The Kings, Sheikhs, and Dictators of the Middle East Have United Against ISIS (Or: How To Make Frenemies)

What with all the classic American media fear mongering of how ISIS is going to come to your house this weekend and totally ruin your landscaping and maybe also behead you, it’s easy to lose track of what’s actually rational to worry about.

With 100% honesty, no Westerners but the specialists, soldiers, and statements involved in crushing ISIS should be losing any sleep over it. The most dangerous thing you people will do today is commute to work; in statistical probability, that’s the more dangerous thing you’ll ever do.

But with that said, that’s not to say fear is not warranted. And for those within the region whose borders aren’t so far away from the Islamic State, having one’s hand above the panic button isn’t so asinine. Here now are some deets about why the kings, generals, sheikhs, and prime ministers of the Middle East are the ones who should be breaking a sweat.

ISIS’s short term plans mean the end of Syria and Iraq.

Iraq’s government is most threatened, since this is not just a terror movement gone territorial but also a genuine secessionist movement that will break Iraq apart 

Remember that the British invented Iraq in the 20s to make their management of the region a bit easier. The idea of an Iraqi was dreamed up by the kings they placed on the throne, and leader after leader in Baghdad has tried to convince the disparate ethnic, religious, and sectarian communities of Mesopotamia that they have something in common without much success.

Now the Islamic State has come and done the inevitable – it’s created a Sunnistan, the very thing that a truly honest (and ruthless) American army probably should have done around 2004. Forget IS’s brutality; if it takes hold long enough, that’s the end of Iraq. Baghdad would lose its importance as Shi’a power would shift southward, probably settling in Basra, and Sunni power would move northwest to Mosul, Raqqa, or Ramadi.

Meanwhile, Syria’s government has fostered a devil to consume their enemies, but by doing so have now the uncomfortable situation of America invading its airspace

Assad used the jihadists for two things: to let them balance the more moderate Free Syrian Army core and to convince the rest of the world that any alternative to him would be these assholes. His refusal to take on the Islamic State has given it the breathing space to do all these pretty spectacular things, degrade the FSA, and kept the U.S. handwringing over the fear that to attack Assad is to help al-Qaeda.

But there was a limit to how long that could work, and we’ve finally reached it. The Islamic State has grown out of balance and roused the might of the superpower; the U.S. will invade Syria’s airspace at last. “Mission creep” is the operative term here – while bombing Raqqa, why not hit some Assad units around Aleppo, Damascus, or Deraa?

Worse, Assad, like Saddam, will have to show he’s trying to defend Syria from the Great Satan, so that means trying, on occasion, to look like he’s shooting down American jets. If he ever does, he’ll piss the U.S. off something fierce and bring the war to his palace doorstep.

But if he does nothing and lets the U.S. hit Syria with impunity, he risks looking even weaker to the hardliners within his regime. The FSA, bolstered by U.S. aid, will look for ways to bring about a confrontation between Assad and the Americans bombing the Islamic State. Assad might show the ruthless pragmatism that enabled him to give up his chemical weapons last year. But regardless of what he does, America’s war machine is coming to Syria; woe to the Assadists.

A handy dandy map of smily faces. Makes all these murder seem less horrific.

Plucky little Jordan has good reason to be absolutely terrified of ISIS and its plots, plans, and conspiracies

 Jordan has produced many a nasty jihadist, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. King Abdullah has weathered the Arab Spring with a combination of luck and compromise, but with the Islamic State neither will do him much good. Although most commentators agree Jordan’s security services and army are capable and cohesive, the same thing once was said of Egypt’s army before some of their soldiers killed their own president.

The Islamic State can’t take on Jordan and win; not in the short term, anyway. But they can provide a base to rile up the unemployed, angry, and overly religious sort that pepper Jordan’s society. Bombs have gone off before when the security situation was much better; to expect Jordan to escape this unscathed is naïve. Whether there’s the ability to topple the Hashemite king remains to be seen, but King Abdullah has good reason to sweat.

The other King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is not long for this world, but in the meantime he too should fear the monsters he’s helped create

Saudi support for jihadists in the 1980s and the hardline, extremist education system they’ve exported to whoever would have it are the ideological bedrocks for the Islamic State. This bullshit predates King Abdullah’s reign, but he owns what his dumb family members have been doing over the decades.

And so too many Saudis think more or less along the lines of the Islamic State. Worse, seeing these jihadists driving around not in expensive jets and cars but in battle worn pick-up trucks makes the king and his playboy princes look horrifically bad.

