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The Enemy of My Enemy: Islamic State and the Internationalization of the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars Part 4

02/07/2015 11:21 am ET | Updated Mar 27, 2015

Postscript: The Enemy of My Enemy is My ...

The internationalization of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and their subsequent linkage, has created an exceedingly complex political environment. First, the role of the Syrian Civil War as a Sunni-Shia proxy contest that pitted Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and various Gulf States on one side, and Iran and its allies on the other, has resulted in the provision of approximately 30 billion dollars of financial and military aid to the various antagonists. The result of this continued support has been to prolong the fighting and its resulting casualties and devastation far beyond what any of the antagonists would have been able to sustain on their own. It has also led to the de facto dissolution of the Syrian state. Syria today is less a nation than it is a collection of warlords and their petty fiefdoms. Assad, his support from Iran notwithstanding, has become little more than just another one, albeit the largest, of those warlords.

Moreover, notwithstanding the enormous amount of aid that the various antagonists has received, neither side has been successful in tipping the balance of the conflict. In the long term, Islamic State militants, lacking a reliable supplier of arms and heavy weaponry and limited to whatever they capture on the battlefield, will increasingly find themselves at a disadvantage in their struggle with both the armed forces of Iraq and Syria, as well as those of the other militant groups.

Over time, the United States and its various allies will succeed in "degrading" Islamic State's capabilities, but this will not end the civil war in Syria and neither will it, in all probability, end the political instability in Iraq. The war with the Islamic State is merely the first round of what will likely be a long and protracted conflict for control of Syria.

Today there are five major, distinct antagonists in the Syrian civil war: the Assad government, the generally secular Free Syrian Army, Islamic State, the al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups, like the al-Nusra Front and the Khorasan Group, and the jihadist groups that are neither affiliated with al-Qaeda nor IS. The latter groups, notwithstanding the broad coalitions that they have been induced to join by the promise of more aid, do not share any consensus for what a post-Assad Syria should be like, both politically and socially. Fundamentally these groups are the most opportunistic and are likely to switch allegiances as circumstances warrant.

At the moment there is a tenuous consensus to focus on destroying Islamic State's capabilities to wage war and to roll back its territorial conquests. In Syria, American and various Arab air forces have intervened in support of the anti-IS coalition and their combined forces has been sufficient to stop the further expansion of the Islamic State's territory and even to roll back some of its conquests. There is little consensus on what comes next should the "anti-Islamic State" coalition succeed in degrading Islamic State's capabilities to such an extent that it is no longer a proto-nation state but goes back to being just another militant group.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and their allies are committed to seeing the overthrow of the Assad regime. Washington is less certain now about the desirability of seeing Assad replaced. Will America's Arab partners continue their military intervention if the US withdraws from the Syrian Civil War as a result of the collapse of Islamic State? Certainly those countries do not have the capability of orchestrating as extensive an air campaign. Exactly how broad an air campaign they could carry out and whether they would do so on their own, remains to be seen.

The domestic stability of Iraq is now inexorably linked with the outcome of the Syrian Civil War. Sunni militants in Syria will invariably look for support and refuge within the Sunni community in Iraq. In turn, the more disenfranchised that community feels the more willing it will be to use both the presence of those militant groups, as well as its willingness to support them, as a source of leverage with the government in Baghdad. It is highly unlikely that the Iraqi government can succeed in securing its frontiers with Syria and pacifying western Iraq without the support and involvement of Iraq's Sunni community. As long as violence persists in Syria, and as long as Iraq's Sunni community feels it is being marginalized, it is going to be very difficult to prevent jihadist militants in Syria from moving back and forth across the Syrian-Iraqi border and the accompanying violence from spilling over into Iraq.

There is also the larger issue of how the United States fits into the Sunni-Shia rivalry and the role of the Syrian Civil War as a proxy for this larger conflict. At the moment the air campaign against Islamic State effectively consists of two separate coalitions: an American-Arab one attacking IS in Syria and a coalition made up of the United States and various Western allies fighting IS in Iraq. To date, America's European allies have been unwilling to intervene in the Syrian Civil War by attacking Islamic State militants there. In light of a possible Islamic State connection with the terrorist attacks in Paris on January 9 and 10, this position, especially that of France, may change. At the same time Arab air forces have been unwilling to attack IS militants operating in Iraq. It is highly unlikely that Sunni Arab air forces are going to intervene in defense of a Shiite government in Iraq against either Islamic State or, what are likely to be, other Sunni, anti-Baghdad, militants. This situation remains highly fluid however, In response to the murder of Jordanian Air Force pilot Lt. Moaz al-Kassasbeh, Jordan's King Abdullah II indicated that Jordan was now willing to attack Islamic State targets within Iraq as well. Its not clear, as of February 7, whether any such attacks have yet occurred.

