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A question of parentage

sukumar muralidharan | Updated on October 10, 2014

Ironically, all the Islamic State benefactors come from the ranks of the sub-brokers of US power in the region

Once before has the world seen a militia emerge out of the fog and confusion of sectarian civil war, take on and literally rout ‘better-organised’ forces. The swift Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1996, though, was a distant memory when early in June a militia of uncertain parentage emerged to overrun Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. Within weeks, it had taken over a third of Iraq’s area and proclaimed an Islamic Caliphate.

The ultimate territorial ambitions of the group remained unclear. In some renditions it was called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; in others, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, representing the wider ambition of taking over territories that today lie in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and perhaps Israel. As the term became a matter of political preference and advantages to be gained through scaremongering, a compromise was the territorially non-specific appellation Islamic State, or IS.

Nomenclature seemed to matter little on the ground, as IS added on a substantial part of Syrian territory to its putative Caliphate, stamping its authority upon the disparate opposition groups that had fought Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime to a brutal stalemate over three-and-a-half years of the so-called Arab Spring. Explicitly committed to a brutal form of Sunni Muslim confessionalism, the IS left a trail of atrocities against the Shia, the Kurd and the Yazidi people in areas it conquered.

Early in July, Richard Dearlove, a former head of Britain’s external intelligence service MI6, said, in what must count as a marvel of understatement that “such things do not happen spontaneously”. Indeed, the Taliban in Afghanistan was soon found, after the military successes of 1996, to have been fathered by Pakistani military intelligence, bankrolled by the oil sheikhs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and blessed by the US. The IS though has several more claimants to parenthood and many more generous benefactors, all now floundering for a response that will preserve their strategic investments.

Ironically, all the IS benefactors come from the ranks of the sub-brokers of US power in the region. The law of unintended consequences, indeed may be the common thread running through the various US interventions abroad in the so-called “global war on terror”. A subsidiary motif surely would be the continuing evasion by the authors of the chaos of the worst consequences of their actions.

After prolonged uncertainty, President Barack Obama on September 11, a day rich in symbolism, formally announced that it would be the US intent to dismantle the IS. The ‘Islamic Caliphate’ had been in existence well over two months, during which time the US had dithered and dallied, unsure about how it could extricate itself from a strategic quagmire that its closest allies had fashioned.

In a speech at Harvard University early this month, US Vice President Joe Biden gave some suggestion of the dimensions of the mess. “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria,” he said, “What were they doing? They were so determined to take down (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war... They poured hundreds and millions of dollars and... thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied (were)… the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”

The Turks were not impressed and demanded an apology, which was promptly proffered as the price the US is willing to pay to keep its alliance afloat. The US is now formally committed to dismantling the IS without in any way aligning itself with the militia’s most substantial adversaries on the ground: Iran and the al-Assad regime in Syria. This is also in compliance with the script authored by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, soon after the IS takeover of Mosul, warned that any action to “counter the ISIS takeover of Iraq” shouldn’t have the outcome of allowing “Iran to dominate Iraq the way it dominated Lebanon and Syria”. He sagely added, “When your enemies are fighting each other, don’t strengthen either one of them.”

For the US and Israel, which colluded in fashioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq on concocted grounds, the aftermath has been a period of growing strategic worries. When the turmoil in Iraq subsided in a relative sense, it was only at the cost of a vast accretion to Iran’s strategic influence within the country. Insecurities among the Arab oil kingdoms — all of them vital allies of the US — were compounded at the prospect of Iraq being taken permanently out of the Arab orbit and becoming, alongside Syria and Iran, a bastion of resistance. The uprising in Syria of 2011, which the oil kingdoms have since eagerly fuelled and fomented, was a way of breaking up the emerging new axis of resistance.

Turkey soon joined the strategic contest, recruiting to its cause an unlikely ally in Iraq’s Kurds. As part of its bargain with the US in combating the IS, Turkey has insisted on a “no-fly zone” to prevent Syrian airpower being deployed against the common enemy. But its own Kurdish population is now restive at Turkey’s quiescence as IS forces close in on the Syrian Kurd town of Kobane. Those orchestrating the chaos in the local theatre could soon start feeling the heat. And it will not be long before the puppet-master himself suffers blowback.

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled through New York for the UN General Assembly, en route a State visit to Washington DC, he made a special point of meeting with Netanyahu. Little was revealed about the outcome of the talks. And the joint statement that emerged after Modi’s meeting with Obama in the White House, did no more than reiterate older nostrums about the urgency of dealing with terrorism. Official spokespersons explicitly disavowed any possibility of India joining a US-led anti-terror coalition. But the deepening intimacy with Israel has not gone unremarked. And sooner, rather than later, India will be called upon to requite its obligations by committing to the US-Israeli strategic game-plan for West Asia.

Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

Published on October 10, 2014

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