The November attacks in Paris claimed by ISIS came from the convergence of two forces. One is Jihadism, a global and multifaceted socio-behavioral phenomenon. The other is ISIS, an organization that operates in the Levant and Mesopotamia. ISIS can occasionally project itself beyond its base by leveraging the Jihadist phenomenon, as it did in Tunisia, Egypt, or now France. But despite the global noise, ISIS should be read in its regional context.
ISIS - the organization - is a conundrum, tactically brilliant yet strategically inept. Its operational potential was apparent from the takeover of Mosul — the moment that catapulted ISIS on the international stage — to the recent Paris attacks, all the more formidable because it was executed in a hostile, highly vigilant environment. But for all those well-executed tactical strikes, strategically, all that ISIS has ever accomplished is to add to the list of its mortal enemies. By cleansing Yazidis and abducting their girls, by blowing up the antique ruins of Palmyra, ISIS affronted the very idea of civilization. With more targeted attacks, it has successively provoked Americans, Kurds, Jordanians, Shi’as from Beirut to Baghdad, Russians, and now the French. Even mass shootings in which it played no discernible part are happily claimed by for ISIS. Strategically, each of those gruesome, well-staged performances has made the Assad regime look better and reinforced the Iranian position in Syria and Iraq. Strategically, ISIS is working for Iran.
The closer one looks at the details, the more robust the pattern. Take four examples. In Iraq, by overrunning western cities and destroying whatever the U.S. had achieved after 8 long years of war, ISIS catalyzed the detente between Tehran and Washington. The prize was a nuclear deal that saved Iran from a losing game of nuclear deterrence and from the risk of sovereign default. From Lebanon, Hezbollah, dependent on Iranian funding, was drafted to fight for the Syrian regime. However grateful to Tehran, Lebanese Shi’a families were not all keen to see their sons die for Assad, until ISIS’ attacks in their neighborhoods made personal a fight that had been largely mercenary. For Moscow, a co-conspirator of Tehran in the Syrian game, the destruction of a civilian aircraft by ISIS in October justified air strikes in support of the Assad regime. France remained a critical voice, and was quickly becoming a client state of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who contracted massive purchases of French weapon systems just as Washington’s dalliance with Tehran gained traction. That changed after November 13, when ISIS-claimed attacks in Paris drove President Hollande to make a Faustian pact with the Russian devil.
Conspiracy theories about the Middle East are a dime a dozen, and there is so far no evidence of an Iranian hand in ISIS. Tehran got caught once in the mid-1980s for masterminding bombings in Paris, and in this age of forensic science, it would be dangerous to support such a notorious proxy. However, there are indirect ways to feed the beast, for instance, withdrawing from non-essential territory and leaving behind ammunitions depots and bags of cash. The lands now held by ISIS were not so much conquered as they were abandoned by the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, both protégés of Tehran. And it is not being too conspiratorial to remember that the Islamic State was born in Taweelah, a hilly Kurdish village of east Iraq, a stone's throw away from an Iranian border post. Zarqawi had fled Afghanistan after the American invasion, found refuge in the Islamic Republic, and showed up in Taweelah to write the first page of the Islamic State by desecrating its Sufi shrine and executing the men who protested. And it is not being conspiratorial to remember that when the Americans occupied Iraq, a few months later, Zarqawi’s organization grew in strength with the tacit acquiescence of the Syrian regime, over whose border fighters and equipment were smuggled.
If Iran has not been formidably clever with ISIS, at least it has been incredibly lucky, all the while being strategically brilliant on all fronts. For the past 30 years, despite strong handicaps, Tehran has consistently outperformed any other power in the region. The latest example came in Syria, where it got trapped in an asymmetrical proxy war with Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies—who, by backing low-cost militias, could have hoped to bleed a committed Iran to its fiscal death, until Tehran outmaneuvered Riyadh by finally backing the Houthi militia in Yemen, opening a second front in the difficult Arabian theater where the GCC had to engage its own regular forces.
Iran’s actions and goals may be frustrating; they are nonetheless rational from a frame of reference anyone can grasp. ISIS, on the other hand, is rabidly nonsensical. If ISIS were serious about establishing a new state, it would test its strategies and adjust risks to payoffs, doing something to preserve its assets. Instead, it keeps plowing the same infertile furrow of obscene provocation, leading too many analysts to conclude, first, that those are the actions of a pure ideological creature, an Islamic Khmer Rouge, bent on purging the world; and, second, that the complete lack of moderation gives ISIS a claim to be the central security problem of the age and a serious threat to civilization.
Overrating ISIS is naïve. The Caliphate is no superpower: it is an illusionist, driving us to look here when the tricks are being performed elsewhere. Blinded by the bloodshed in the streets of Paris, following New York (01), Madrid (04) and London (05), Western societies are losing their moral compass and their core principles – civil liberties, providing asylum to refugees, supporting democratic transitions, and keeping autocracies at arms length. Meanwhile, a serious power like Russia is baring its teeth from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Baltic, and NATO has no real answer.
At this point, at least when it comes to the Middle East, no answer could be a valid long-run gamble. Isolationism is a strategic option that could pay off when the Moscow-Tehran axis, having been handed the keys to the Levant, inheriting ISIS as their sole problem, ended up biting off more than they could chew. But isolationism takes cold-blooded realism. It takes indifference to human tragedies, stoicism against a continuous drip of half-defeats and ground lost to rivals and adversaries, and deafness to the calls of allies; it takes years waiting for the trend to eventually turn and for overexposed rivals to self-destruct.
Washington is not that cool; it remains involved in the Middle East, even though it cannot stomach the financial and human commitment needed to turn things around. Recent U.S. policies toward the region have shown neither courage nor principles, neither imagination nor ambition, and at the same time a stubborn reluctance to let go. This administration has taken a hard realist stance it cannot uphold because it lacks the fortitude of true cynicism. The U.S. does not lead, yet it micro-manages the frontlines against ISIS, rather successfully but at a pace too leisurely to seem imposing. Washington masks the absence of grand strategy with incessant diplomatic chatter, wishfully negotiating compromises that are concessions in disguise.
This equivocation builds upon a longer trend in Middle East policy, where the U.S. takes one step forward and two steps back, driven by inertia and reactivity, callously resigned to human tragedies that it nonetheless loudly denounces, self-defeating even as it is victorious. It may be the predicament of democracies that the short-term is the news cycle, and the long-term the electoral cycle, but history works on a different clock. If the West wants to keep a place in it, it would be good for it to start looking where it is going, and not to simply assume it will win because it is righteous and has history on its side. History is only a heartless succession of events; it knows no morality and certainly takes no side.