ISIL solution lies within Iraq, not with embracing Assad

The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend, writes Alan Philips.

Devastation in Homs shows that Al Assad can never be a partner against ISIL. Photo: Omar Sanadiki / Reuters
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When the United States feels it is losing control of the Middle East, commentators often reach for an old phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This dictum is popularly seen as being of Arabic origin, describing a particularly cynical brand of Middle Eastern factionalism which is impervious to the supposedly benevolent counsel of outsiders. We have it on the authority of Mr Spock, the fictional wiseacre of Star Trek, that it is an “Arab proverb”.

No one has found a source in Arabic for this expression. It actually was popular in Latin in European publications in the 18th century and later commonly used in English. It had its defining incarnation in the Second World War when the western powers allied with their enemy, Joseph Stalin, to fight ­Hitler. So you could say it was a “European proverb” defining the particular slipperiness of the western powers. But I doubt it would have entered Mr Spock’s lexicon in that form.

The latest person to roll out the phrase is the US deputy national security adviser, Benjamin ­Rhodes, who is trying to stop a Washington bandwagon in favour of the United States allying itself, in practice if not overtly, with President Bashar Al Assad of Syria. A year ago, the head of the Syrian regime was labelled by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, a “thug and a murderer”.

But voices are being raised in Washington to redefine the Syrian president not as brutal dictator oppressing his people, but as the only hope of crushing the jihadist menace of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which has declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. As Washington was said to be considering a broad coalition of allies to support US military action in Syria against ISIL, Mr Rhodes declared: “It is not the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

The bandwagon was launched by the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, who declared that the threat from ISIL was “beyond anything we have seen”. If the jihadists are more of a threat than the Assad regime, then logic suggests redefining some old enemies as allies. The case for embracing Mr Assad as Churchill and Roosevelt did with Stalin was put most forcefully by Richard Haass, a former diplomat and now president of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

Mr Haass argued in the Financial Times that there was no prospect of stability in Iraq without crushing ISIL in its strongholds in Syria. He ran through three options to defeat ISIL: an assault by US and European ground forces; an Arab expeditionary force to move into Syria; and the creation of a strong internal Syrian opposition. With the first two problematical or downright impossible and the third having failed already, Mr Haass said the best option for the Americans and Europeans was to “live with, and even work with, a regime they have for years sought to remove” so that it could take the lead in defeating ISIL.

The question now is whether President Barack Obama will take this advice. To all appearances this is unlikely. His abiding principle has been de-intervention – removing troops from Iraq and now ­Afghanistan. He could surprise the world by doing a u-turn at a time when the end of his presidency is in sight and Washington is already thinking about his successor, but it looks unlikely.

He will have to look at the problem in a global context. With Russia’s Vladimir Putin apparently stepping up his military intervention in Ukraine and China testing America’s support for its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, he has multiple flashpoints to worry about. Could the Haass proposal lead to a grand bargain with Russia and Iran, resolving the Ukraine crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue at the same time? This is a pipe dream, unfortunately.

Mr Obama will look at the polls, which have shown that Americans are even more reluctant now to engage in foreign interventions than they were after the Vietnam War debacle. At the same time, Americans see him as a weak leader. So Mr Obama gets the blame for the Americans’ own lack of global ambition.

These polling figures put Mr Obama at odds with the Washington foreign policy establishment. For reasons of career and mindset, the foreign policy lobby always wants America to do more with its powerful range of global assets. By drawing in his horns, Mr Obama has not made friends among the foreign policy elite, with one commentator referring to his “manhood problem” when facing Mr Putin.

He is usually cast as an indecisive Hamlet who is half-hearted even when forced to take a decision. This is almost certainly a result of his intellectual background. Study of the past decade of US foreign policy has taught him that changing the ways of the world is always harder than it looks.

Calmer heads in Washington will no doubt suggest a step-by-step process starting with Iraq. Nouri Al Maliki, whose sectarian policies have led to the near break-up of Iraq, has been forced out as prime minister. Prime Minister-designate Haider Al Abadi might be able to convince a significant portion of the disaffected Sunnis to transfer their allegiance to Baghdad, if they are promised a fair share of the country’s oil wealth and jobs. This would severely weaken ISIL in the same way that the Iraqi tribal Awakening destroyed ISIL’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and perhaps open the way to weaken it in Syria.

This plan is far from assured of success because the sectarian disintegration of Iraq has gone a long way in recent months. Coincidentally, it relies on that old European proverb, “‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. If the Sunnis of Iraq could be persuaded that the Baghdad government was no longer their enemy, then they would not be friends with ISIL. It is a more likely scenario than an overt embrace of Bashar Al Assad.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps