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Studies 30 October, 2014

ISIS and the Façade of Negative Cooperation

Andreas Krieg

​Dr. Andreas Krieg is an assistant professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London and is currently seconded to Qatar's Joint Command and Staff College, acting as an advisor to the Qatari Armed Forces.

This paper was originally presented at the ACRPS' October, 2014 conference on the role of ISIL and renewed direct US military intervention. The conference page can be found here.

Since the departure of the last US troops from Iraq in 2011, academics, politicians and strategists have talked about a gradual US withdrawal from the Middle East, and what Hillary Clinton described as a strategic ‘pivot’ in US foreign policy toward Asia and the Far East.1 Discussion of this shift worried America’s regional allies, in particular the Gulf countries, which have worried that this ‘pivot’ would mean that their main foreign guardian would abandon them in their struggle against terrorism and a nuclear Iran—a concern that has been shared by America’s key ally Israel. However, though the debate in the US has decided that the future of US politics will be determined by Asia and not in the Middle East, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ have shown that US involvement in the region is far from ‘Mission Accomplished.’

The legacy of Iraq has been like a dark shadow hanging over the State and Defence departments in Washington, and the Obama administration has tried to avoid being dragged into another Middle Eastern adventure at all costs. Not even the Arab Spring’s demonstration of the internal fragility of regimes across the region—some of which had been anchors of stability for the US in a turbulent area—has been able to pull the US back in. Thus, despite decades of deep involvement, the ‘pivot’ has meant that the US response to the most fundamental upheaval in the Middle East since post-colonial times has been one of ambiguity and hesitation. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, American policy is one of irresolute rhetoric and indeterminacy. In Libya, the American military took the backseat in an operation led by European NATO partners and supported by Gulf allies, and in Syria, Obama’s ‘red lines in the sand’ have been constantly blown over.

Demonstrating its disengagement, the capture of Mosul by the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) on 10 June 2014 shocked Washington’s decision-makers even though the rise of ISIS and its predecessors had been simmering for years. Stark internal sectarian divides in Iraq were ignored by American officials; cast off as a local problem to be dealt with by the new Iraqi government. Now with a potent jihadist fighting force at the borders of Turkey, deep into Kurdistan, and at the gates of Baghdad, many believe that the US will proactively return to the region with a commitment that has been hitherto absent from the Obama administration. Ahead of this expected re-engagement, regional observers have seen new alliances formed with the US as the superregional chaperone, all carried out in the face of ISIS, the new ‘empire of evil.’ The ‘Islamic State’ has catalysed a form of regional integration, bringing together Iran with Saudi Arabia as well as Western allies. Even the recently quarrelling GCC states have aligned over the issue, in addition to the historically oppositional Hezbollah and Lebanese Armed Forces.

Though the ranks of those actively fighting ISIS are growing, enhanced cooperation cannot belie the underlying multipolar divisions in the region, and the irreconcilable differences in interests and values that shape each actor’s approach to the ISIS-problem. Gause’s idea of a new regional Cold War remains as timely as ever, despite the façade of cooperation and collaboration.2 The fight against ISIS is just another battleground in this regional Cold War. The cooperating parties could not, moreover, have more different long-term visions for a post-ISIS regional context. Despite the wide consensus that ISIS constitutes a threat, the differences in strategic approaches to long-term regional stability remain deeply divided, as do the ideologies, values and interests of those gathered together to fight them. The only real paradigm shift in this regional Cold War has been that those calling the shots on the ground are non-state actors and transnational groups. This shift has been somewhat absorbed into the status quo system, however, because some of the non-state actors have become tools for regional and Western states, used to further state interests and values. Indeed, it is on these ideologies, value systems and interests where the war is really focused, and it is this war that—in the eyes of the Obama administration—the US should avoid being dragged into. This is why US policy toward ISIS and regional stability has been hesitant, irresolute, and focused on damage control rather than proactively trying to tackle the fundamental socio-political root causes of regional instability.

In early August, the United States commenced air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq as a way to relieve the pressure on Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Armed Forces who had been on retreat from the effective hybrid fighting force of the ISIS mujahedeen. Gradually, France, the UK, and GCC countries joined what became a US-led coalition fighting ISIS from the air, without putting boots on the ground. Although the media have increasingly labelled the current conflagration ‘Gulf War III’ 3, the intervention lacks the commitment required to not just contain ISIS but to effectively defeat it. Militarily, the US-led coalition is haunted by the legacy of the Iraq Wars, and both its strategic and operational planning are shaped by austerity considerations, general war fatigue, and casualty aversion. The trauma of Iraq serves as a warning to the US administration not to get bogged down in another messy counterinsurgency struggle where the forces they are fighting are ground-savvy, operating in a complex Middle Eastern environment. Not just from a financial point of view, but predominately due to the psychological and human costs of war, the US and its Western allies do not consider the current ISIS threat severe enough to justify a major investment of money, equipment, or manpower.

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[1] Hillary Clinton. “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/americas_pacific_century

[2] F. Gregory Gause III. “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War,” Brookings Doha Centre Analysis Paper, No. 11, July 2014, http://bit.ly/1u24wzN

[3] “Britain set to join Third Gulf War,” Channel 4 News, 26 September 2014, http://bit.ly/12YXfVx; James Lyons, “Gulf War 3: Britain set to strike back at ISIS for atrocities that appalled an entire nation,” Daily Mirror, September 24, 2014, http://bit.ly/1DVtCSj; Robin Wright “A Third Iraq War?,” The New Yorker, June 17, 2014, http://nyr.kr/1u24NTr