by Sascha Bruchmann. Sascha Bruchmann studied International Law and International Politics in Germany and in the US. He worked as an analyst, covering the MENA region.
A geopolitical analysis of the larger situation in the Middle East reveals that the currently embattled ISIS will not be defeated like its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The current environment in the region will allow it to prevail as the dominant actors are either reluctant or unable to crush it. ISIS will be contained and pushed back into Syria, where it will be allowed by most players to continue its role, primarily as a faction in the civil war dividing the Assad-opposition. The following analysis will highlighting the relevant actors’ strategies in today’s conflicts and is divided into three parts: The first part deals with ISIS itself and the US as an international power, followed by the dominant regional powers in the second part. The third part investigates Iraq, its subnational forces and concludes the series.Turkey – Rising Profile In the Middle East
Turkey’s primary interest is to replace Bashar al-Assad. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP Party is itself an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology. The AKP’s origins in the Turkish National Outlook Movement and its Welfare Party have already included elements of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egyptian and Tunisian and have facilitated ideological closeness. Turkey is thus hosting the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces with its strong Syrian brotherhood core. The MB is a third Islamist option in many countries, competing with the Wahhabist respectively Salafist ways of Sunni Islam often infuenced by Saudi-Arabia and with the Shiites often affiliated with Iran. Turkey has been trying to foster a MB block in the Middle East cooperating with Qatar, Egypt under Mohamed Morsi, developping ties with Hamas and even been accused of supporting MB elements in Libya’s post-Qaddafi struggle.
Turkey is no official supporter of ISIS which is Salafist and Jihadist but nonetheless not Saudi-backed. Yet, the real threats for Turkey are Syrian Scuds, since al-Assad is effectively resisting Turkey’s aspirations of reshaping Syria. Hence it has called on NATO to help protect its cities using Patriot Air Defense systems in order to deter al-Assad’s retaliation from the very beginning. Nevrteheless,throughout the last years, Turkey has often been accused of helping radical elements in Syria including Al-Qaeda affiliates and also ISIS fighters by leaving its borders open as safe space to retreat and medically assisting their wounded. Turkey’s calculations have only recently been changed, since ISIS has made territorial gains. ISIS is now a factor in Turkish calculations, but should Turkey be forced to choose then overthrowing al-Assad is more important. ISIS is no threat to the Turkish Army; Kurdish independence and Syrian Scuds are directly against Turkish interests and cannot be handled by its strong army. Turkey was content to see ISIS fight al-Assad and the Rojava-Kurds in Northwestern Syria. Thus, Turkey’s actions can be characterized as moderating support that indirectly also ended in ISIS hands through its changing balance of power calculations.
The bombings of Reyhanli and the hostage taking of Turkish staffers in Mosul are interpretated as ISIS way of blackmailing Turkey into keeping its borders open. Using ISIS has become a dangerous game for the Turkish government, but the absence of ISIS might strengthen al-Assad, and Kurds in Syria thus it is an important player that for now is indispensable. Another part of the calculation is that besides official rhetoric Turkish-Iranian relations are characterized by mistrust and competition and Turkey seeks to contain Iran.
Thus, ISIS serves Turkey in three ways: it fights al-Assad, it fights Kurds in Northeastern Syria and it is actively binding Iranian troops and assets in Syria and Iraq.Saudi-Arabia – A Sunni View
Saudi-Arabia sees the recent events in Syria and Iraq through its own conflict with Iran. Two Iranian allies have come under fire from ISIS. Like the US, Saudi-Arabia sees the fall of al-Assad as a vital requirement for equilibrium in the region, but also wants to see Sunnis in Iraq empowered. Even the Saudi government does not support ISIS, the Saudis (and Qataris) have been unable or unwilling to stop the flow of money and recruits towards ISIS and other islamist factions around the world. Thus, on the one side private financiers from the Gulf states and Waqfs (a religious endowment, correct plural from Arabic: Awqaf) channel money to Salafist groups as ISIS or al-Nusra Front while on the other side Saudi-Arabia officially supports the Assad-opposition of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Sauds compete for influence with Turkey that favors the MB elements in Syria, whereas they favor the Sunni tribal elements. Only recently has Saudi-Arabia acted, when ISIS came close to the Iraqi-Saudi border. As soon as ISIS is far enough it can be used as a player on the regional field.
However, there is a darker side to this story. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once Ambassador to Washington and from 2012-2014 head of Saudi intelligence is quoted as revealing to the former british MI6 chief Richard Dearlove:
The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally “God help the Shia”. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them. — Prince Bandar bin Sultan, cited in Patrick Cockburn, “Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country“, The Independent, 13.07.2014.
The Sauds have mastered their approach of suppressing Jihadism within their state and effectively encouraging it abroad to use it as a force against anything Shia. The problem for the Sauds is that ISIS is so tempting to use. ISIS is politically anti-Assad and anti-Maliki (or its successor from the same party), and ideologically anti-Shia while also anti-Al-Qaida, the Islamist group active in Saudi-Arabia and the most feared internal threat to the House of Saud. ISIS hates too many of the same people the Sauds dislike. Thus, Gulf states proceed on this hybrid approach: Officially they are against all the extremist groups, Al-Qaida affiliated or ISIS affiliated, but their people are able to channel money to them. Essentially, the funding is coming from Saudi-Arabia and the other Gulf states, but is not of those states. Riyadh will not support Iraq under Maliki or a similar successor. For example, King Abdullah refused to meet his neighbor as he perceived him to be an Iranian agent.
Iran – The Shia Response
Iran’s calculations are pinned against US interests in the region as well as a mirror of the Saudi perception – same terms and thougths but diametrically opposed perception. Tehran wants to keep the own allies in power, especially now as it has invested heavily into both wars. The amount of fighting forces invested into Iraq is hard to estimate, but as already three Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members have died there, at least one, Colonel Kamal Shirkhani, in the Shia-holy city of Samarra, it can be assessed as substantial for a force officially not deployed. Furthermore, Iran has invested into local Shia militias that it now mobilized to fight for al-Assad and protect Shia sites in Syria, and more recently to secure Baghdad, Samarra and the surrounding areas. There are estimates of up to 20,000 militiamen in Iraq alone. Iran has not only diverted militias and resources from Syria, but actively put large military forces into play. Iranian tanks of the 81st division were seen crossing into Southern Kurdistan which could help the Kurds as mobile artillery in the fight against highly mobile ISIS forces.
In Iraq ISIS is a direct threat to Shia power, even intra-Shiite unit has suffered throughout the crisis. In Syria, again, the situation is more complex. Here, ISIS is one of many anti-Assad factions rivaling for power. It effectively triggered fighting among the armed opposition as well as within the Islamist camp by challenging the al-Nusra Front. Currently it cannot reach Damascus. Thus, it is far more useful and less dangerous in Syria than in Iraq. It would be more beneficial for Iran to take on ISIS in Syria only once the other factions have been weakened or defeated. There is another difference between Iraq and Syria according to Karim Sadjadpour from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
The Iranians have seemingly calculated that they cannot preserve their interests in Syria without Bashar Assad. They have not made those same calculations about Maliki. — Karim Sadjadpour cited in Babak Dehghanpisheh et al, “Iran’s elite Guards fighting in Iraq to push back Islamic State“, Reuters, 03.08.2014.
This reveals how broad Iranian influence in Iraq is. It can choose among different politicians, support different groups (Shia, Kurds, minorities), set up militias and directly intervene with ease. Iran will protect this power at much cost. ISIS, among other Sunni forces in the region is a threat to Iranian interests, but by far not the pivotal one. Iran will mostly rely on Iraqi and Kurdish forces to push back ISIS away from its borders and into Sunni areas in Syria (Ar-Raqqa, Deir Az-Zor), where in Iran’s view it can wreak havoc on Sunnis that have a different interpretation of Islam, the FSA and Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the al-Nusra Front.
