Should ISIS be eradicated? Sure, this seems like an odd question. ISIS, the so-called “Islamic state,” has done heinous acts of violence, has decapitated hundreds or thousands of men, has burned them alive, grilling them over fire or drowned them in a cave plunging into a sea of acid. Moreover, ISIS practices slavery and has committed a genocide against the Yazidis and killed vast number of people only for being “apostates” oder “infidels.” The complete disregard of human life and human dignity is beyond imagination and at the same time it is part of a media strategy that aims at striking fear into the hearts of ISIS’ enemies, namely the entire rest of the world.
Against this background, Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman, an avowed and umcompromising supporter of a Western intervention to crush ISIS, harshly criticizes a column in the NYT in which Thomas L. Friedman argues for a more passive role the West should take on in Syria to the effect that “Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” In fact, the West has little to gain from becoming another war party in Syria as I have written elsewhere under the headline “The long failure of the West in the Middle East” (in German). Thus Friedman, far from calling for a Western support of ISIS, has a point when he writes:
If we defeat territorial ISIS in Syria now, we will only reduce the pressure on Assad, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah and enable them to devote all their resources to crushing the last moderate rebels in Idlib, not sharing power with them.
Believe it or not, but the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally are intrinsically interested in defeating ISIS in the long run. Of course, to Assad fighting more moderate rebels in his backyard is on top of his agenda but one must not forget that from the pespective of ISIS, heterodox Muslims are worse than infidels. They are apostates (murtaddūn) which makes them a kind of traitors to the true Muslim cause. ISIS propaganda outfits call the Alawites “Ṣafawiyūn” so as to strip them off their Arabness and whatever indirect, temporary cooperation between ISIS and the Syrian regime may exist (or not) there will never be a reconciliation between both.
Anyone who thinks Friedman’s article is somewhat off the mark can’t have paid much attention to the fact that it reflects a growing consensus among conservative analysts, e.g. Daniel Pipes, Efraim Inbar (already mentioned by Frantzman), Andrew Bacevich or Ralph Peters, who all argue that ISIS and the regime forces (incl. Hezbollah) better neutralize each other in a war where any direct involvement by the U.S. and NATO would make things worse and only lead to its prolonging as well as increased civilian casualties which would play into ISIS’s hands. That having said, let us take a look at how those conservative proponents argue:
- Middle East Forum’s Daniel Pipes who long since called for staying out of Syria feels confirmed that “it was right not to intervene because Iranian- and Russian-backed Shi’ite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis” and “letting enemies of the United States fight each other to exhaustion.” He is not oblivious to the fact that the Kurds are on the forefront of fighting ISIS while being an anchor of stabilty in the region. However, “they are not contenders for control of the whole of Syria.”
- BESA’s Efraim Inbar takes the same line when he advocates a Western strategy that aims at weakening ISIS instead of destroying it: “If IS loses control over its territory, the energies that went into protecting and governing a state will be directed toward organizing more terrorist attacks beyond its borders. […] Prolonging the life of IS probably assures the deaths of more Muslim extremists at the hands of other bad guys in the Middle East, and is likely to spare the West several terrorist attacks.” Defeating ISIS would pave the way for greater Iranian influence in the area being neither good for the local population nor for the West.
- Military historian Andrew J. Bacevich in his column in “The American Conservative” argues that CENTCOM is “waging an endless war of attrition” so that substantial progress against ISIS is simply not to be expected.
- Ralph Peters, Fox News’ strategic analyst, calls for pulling out of Syria while continuing to support the Kurds: “Right now, we’re fighting the terrorists for the good of the Assad regime, Iran and Russia — while they butcher the moderate opposition and slaughter civilians.”
Frantzman argues by contrast that all of this is suposed to be incorrect because “ISIS empowers Iranian hegemony. Without ISIS there would be more moderate rebel groups.” This is wishful thinking. “More moderate rebel groups” already exist but unfortunately most of them are of the same anti-Western bent. And wherever ISIS loses ground, al-Qaida and Shiite militias are quick to fill the void.
Although there is no direct frontline between ISIS and Hezbollah, there is one between ISIS and the Shiite militias, e.g. in 2016 Shiite militias began expelling ISIS from Mosul and also Baghdad would have fallen if it weren’t for exactly those militias. If the West decided to fight ISIS on the ground, it would take the burden of defense from the shoulders of “more moderate rebel groups” aka al-Qaida and Iranian-backed forces.
Abstaining from intervening Syria has nothing to do with supporting ISIS but in a war where mostly armed thugs fight armed thugs any Western intervention in the region targeting ISIS would help other forces no less hostile to the West gain ground. Friedman has understood this, as have many in the conservative camp. Sure enough, ISIS needs to be defeated and eradicated but the way to get there is not via Western intervention. Let radical groups fight against each other and reduce Western activities to helping civilians, giving intelligence to various groups and arming the Kurds.
ISIS has too many enemies and will not survive in its current stronghold. What comes after ISIS will probably not be much better. The West can’t change that – but at least it can keep these nasty groups busy for a while.