It has been argued by many analysts of the Middle East that the Islamic State, or ISIS, is less of a threat to American interests in the region than Iran. Alas, that point may be true, but what is also true is that ISIS has imperial ambitions of its own. Its influence in Syria and Iraq has been established as its army of young recruits and hardened Sunni militia veterans march across the desert sands leaving chaos and devastation in their wake.
Surely these are sanguineous nihilists. Some would say means and ends are the same for them. However, there is a strategic strain in ISIS thinking. Libya is a divided nation, perhaps even the word “nation” may not apply. Moammar Gadhafi held it together with force and mercenaries, who brutalized the indigenous population. Today, Libya has disassembled. There are two governments, neither having effective control. There is the presence of several terrorist organizations including al Qaeda. Most significantly, there is the major influence of ISIS.
For ISIS, Libya is a launch pad. Its members can enter Europe via Italy. At the moment, Italy is besieged by immigrants eager to flee the depredations in North Africa. Once in Europe, terror cells can operate to instill fear and panic. It is also a pathway for further recruitment.
ISIS not only has its own strategy, it is inadvertently an instrument of Iranian strategy. Some might contend this is not inadvertent. Nonetheless, the terrifying movement of its forces has secured the position of Bashar Assad in Syria. How can the United States call for his ouster, when the only semblance of order in the country is found in the Damascus area he controls? Moreover, Syria, as Iran’s vassal state, is the conduit for missile delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The notion that Iranian forces are united with the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIS is mind-boggling. However, that is incidental compared to the military role U.S. Special Forces are playing in providing logistics for this combined Shia armed force. It is fair to say, nothing in the Middle East is predictable.
Presumably, Iranian troops represent our boots on the ground in the war against ISIS. The Obama administration has made it clear that ISIS is our target and we will employ unsavory allies to achieve our goal of destroying it. What President Obama has given insufficient attention to is the distinct possibility ISIS’ chaos works to the advantage of Iran in the halls of Congress as well as the Middle East battlefield.
ISIS is at the center of this complicated equation. As a Sunni militia, it can make the argument that it opposes the imperial goals of Shia capitals. It can create fear and engage in atrocities because the so-called allies do not have a clear, definable strategy for victory. I would contend, any strategy determined by Iranian forces does not bode well for U.S. strategic interests.
So we are at an impasse. We need Iran’s military assistance to thwart ISIS goals, but in the process we are unleashing powerful religious and ideological forces that my come back to haunt us. In fact, we cannot even be sure Iran is a reliable partner that wants to defeat ISIS.
The ship of state moves unsteadily, aware of some of the dangers that lie ahead but trapped by unpredictable conditions in a turbulent sea. ISIS, by contrast, knows what it wants and seemingly has few impediments in its way.
Herbert London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.