“Overequipped and undertrained” was the term used most often to describe the Saudi armed forces whenever I sat with military advisers in the Gulf. On paper, they are formidable. In practice, they are a jobs program for lazy Saudi youths who want to play soldier. Some capable, elite units do exist, and to them will fall the task of keeping the Islamic State out.

But like Jordan, Saudi Arabia is rife with ignorant and outright thick men willing to blow themselves up. Again like Jordan, al-Qaeda once ran a bombing campaign a decade ago. The question is not if but when the Islamic State’s fifth column goes to work.

Taking down the Saudi regime has been the dream of many a jihadist and represents a mighty prize in oil and holy cities. It’s hard to tell how much the people love their king in a place where saying anything but that can get your whole family’s bank accounts frozen, but no despot is ever terribly popular. Most Saudis have been restrained during the chaos of the Arab Spring; Riyadh should worry that some of them are changing their minds.

Rumors have abounded that they’ve tried to eliminate this clap-trap, but decades of this hasn’t helped.

Meanwhile, the Gulf states better impose some discipline on the people who have grown used to getting everything they’ve ever wanted

 The Islamic State has been getting its cash from the captured oil derricks of Syria and Iraq, hostage taking and petty crimes, and asshole donors from the Persian Gulf. Nobody precisely knows who these donors are, but they take advantage of the relatively immaturity of Gulf banks to set money to ISIS. (I can attest to how terrible these banks are; my old National Bank of Abu Dhabi account allowed me to wire money pretty much anywhere online, which was great for me but awful for governments hoping to strangle cash going to bad guys).

The United Arab Emirates, in a rather stunning act of unilateralism, bombed Libya’s Islamists two weeks back, testing the waters as to how capable its military forces could be in picking sides. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are both united in ther loathing of everything Islamist; from Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda to the Islamist militias running amok in Libya, the royals of these two monarchies fear no democrats but men who can out-Muslim them in public.

The UAE, already a rather oppressive place, will grow more so to squeeze out any Emiratis dumb enough to think the Islamic State is worth a donation. Saudi Arabia will too try the same with much gusto (but being a bigger place will have a harder time). As has now become usual in the Gulf, the real thorn will be Qatar.

Qatar has long been playing a dangerous game, supporting Islamists movements despite being a monarchy itself that hardly fits an Islamist political model. Other than being driven by the sheer ambition to make a big international splash, Qatar has bet on Islamism being the natural course of the Arab world, the next step as the Arab world evolves culturally and politically beyond their kings and generals. So it’s had less incentive than anyone else to close the spigot to the myriad of jihadists Qataris have supported; worse, Doha has armed and trained some of them, and not been overly concerned with the spread of radicals.

That’ll have to change, but getting Qatar to play ball has been hard. The ruling al-Thanis have their pride and an American air base that keeps anything too extreme from happening. But now the U.S. is summoning its vassals; it’ll be extremely difficult for Qatar to keep an independent foreign policy when it’s pressured by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States.

And in Iran there is an alliance of convenience that may someday grow to something

For Iran, it’s bad enough those goddamn Saudis claim to be the custodians of Mecca and Medina; to allow the Islamic State to overrun much of Iraq and wage perpetual war against its Shia is even worse. Saddam’s European-style Arab nationalism brought one wretched war to Iran; the Islamic State’s religious superiority complex won’t even have the pretense of statesmanship that Saddam’s regime had. To allow Iraq to fall to ISIS means perpetual war on the frontier.

As the delicate nuclear deal goes forward, Iran and the U.S. both have incentive to work together. Hardliners on both sides may grumble, but for now a bigger enemy threatens both. Should that cooperation work out and the Islamic State crumble, it may build a bridge to a more normalized relationship between Tehran and Washington – something sought by moderates on both sides.

The complication is Assad himself, who the U.S. wants out and Iran wants in. Whether some kind of deal may be found over him will be key. Iran might be convinced the world is better off minus Assad; conversely, the U.S. may decide that letting Assad run a rump Alawite fief is preferable to continued conflict with his sponsor.

As for Russia, well…

Russian cooperation used to be key to gaining legitimacy for war in the Middle East. But Putin’s invasion of Crimea and war in Ukraine have undercut such needs. Obama doesn’t need to please the Kremlin anymore; his NATO allies will march behind him in realization that trying to get Russia on board is not only doomed to fail, but also irrelevant. Moscow has used all its high horse cards.

War is the word of the decade

Nobody can pretend that defeating the Islamic State will be fast or easy. If broken in the open, it – or something like it – will go underground. Only when the regional order is reestablished can the madmen of the Middle East be suppressed. That’s up to the locals to sort; the current generation of leaders are clearly not up to the task.   It will take time to find new, decent rulers. In the meanwhile, keeping the worst from happening will be the best anyone can hope for.



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