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The US May Need to Solve a Paradox to Defeat the Islamic State

To win the war, the US may also have to defeat Iranian proxies. But doing that may involve partnering with tribes who partner with… the Islamic State.
Photo via VICE News

Over the weekend, a report by AFP suggested that "moderate" Syrian rebel forces had inked a non-aggression deal with the Islamic State to quit pounding on each other and join forces against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Huffington Post gave the deal a thorough breakdown, and dug into some of the implications of the supposed non-aggression pact before finally noting in an update that the initial reports of the alliance may have been overblown.


The Huffington Post article hits on a point with which American planners may not yet have fully engaged: The spreading war in the Middle East will remain a three-sided fight for the foreseeable future, and there might not be anything the US can do about it.

Much of the hesitation about arming the so-called "Good Syrians" comes from the fact that the weapons might end up in the hands of the Islamic State. There is also fear that some Syrians might be feigning support for the US just to funnel arms directly to the Islamic State. As a result, the US has spent significant time vetting, conducting intelligence checks, and securing assurances that the folks we're planning to train and arm will be with — not against — the US in the fight against the Islamic State.

US tips and tricks 4 Syrian rebels (only good kind need apply). Read more here.

The three main sides in this fight are the Shia (primarily Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah), Sunni (the Saudis, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, etc.), and Sunni extremists (the Islamic State). The US is interested in defeating the Islamic State and backing the Sunnis. The Shia, led by Iran, are mostly aligned in opposition to the US and the Sunnis. Meanwhile, the Sunni extremists — whose ranks include al Qaeda — have pissed off virtually everyone, including each other.

Sunni tribes are the wildcard in all this, as they don't always land squarely on one side or another — and Syria and Iraq are both full of them. The tribes are the heavily armed independents and swing voters of the Fertile Crescent. They may not be able to put together much of a cause to support, exactly, but they sure as heck know what they don't like — and that is the Shia. Thing is, defeating the Islamic State won't be enough for the tribes if they are then abandoned by the West and left at the mercy of Iran and its proxies (the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militias).


As far as most of the combatants are concerned, the conflict in the Middle East isn't a fight for or against the Islamic State. It's a regional war in which the Islamic State is one faction.

And so any sellable approach by the US must go beyond convincing the various Sunni tribes that the Islamic State will be defeated. In Iraq, it could require assurances of a unified government in Baghdad that represents the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds. In Syria, however, there is little chance of a widely acceptable government, so overthrowing the Assad regime is still a priority for Syrian Sunnis.

And there's the rub(s). Right now, the best way for Syrian Sunnis to oust the government in Damascus is to partner with the Islamic State. And for the West to make long and lasting partners out of the various "Good Syrians" means committing to running Assad out of town — but the US is not necessarily interested in defeating the Iranian-backed government in Syria, mostly because it would smash apart the Arab coalition that is currently being assembled in Paris to defeat the Islamic State.

Anti-Islamic State coalition to provide military assistance to Iraq. Read more here.

Ultimately, this is still a hypothetical problem. It turns out that the much-discussed ceasefire was temporary, and existed only for both sides to collect their dead. It didn't even last the announced 24 hours, and supposedly didn't involve any of the groups that the US vetted as "Good Syrians."


Circling back to the initial reports of the truce, however, reveals an important insight. Most of the US debate about arming Syrian rebels is fairly rigid. The rhetoric in Washington is about "degrading and defeating" the Islamic State. Anything beyond that is mission creep or neoconservative warmongering, which triggers "quagmire" warnings from the political-media complex. As far as the US is concerned, the battle to defeat the Islamic State boils down to one point: "You're either with us or against us."

But as far as most of the major combatants are concerned, the conflict in the Middle East isn't merely a fight for or against the Islamic State. It's a broader regional war in which the Islamic State is one faction. Defeating the Islamic State may require defeating the Iranian proxies in Syria and elsewhere. And that might require cooperation with the Islamic State.

Alternatively, it could mean convincing the West to cooperate with Iran and its allies to defeat the Islamic State, which would put the Western coalition at odds with the rest of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni forces.

Theoretically, perhaps the only way to untangle this ugly knot of a problem is for the US and the West to attempt to defeat both the Islamic State and the Iranian proxies. And if that sounds familiar, it's because it is. Taking on Iranian-backed Shia militias on one side and al Qaeda on the other, while pleading valiantly — and perhaps in vain — for support from moderate Sunnis is the battle the US spent most of the last decade fighting in Iraq.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan