An unnamed American diplomat told the Sunday Times in Britain that President Barack Obama “believes a peaceful Iran could be a bulwark against ISIS in the Middle East and the key to peace there.”
The Iranian people and government strongly oppose ISIS, no doubt about it. They are predominantly Shias while ISIS is the most deranged Sunni Islamist terrorist organization in the world. Its attitude toward the Shia is outright genocidal. It’s easy, then, to see why a powerful Shia bloc might act as a “bulwark.”
The problem here is that the Iranian- led Resistance Bloc—which includes the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a smorgasbord of Iraqi Shia militias—is the primary instigator of ISIS.
Look: ISIS is just Al Qaeda in Iraq with a different name and under new management. The Sunni tribes of Iraq forged an alliance with the previously hated American military in the late 2000s in order to vomit out the old version of ISIS.
The only reason it came back—aside from the fact that it grew strong enough to come back while resisting the Assad regime next-door in Syria—is because Iraq’s central Iranian-
backed government scares the daylights out of Iraq’s Sunni minority with its heavy-handed Shia sectarianism.
An exhaustive public opinion survey in the Middle East conducted by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies found that support for ISIS in Iraq stands at four percent. Support for ISIS in Lebanon is as low as one percent. Support for ISIS in Jordan—where it’s strongest—stands at a mere eight percent.
So forget the ludicrous notion that ISIS has a groundswell of public support. It doesn’t.
Many of the local Sunnis are just making a deal with who they perceive as a lesser evil to to act as a bulwark—to use the unnamed diplomat’s phrase—against what they see as a greater evil, Iran and its proxies in Damascus and Baghdad. Westerners have forged similar temporary pacts in the past by siding with communists against fascists, and vice versa.
Only four percent of Iraqis support ISIS, but that’s about 20 percent of Iraq’s Sunnis—enough for ISIS to gain a foothold if it sufficiently terrorizes the remaining 80 percent.
The president seems to get this in Syria. “The only way that the civil war will end,” Obama said, “is an inclusive political transition to a new government without Bashar Assad, a government that serves all Syrians.”
A government that serves all Syrians may be impossible at this point. Syria effectively no longer exists. There’s the Alawite-led rump state in the Damascus corridor and on the coast, a nascent Kurdish state in the north, and the so-called “Islamic State” in the east. Stitching that disaster area back together again with an inclusive government would be delightful, but getting from here to there seems awfully fantastical at this point.
At least the president understands that getting from here to there is impossible with an Iranian-backed regime in the saddle. Why he thinks it will be any easier in Iraq is a mystery.
Michael J. Totten MICHAEL J. TOTTEN is a contributing journalist for Economic Affairs who has reported from the Middle East, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of The Road to Fatima Gate, which won the Washington Institute Silver Book Prize in 2011, In the Wake of the Surge, Where The West Ends, and Taken, a novel. He lives in Oregon and is a former resident of Beirut. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.