The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that the Baghdad government is committed to preserving the Assad government in Damascus. Even if Iraq's Shiite government can do little to help the Assad regime, it certainly has shown that it will not prevent the transit of Iranian aid and military forces across Iraq. Baghdad and its Arab neighbors may be on the same side when it comes to battling Islamic State, but when it comes to dealing with the Assad regime and the Syrian Civil War; they are decidedly on opposite sides. The United States thus finds itself simultaneously on opposite sides of the Sunni-Shia rivalry: committed to maintaining a Shia government in Baghdad, albeit one that it hopes is more inclusive of the Sunni minority, while at the same time avoiding committing itself, as its Arab allies and Turkey have pushed it to do, to overthrowing the Assad government.

The role of Iran and its military forces in stabilizing Iraq and halting the Islamic State's advance adds an additional dimension of complexity to American policy deliberations. It's possible that the combination of the Islamic State's inability to properly administer its territories, domestic opposition to its violence and terror, not to mention the harshness of the Sharia laws that it wants to impose, and the degradation of its military capabilities will ultimately lead to the collapse of Islamic State. That's certainly possible.

In the short term, however, as long as defending the Baghdad government from further incursions by IS militants requires additional "boots on the ground" beyond those of the Iraqi Army, then the stability of Iraq will be linked to the broader issue of American-Iranian relations. It is highly unlikely that any significant number of US ground troops will be reintroduced into Iraq. Politically, that is simply not an option that the Obama administration is willing to consider. It is even more unlikely that any of America's European or Arab allies are prepared to commit ground troops to fight against IS militants, or any other jihadist militants for that matter, in Iraq. The "boots on the ground," to the extent they are needed, will in all likelihood be Iranian and those of its Shia allies.

Tehran and Washington have common ground in defeating Islamic State, but all of the other issues that have divided the two governments remain. To a certain extent, Iraq's domestic stability has always been a factor in American-Iranian relations. Iran's ability to manipulate the Shia militias and its influence among Shia politicians and their political parties has played a role ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Moreover, a stable Shia dominated government in Baghdad is in Tehran's interest as well. Iran has ample reason to intervene in Iraq to support the Iraqi government regardless of its bearing on American-Iranian relations. What is unclear, at this point, is what the long-term consequences, if any, of this short term rapprochement may be. Will common ground in defending Baghdad lead to a long term thaw between the US and Iran or will it simply be a short term marriage of convenience like that which existed when the US attacked the Taliban government in Afghanistan?

Will the U.S. soften its opposition to Iran's nuclear development program and the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran in return for Tehran's assistance in stabilizing Iraq? The White House's urgency in coming to an agreement on Iran's nuclear development program may be driven simply by the desire to have a "foreign policy success" for an administration that has had few such "successes" or it may reflect an attempt to project the sense that it has a coherent policy in the Middle East when all of the available evidence and a long history of missteps suggests that it doesn't. It may also reflect the concern that Washington's negotiating position may grow weaker as the situation in Iraq and Syria persists.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Washington's reluctance to commit itself to the overthrow of the Assad regime is, if not a quid pro quo for Iranian assistance in Iraq, at the very least, shaped, unofficially, by that consideration. Moreover, both governments have a different view on what constitutes "stability" in Iraq. For the United States, long-term political stability requires a meaningful Sunni role in Iraqi politics and an end to the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the Sunni community there. For Iran, on the other hand, Sunni unrest, as long as it is kept within tolerable limits, ensures Baghdad's continued dependence on Tehran. What is inescapable is that the current campaign to degrade and roll back the Islamic State is simply the first act in what is going to be an extremely complex drama.

See also: Part 1, Iranian Intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars; Part 2, Foreign Intervention in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars: Part 3, The Role of the United States;

Footnotes have been omitted from these articles but are included in the book version.