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The Coming Anarchy in the Levant
Ehsan M. Ahrari
With the passage of each day, the Levant increasingly appears a place where anarchy might be the only order of the day unless a number of anti-ISIS actors come up with some plan to destroy that entity and save the region.
President Barack Obama’s pragmatism and his fetish for not repeating the ‘mistake’ of ousting Muammar Qaddafi brutal regime in Libya has not only guaranteed Russia’s presence in Syria, but also its influential participation in the future stability of Syria and Iraq. An important side-payoff for Putin is negotiating a long-term presence in the post-Assad Syria.
The only country that has decided to take on Putin in his underhandedness maneuvering in the Levant is Turkey. The downing of Russian jet by Turkey might be viewed as an example of that perspective. However, given the Turkish President Recep Erdogan later expressed of regrets over the incident, might also be perceived as Turkey’s attempt to avoid a military conflict with Russia. However, Putin remains angry over the incident and has accused Erdogan of conducting illicit oil trade with ISIS, a charge that Obama has labelled as “just not true.”
Regardless of the varying interpretations of that event, it seems that Erdogan’s moderate Islamism is clashing with Putin’s Pan-Slavic overreach into a Muslim region, which has become a wide open area for political one-upmanship and Machiavellian power games in the wake of America’s decision to preside over the unmaking of its own historical dominance in that region. This struggle for dominance on the part of a number of actors within and without the region is only promising to prolong the staying power of ISIS, which does its brutal work best under chaotic conditions. Such conditions seem to be mounting in the Levant.
Turkey is accused of not remaining focused on destroying ISIS. As contentious as that observation may be, the fact of the matter is that Turkey appears more concerned about minimizing all possibilities of the emergence of a Kurdish nation in Northern Iraq—especially now that the Kurds are doing America’s bidding by conducting effective ground war against ISIS—than taking decisive measures to eradicate that terrorist entity. David Graeber, a professor at the London of Economist, made the following blunt assessment of Erdgon’s performance in the Guardian:
The exact relationship between Erdoğan’s government and Isis may be subject to debate; but of some things we can be relatively certain. Had Turkey placed the same kind of absolute blockade on Isis territories as they did on Kurdish-held parts of Syria, let alone shown the same sort of “benign neglect” towards the PKK and YPG that they have been offering to Isis, that blood-stained “caliphate” would long since have collapsed – and arguably, the Paris attacks may never have happened. And if Turkey were to do the same today, Isis would probably collapse in a matter of months.
Needless to say, the United States is fully aware of this reality. However, since it is also using Turkish bases to conduct its air campaign against ISIS, the Obama administration has adopted a policy of benign refusal to urge (or quietly demand) Erdogan to ease up his campaign of destruction of the Kurdish forces.
The third influential actor in this struggle is Iran, which is cooperating with Putin’s exercise of Russian hegemony. But the fact of the matter is that, through supporting Russia’s support of Bashar Assad, Iran is only ensuring its own long-term presence in the Levant. With the increased Russian presence in Syria, Iran has the potential of becoming less of a target of American and Arab maneuvers to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime. Still, because Iran has remained a major regional participant in the war against ISIS, it has a tremendous potential of emerging as an actor with which the United States might want to cooperate sometimes in the future. For that reason, Iran is not only spending billions of dollars for the survival of the Assad regime, but has fully utilized Lebanon’s Hezbollah for that purpose.
These strategic intricacies might be very frustrating for the three major Arab states—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. These are important Sunni States, but because they are operating under constraints of their own, they are unable to counter the influence of Russia or Iran in any significant way.
Ideologically, Jordan is very much in harmony with the United States’ resolve to destroy ISIS. However, given that it is predominantly a Sunni state, with no real feel for how much of its own population sympathizes with ISIS and its so-called Islamic caliphate, Jordan is in no position to take the bold measure of committing ground troops in America’s fight for the destruction of that terrorist entity. As a neighboring state of Syria, Jordan has already absorbed more than a million refugees from that country. Considering that it is a resource-poor country and already has 1.8 million registered Palestinian refugees, the political situation of Jordan is already potentially explosive. Jordan not only “subsists largely on foreign aid and remittances,” but it also faced with the scary fact that “more than seven out of 10 people in Jordan are under 29.” Consequently, its economy is under intense pressure to grow at the rate of 6 percent each year, while its actual growth rate is only around 3 percent.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are Wahhabi states, whose official Wahhabi ideology is very similar to the one that is practiced by ISIS. In addition, there are frequent reports of financial support of ISIS, at least from private sources and from some religious charities, from those countries. Considering the fact that nothing inside these autocratic states happens without the knowledge and at least with the tacit connivance of their governments, it is safe to conclude the governments in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are fully aware of such activities. The most confusing aspect of the political objectives of these two countries is that, while they want the dismantlement of ISIS in Syria, neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi has any notion of how different the post-Assad government in Syria will be from ISIS’ so-called Islamic Caliphate.
There are frequent suggestions in the West that Muslim states should take the lead in the fight against ISIS. But no Muslim state is willing to take the lead on this front either. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are embroiled in their own fight against Yemen, while ISIS is reported to be making inroads in that war-torn country. The Egyptian Army continues to demonstrate its gross inability to fight a counterinsurgency war with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM, or Supporters of Jerusalem), which has pledged allegiance to ISIS since November 2014. Reading a compelling account of the insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai written by Omar Ashour in the November 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs, one is forced to conclude that Egypt is likely to get even further bogged down in a bloody urban warfare with ABM, with virtually no hope of achieving victory over it.
In the final analysis, two actors that can save the Levant are the United States and Iran. Even with its diminished capacity to exert influence in the region, the United States, as the dominant global military power, has a tremendous potential to affect political development. President Obama, aside from continuing his air war against ISIS, continues to look for reaching some sort of consensus among Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE (and some Western countries as secondary actors) regarding Syria after Assad. Once the specifics of that consensus are negotiated, only then the participants will be able to focus on eradicating ISIS. However, as long as these actors remain divided on that arrangement, ISIS will try to complicate the situation by creating disorder by either arranging or encouraging lone-wolf attacks in the West. At least for now, as ISIS comes under air attack in Syria, its chief tool is to rely on the social media for creating disorder and chaos within the borders of ‘far enemies.’
Iran knows that, as a Muslim country and as a country that has a significant presence in the Syrian theater of operation, it holds considerable advantages over other actors of the Arab world. It has every intention of emerging as a major player in the making of that consensus that is aimed at saving the Levant from the coming anarchy.