Syria – Ground Zero of the Geopolitical Rivalry
Syria essentially follows Iran’s “enemy of my enemy-logic”. Additionally, al-Assad can present the looming threat of Islamists in the country and himself as the least among evils to choose from. All players involved must now ask themselves, what comes after al-Assad and how to make sure it is not ISIS that gains from the civil war. The other alternative is the Saudi and Turkey backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, but as argued before it has a strong MB core that the West is deliberately overlooking right now. The MB could be one of the best organized groups once the country enters the post-Assad phase. The notion of a “moderate” opposition is such a convenient lie told by the West to the West to allow at least one course of action. Moreover, within the civil war in Syria ISIS has effectively divided the armed opposition groups involuntarily aiding the Assad regime. Especially, ISIS is a counterforce to the Rojava-Kurds aspirations of autonomy which they cannot effectively achieve as long as they have to fight for their survival.
Al-Assad and ISIS, although at war, have at times come to cooperate. The oil fields ISIS controls would be useless if they could not sell it. The Assad regime buys some of the oil it needs back or allowed this oil to be sold at government controlled ports. Thus they are both entrapped in a mutually dependent war economy. This also explains the often alleged soft approach of the Assad regime against ISIS. Right now the Assad regime, ISIS and FSA are at war with each other. Whereas the regime and the FSA battle over the population rich centers in western Syria, including Aleppo and the regimes stronghold around Latakia, ISIS is still relatively far off east and has just conquered the last Syrian army base in the Ar-Raqqah Governorate. ISIS understands its guerilla tactics require infiltrating population rich areas before striking. Thus, it has advanced along the Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq and conquered parts of eastern Syria. It cannot directly move through the Syrian desert, where it is openly attackable by Assad forces.
ISIS’ way to Damascus leads throug Aleppo, where it will reach the stonghold of the FSA and the center of gravity of the Syrian Army. Through this complex interplay of government and opposition forces the Assad regime currently does not focus its forces on ISIS. To retake Syria, Assad must secure Damascus and the surroundings, and after it took the Lebanese border regions last June (Battle of al-Qusayr) it must now conquer Aleppo. Now, with Al-Taqba Air base taken ISIS’ way towards Aleppo is free. If it continues its advance it will meet the main forces of the Syrian Army, the al-Nusra Front and the FSA in and around Aleppo, where the battle for Syria’s future might rage soon.
I know the rumours,[… b]ut to those who claim that Syria is not doing its best to combat this group, I answer that if these extremists – Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free [Syrian] Army and Isis – are killing themselves and fighting for more influence and expansion, do you think we are sad? But the Syrian army has its priorities and we shall decide what to do next. — Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad cited in Ian Black, “Bashar al-Assad is west’s ally against Isis extremists, says Syria“, The Guardian, 14.07.2014.
Assad’s priority is to survive and regain control of Syria. Taking Aleppo is his best chance. In order to do so, he must defeat the opposition on the battlefield and ISIS has had a role in his considerations. Al-Assad’s survival depends on how well he keeps his own forces together and how effectively he divides his opponents. Additionally, he tried to use the abhorrent violence of ISIS to break the international condemnation of his regime. His narrative is that he is the only one truely fighting religious extremism in the Middle East while Turkey and even the West implicitly support it right now. In sum, the regime in Damascus and ISIS are at war with each other. However, al-Assad sees ISIS as one of three major enemy groups and not as his sole threat. This more complex interplay of groups explains al-Assad’s alleged complicity with ISIS as a sheer military-political consideration of perception and balance of power within the Syrian civil war. ISIS still is not number one on his list.
ISIS is at war with everyone. It is everyones enemy, but seen through the lense of war for regional dominance potentially more dangerous to one’s enemy. Even Iran and Syria believe it is better to have Ar-Raqqa and Dair Az-Zor with oil, population and strategically important borders controlled by ISIS than see the larger factions of the al-Nusra Front, the Kurds or the FSA strengthened by these assets. After analyzing the states involved, part 3 will assesses the intra-Iraqi factions.