Barron’s argued in last week’s cover story against American pessimism in the Middle East. It predicted that ISIS will no longer be a landholder by the end of next year. The financial weekly mustered the best possible case that this will happen, and it might. Yet while reading I found myself constantly wondering, And then what? Will Americans be significantly more secure or our military any less overextended once ISIS has fallen?
Right now, ISIS seems a fairly despicable group of bloodthirsty barbarians. Its dedicated jihadis daily perpetuate new outrages reported in the press: raping, pillaging, enslaving, prostituting, burning, drowning, beheading any crucifying unbelievers and Muslims alike.
ISIS has shown itself to be a resourceful organization, capable both of smuggling its own supporters in among refugees to wreak havoc in Europe and of attracting recruits and terrorist wannabees the world over with its claims of a reestablished caliphate. Barron’s admits “We expect both forms of terrorism to continue” for some time.
So it is in principle desirable that such a group of undesirables would be shown the door, preferably by a coalition of its own irate neighbors. That may happen as early as next year, as Barron’s predicts. ISIS has been driven out of some cities in Syria and Iraq. It may lose others to boots and bombs and eventually find that it can no longer hold together as a political entity.
But then what?
President Barack Obama has been much mocked, and rightly so, for calling ISIS “the JV team.” But he had his reasons. It started as a more rigorist splinter group of al Qaeda. ISIS’s leaders were expelled because they didn’t think bin Laden’s group was hardcore enough. That such a group could catch fire the way it did is a good indicator that U.S. leaders haven’t the first clue about the many, varied and fractious cultures throughout the Middle East or the religious tripwires buried in the sand.
Islam is a religion that is capable of peace, certainly, but it’s a whole lot more complicated than that, especially near its birthplace. “Much of the Mideast,” reports Barron’s, “is now a Hobbesian netherworld pitting Shiites against Sunnis, tribes against tribes, and militias against militias, often in a violent mosaic that outsiders find hard to fathom.”
The U.S.-backed overthrow of ISIS could stop some atrocities that are occurring right now, at great cost in blood in treasure in a region where we recently spent plenty of both. But — and this is the important question — then what?
Will Iraq hold together? Will Syria reach a peace that America will be OK with, allowing many refugees to return from Europe? Will future would be al Qaedas and ISISes fail to catch fire or be any less likely to plot terror attacks on America and Europe?
Barron’s predicts that, post-ISIS, “The Mideast is likely to remain a cauldron of simmering tensions, but at a much lower boil than at present.” Yet even that “lower boil” will require “continued military vigilance in the region” and measures to prevent a much reduced ISIS, with no state but still with an international network in place, “from mounting further terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S.”
As for Iraq and Syria, the financial paper predicts that once they get over the ISIS speedbump, the two states will devolve into “federal systems in which local regions comprising Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish population will have significant autonomy” and “the two central governments will be so in name only.”
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if Bashar Assad manages to reassert his strong hand in Syria? Will America reluctantly go along with that, seeing what the alternative could be, or will we work to undermine his regime because of past bad actions? And what if Iraq doesn’t stay a nation even in name? The Kurds clearly want to declare independence, and might. What if they do? That’s not an absurd speculation. Kurdish America-funded forces in Syria already ignored U.S. influence and went to war with another proxy army that we were funding.
At just about every point after ISIS’s reign (though not, alas, its terror) is over, there will be voices calling for America to involve itself further in the region. “The Western powers and Russia,” Barron’s opines, as if on cue, “will obviously have a hand in reshaping the Mideast, relying on a judicious application of balance of power politics to achieve their goals.”
Goals? The thing about boiling cauldrons is, you’re better off keeping a judicious distance — and maybe not putting so many logs on the fire. The only goals that are in America’s interest there are keeping a lid on all the violence in the Middle East and, especially, in keeping nascent nasty movements from spilling over more terror onto our shores.