U.S. Army and Iraqi army soldiers board a Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter ahead of a mission in Ramadi, Iraq, 15 November 2009. Ramadi is now under Islamic State control.
The enemies of the Islamic State (IS) include Syria, Iraq, powerful Arab neighbors, jihadist groups such as Hezbollah, ethnic groups such as the Kurds, and four major countries from outside the Arab world – Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the United States. With all these forces seemingly arrayed against the Islamic State, how is that group still so powerful? It is because the fight against the Islamic State is not bringing together any common interests, despite the fact that it presents multiple groups with the same enemy. To call the anti-Islamic State front a coalition or a partnership is naïve; it is more like Rousseau’s stag hunt: each player in the game would like to defeat the Islamic State, but they are too busy chasing their own elusive hares to cooperate with their partners.
Can this situation change? What can the United States do to foster greater coordination among the common enemies of the Islamic State? Unfortunately, the U.S. cannot do much to get the major players in the fight to cooperate, as it would be very difficult to reconcile the divergent interests each major state has in the region. A quick look at the interests of Turkey, Iran, and Russia – contrasted with those of the United States – reveals that the hope of a united front against the Islamic State is wishful thinking.
For starters, it is assumed that the United States wants to not only defeat the Islamic State, but completely eliminate it as a group. In addition, the U.S. wants to keep the Haider al-Abadi regime in power in Iraq, and they would like to see a moderate, secular, and democratic regime installed in post-civil war Syria. Finally, the broader goal of the fight against the Islamic State is the attenuation of Muslim extremist terrorism as a security threat. Even though all actors want to defeat the Islamic State, the regional aspirations of each diverge sharply from the United States’ vision.
The prospect of a victorious Islamic State establishing a polity on its doorstep presents a grave threat to Turkey’s security, so it is not difficult to see why Turkey would want to fight the group. Since jihadists often join the Islamic State on the frontlines by traveling through Turkey’s open borders, it is in every player’s interests for Turkey to restrict that movement. So far, Turkey has allowed the United States to operate from Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey, which is substantially closer to targets in Iraq and Syria, enabling airstrikes to linger for longer periods over a certain target.
However, in gaining Turkey as an ally, the United States is working at cross-purposes with the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State: the Kurds, with whom Turkey’s relationship in the last year has soured. The YPG (the Syrian Kurdish army) took the Syrian-Turkish border village of Tal Abyad in June, only 40 miles from the Islamic State’s de facto capital city of Raqqa. The Kurds also control a swath of territory in northeastern Syria and northern Iraq.
So why is the United States supporting a country that is killing the Kurds? One defense is that Turkey is only fighting the PKK, the Turkish Kurd military organization labeled by the U.S. as a terrorist organization, implying that Ankara’s anti-Kurdish campaign is limited to Turkey, and does not affect Kurdish efforts in Iraq and Syria. Given the internal rivalries that dominate Kurdish politics, different Kurdish national groups could very well refuse to support one another. However, the fight against the Islamic State has brought about a loose alliance of Kurdish groups, with soldiers from the PKK helping the Peshmerga — the Iraqi Kurdish military — fend off IS attacks in northern Iraq.
Turkey could also be using the fight against IS as a cover to conduct an extensive military campaign against the PKK. So in getting Turkey to participate in the anti-IS coalition, the United States got a weakened partner on the ground and a possibly uncommitted ally in exchange for an airbase. That’s hardly a good deal, and it merely underlines the fact that the United States will have to make concessions to potential partners that may harm the overall effectiveness of the fight against the Islamic State.
Mutual hatred of the Islamic State and the recent nuclear agreement raise hopes that the U.S. and Iran can work together to defeat IS or bring about a diplomatic end to the Syrian Civil War. This view is naïve. Iran and the U.S. hold opposing views of what a post-Islamic State Middle East should look like. For Iran, it means having a Shia-friendly regime in Baghdad. That desire may not be a deal-breaker on its own, but Iran also wants to fight the Islamic State mainly through Shia proxy militias. Such favoritism towards Iraqi Shi’ites smacks of the kind of Shia partisanship that helped give rise to the Islamic State in the first place.
In Syria, Iran wholeheartedly supports Assad, but the United States would prefer to see a moderate, liberal leader in his place. In a recent interview, Assad called the support from Iran “essential” in his fight against the Islamic State and other rebel groups. Iran, for its part, sees no need to temper remarks like these — it proudly proclaims the deaths of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members who die fighting in Syria. In addition to Assad, Iran also supports Hezbollah, hardly a group America can call a friend. In short, the United States and Iran support two wholly different sets of actors and outcomes in Iraq and Syria. It is hard to cheer for the same winner when you both bet on different horses.
The world now knows that Russia is sending war materiel to Assad in the form of advanced weaponry, military advance teams, pre-fabricated housing units, and 200,000 tons of liquefied natural gas. As always, Russia’s true intentions in this fight are inscrutable, but we can infer where their interests lie. Russia’s ties to the Assad regime go back to the days of the Cold War and Hafiz al-Assad, Bashar’s father. It is no surprise that they want to prop up a regional ally in danger of losing power. Like Iran, the fact that Russia wants Assad to stay in power presents an obstacle to multilateral cooperation with the U.S. and its European allies.
Furthermore, the geopolitical competition between Russia and the United States will hamper their cooperation in Syria. The New York Times speculates that Russia wants to use the Syrian intervention as a way to reengage the West. If that is the case, then cooperation with the United States would require compromise on such issues as the civil war in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the intensity of NATO’s military posture in Eastern Europe, etc. None of these issues is conducive to compromise, and it is hard to see either country believing that the Syrian conflict is important enough to forsake their security priorities in Europe. These geopolitical conflicts plus the cold relations between the U.S. and Russian militaries make cooperation on defeating the Islamic State difficult.
Staying Out of this Mess
The prospects for coordination among the major countries fighting the Islamic State are dim; these countries either have irreconcilable visions of what the post-conflict landscape should look like (Russia, Iran) or they work at cross-purposes with each other (Turkey). Given this situation, what should the U.S. do? After watching either of the Republican debates, people might think that the United States should engage in a “shock and awe” campaign: send in so many forces that sheer American military might will overwhelm every other party in the region.
That idea is dangerous because it is based on an optimistic assessment of the ability of the U.S. military to bring peace and stability to the region in the short term. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the fight against the Islamic State would take three years to complete, and many Republicans think that it would take a shorter amount of time if the U.S. sent all its forces to the area. Indeed, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee hopes that the anti-IS campaign would be a “10-day exercise.”
But that will not be the case. Counter-insurgency campaigns, according to T.E. Lawrence, are “like eating soup with a knife.” The fight against the Islamic State will take a generational investment of arms, blood, and money. And at the end of it all, there is still no guarantee that either the U.S.-installed regime(s) in the region will not collapse or that another terrorist threat will not emerge in a more remote part of the world.
The short-sighted and jingoistic policy-making that ignores this reality got the U.S. into trouble in Iraq, and it may do the same in Syria. U.S. national security calls for the principled use of force. Until the Islamic State breaks out of the scrap of desert in which it is currently contained, a new counter-insurgency effort in Syria and Iraq would do more harm than good.
Tyler Bowen is a first-year Ph.D. student at Yale University, concentrating on International Security.