Who are we at war with in the Middle East?
At first glance, this seems like a straightforward question with an obvious answer. We are at war with the Islamic State terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, "war" is the exact descriptor to use, now that the Obama administration has gotten over its initial reluctance to portray the clash in this part of the Middle East with such a stark and unmistakable word.
War, however, is rarely simple. As a rule of thumb, one should appreciate that the identified enemy is not the only enemy. Hence, while we are at war most immediately with Islamic State, that should not preclude us from grasping that there are other local forces with whom we have separate, equally complex, and potentially very dangerous conflicts.
The Second World War provides a good historical example of what I mean. From 1941 onwards, the Soviet Union was an ally of Britain, which had been fighting Nazi Germany solo for the previous two years, and the United States, which entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But in the decades prior to that capitalist-communist military alliance, the Soviet Union was very much an enemy, perceived by European leaders especially as the main threat to the stability of western democracy.
Only with the rise of Nazism did the Soviet threat retreat into the background. But even then, there was an awareness that once our business with Hitler's regime was done, we would remain fundamentally at loggerheads with the Soviet Union. That was why World War II segued rapidly into the Cold War that dominated international relations for the next half-century.
A similar pattern is observable with Islamic State. The coalition that the U.S. has assembled to fight this barbaric scourge is, much like the Anglo-American-Soviet coalition of the 1940s, based upon an immediate coincidence of interest. But many of the powers involved with it should not be described as friends. Some of them—particularly those with an indirect, ambiguous role—might in fact become declared enemies in the not-too-distant future.
I include in that category states like Turkey and Qatar. Turkey is not a central actor in the war against Islamic State, having elected not to join the other 10 Middle Eastern countries that assembled in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month to announce the coalition with the Americans. Turkish leaders say their principal aim is to provide humanitarian aid to the thousands of refugees that have poured across their country's borders, though there is widespread agreement that the Turks are engaged in supporting the military operation from behind the scenes. Similarly, Qatar is playing what the Reuters news agency described as a "supporting role," which means that it will not be visibly deploying military force against Islamic State, in stark contrast to Arab neighbors like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, all of whom have participated in bombing runs against Islamic State positions in Syria in recent days.
I also include Iran in that category. Iran, again, is not a formal participant in the U.S.-led coalition, but Washington has been keen to emphasize that Tehran shares western disquiet at the rise of Islamic State. And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quick to point out, in media interviews during his visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, that his country had been praised by Iraqi Kurdish leaders for providing them with weapons in their darkest hour of need. "Iran is the only country in the region that is capable of helping in the maintenance of stability," Zarif toldThe National Interest's Jacob Heilbrunn, presumably with some relish.
The plain fact is that any calculations we make in Iraq and Syria will need to factor in the Qatar-Turkey axis (the main state-backers of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Middle East) and the Iranian-led alliance that comprises the Assad regime in Syria, the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon, and the Palestinian Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Therefore, not only do we face the task of destroying Islamic State, but we have to do so in a way that avoids creating suspicion about our true intentions within what might conveniently be called the "not allies, not enemies" camp.
This is a strategy that, in military terms, is fraught with risk, at the same time as being enormously confusing politically. Do we look sideways at Iran's nuclear program for the sake of a successful campaign against Islamic State? Do we continue ignoring Qatari and Turkish backing for Hamas for the same reason? Look at how western leaders have addressed these issues—French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, for example, has insisted, "You must not establish confusion between this [Islamic State] question and the question of nuclear weapons that we are discussing now with the Iranians," without explaining whether the war on Islamic State has impacted negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The lack of consistency and clarity is deeply disturbing.
And so, I return to my original question: who are we at war with in the Middle East? Islamic State is a breathtakingly brutal case of where Islamism can lead, but it is far from being the only Islamist force in the Middle East that is willing to kill Americans and other westerners. Assuming we are able to defeat Islamic State, we will still have to deal with a spectrum of adversaries that includes al-Qaeda offshoots, the Muslim Brotherhood, and most of all the Iranian regime. We need to be thinking now about how to approach these entities and states in the wake of an Islamic State defeat, much as British and American planners thought about post-war relations with the Soviet Union in the closing stages of World War II.
Doing so efficiently means not closing our eyes and ears to unpalatable truths. Most urgently, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that Iran won't take advantage of current situation, or that its nuclear program is not a comparable threat to that posed by Islamic State. There is a real prospect that Iran will weaponize its nuclear program, thereby inaugurating an era of danger for the Middle East that will make the current one look like a picnic. Should that happen, the war against Islamic State will seem like a footnote in a broader story of western defeat in the Middle East, rather than the opening gambit of a strategy to confront and, yes, defeat the enemies of freedom across the region.