The war currently raging in Iraq and Syria is a single conflict, pitting a number of clearly identifiable alliances against one another. This war also stretches into Lebanon.
Who are the players?
Most famously, the Islamic State organization now dominates a contiguous land area stretching from Mosul in western Iraq all the way to the Syrian-Turkish border. This murderous gathering of jihadi fighters from across the world is in the process of swallowing up what is left of the Syrian insurgency in the north of that country. Only U.S. airstrikes and a general Kurdish mobilization stopped it from reaching Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, last week.
The IS has also now manifested itself in Lebanon. In the recent fighting in Arsal, hundreds of fighters of the movement demonstrated that despite the efforts of Assad and Hizballah, IS is still able to cross the Syria-Lebanon border at will and in force.
So one of the combatant sides is a barbaric jihadi alliance of great military potency — at least in the landscape of Iraq-Syria-Lebanon, where most of the military forces are second rate.
The issue of who backs IS remains murky. It is somewhat hard to believe that the organization could have assembled the strength that it has without some form of state assistance. There is strong evidence that in the early stages of its activities, when it was fighting Kurdish militias in northern Syria, it received help from Turkey. The current status of Ankara’s relations with the IS remains unclear. As of now, this issue is an unanswered question.
Facing this Sunni jihadi force is a largely Shia Islamist alliance, led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This alliance consists of Iran itself, the ruling Dawa party in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and Hizballah and its allies in Lebanon.
These two alliances are at war with one another. But both are anti-western. Both desire the destruction of Israel. Both are hostile to Christians — though the Shia alliance sees Christians as second-class citizens, while the Sunni jihadis take an openly murderous attitude toward them.
In addition to these two blocs, there is a Kurdish interest, defending two distinct versions of Kurdish autonomous rule in northern Iraq and northern Syria. In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government of Massoud Barzani presides over the best-governed and most peaceful part of the country.
Barzani’s armed forces, nevertheless, performed disappointingly against IS in the fight for Sinjar and at the Mosul Dam. Lack of ammunition and superior equipment in the hands of IS (including U.S.-made tanks captured in Mosul city) were responsible for this.
Further west, there are three additional areas of Syrian autonomy stretching across northern Syria. These are effectively controlled by the PKK organization via its local franchise. In contrast to Barzani’s Pesh Merga, the PKK and PKK-trained YPG guerrillas have performed very well in fighting against IS over the previous year. Even in such difficult-to-defend areas as the beleaguered Kobani enclave in north-central Syria, the Kurdish guerrilla fighters have refused to cede ground to the jihadis. The corridor from Singhal Mountain via Syria to safety in Dohuk, which has saved the lives of thousands of Yezidi refugees, was organized by these forces.
So that is the war that is currently taking place, and these are the three alliances arrayed against one another in the area still officially known as Iraq/Syria/Lebanon. What should the west do?
First of all, what the west should emphatically not do is to line up behind the Shia alliance because its methods for dealing with infidels are marginally less insane than those of IS. The mainly-Shia, Iran-led alliance is not less dangerous than the Sunni jihadis. Indeed, in many ways it is more so. It has the organized power of a state with an advanced nuclear program behind it, as well as the primary regional agency specializing in subversion and proxy warfare (the Revolutionary Guard Corps).
Aligning with this bloc — by, for example, seeking to bolster the Baghdad government alongside the Iranians — would be an exercise in folly.
What, then, is the alternative?
The alternative derives from the fact that these warring blocs are not the only power blocs active in the Middle East. As the recent diplomacy over Gaza shows, a de facto alliance of Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, that is of western-aligned states who have despaired of the regional policy of the current U.S. administration, currently exists. This alliance gathers around itself smaller naturally pro-western forces in the region, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and arguably also the West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.
This alliance possesses no assets within the heartland areas where the jihadis of IS are fighting the jihadis of Hizballah and their allies.
But it does possess many assets and potential assets along their periphery. These should form the lynchpin of a coherent strategy regarding the current jihadi vs, jihadi war.
To the south, two strong states with strong armies stand ready to defend against any incursions by either IS or the pro-Iranians. These are Jordan and Israel.
To the north, the U.S. and the west ought to invest immediately in military aid for both Kurdish autonomous elements which, properly equipped, can contain the jihadi menace.
Beyond this, the two sides should be allowed to fight it out. It is in the interest of the west and its allies that the blood of both should run into the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.
Such a strategy is unlikely, sadly, to involve the west, and hence may not happen at all. Instead, the U.S. and its allies seem determined to avoid the bigger picture, and to engage in halfhearted humanitarian efforts only when media attention makes this absolutely unavoidable. This is regrettable. Still, the strong, anti-jihadi and moderate forces in the region must continue to find their way to one another. Only thus will the containment of both varieties of political Islam be achieved.
It is, eventually and after much bloodshed, likely to be achieved. But as things stand, the U.S. and the west will derive neither capital nor gratitude from this. They appear, from a Mid-Eastern point of view, like a flailing and retreating giant.