat but apparently regards the possibility of Kurdish forces in Syria (and, as a result, in Turkey itself) growing stronger from ISIS’s defeat as an even greater one.
The Obama administration is pursuing three contradictory sets of goals in the Middle East. First, while Washington wants to preserve American relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, it also wants to improve ties with Iran with which it hopes to achieve a nuclear accord. Secondly, while the US wants to preserve ties with a Turkish government that very much fears the growth of Kurdish separatism, Washington also sees Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq and in Syria as allies against ISIS. Finally, while the Obama administration genuinely wants to combat ISIS (and has, along with some of its Arab and European allies, launched airstrikes against ISIS positions in both Iraq and Syria), it also wants to do so without sending American ground forces back to Iraq. Yet it will be difficult for Washington to resolve any one of these contradictions—and may well be impossible to resolve all three.
Thus, while everyone wants to see ISIS defeated, the fact that so many of the actors in the region are working at cross-purposes could result in ISIS surviving and prospering despite universal opposition. Just this possibility should focus the minds of policymakers in different countries on how they can work together against the common threat before it grows even worse and becomes, like the Bolsheviks did almost a century ago, even more difficult to deal with.
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