- - Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The Islamic State, Islamic quasi-state that has conquered parts of Iraq and Syria, has threatened America with terrorist attacks and drawn us back into an Iraq war. It has done a lot more than that.

For each of the major players in the Middle East, The Islamic State, or ISIS, has presented them with a wild card they can play to better their hand. For Iran, Russia, Syria and Turkey, the Islamic State has — so far — been the means of leveraging other nations in pursuit of larger goals. In Iraq, though no longer a major player, the Islamic State has maneuvered so successfully as to become an existential threat.

The only nation that hasn’t managed to take advantage of the Islamic State’s conquests has been the United States. Though President Obama has managed to form a coalition of sorts to assist in airstrikes, ground troops are obviously necessary to retake the ground the Islamic State has conquered, and no coalition member has offered any. The airstrikes haven’t prevented further ISIS advances near the Syrian-Turkish border and probably in other areas. Iraq is left to its attempt to re-recruit deserters who had previously fled the terrorist organization’s advance.

Less obvious, but of equal or greater importance, is Mr. Obama’s failure to use the leverage provided by the Islamic State-created mess to better America’s position in the Middle East as many other nations have done to improve theirs.

Turkey is probably the most pragmatic user of the Islamic State and — from the U.S. standpoint — the least trustworthy. Before the Islamic State openly took over about one-third of Iraq, Turkey had provided a mostly open border for terrorist fighters to pass through into Syria and Iraq. Turks have been opposing the Kurds for decades and seeking to overthrow Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria for almost as long. By allowing ISIS forces into both Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s interests were furthered. Now, as the Islamic State threatens Turkey as well, the Turks have reportedly reversed course to assist U.S. and European governments lessen the flow of terrorist recruits into the region.

Iran has probably made the best use of the leverage it has gained in the crisis. Iran’s principal national goal is to achieve nuclear weapons with which they can seek domination throughout the Middle East and beyond. After failing to draw Iran into lower level talks about the Iraq crisis, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the Obama administration was open to talks with Iran. His statement came hard on the heels of an angry and sarcastic statement by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejecting the idea.

Having made the United States appear irresolute on the Islamic State, Mr. Obama is reportedly seeking new ways to make concessions to Iran in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. That report says Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry are considering abandonment of the prior demand that Iran dismantle its uranium-enrichment centrifuges and substitute a requirement that certain piping necessary to their functioning would be disconnected.

Another possible concession is on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which says that Iran may not “undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” According to The Wall Street Journal says, State Department congressional testimony in July said that Resolution 1929 was about nuclear-armed missiles, not ballistic missiles. That testimony is definitely an intentional misreading of Resolution 1929, because Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to mass-produce ballistic missiles. The Obama administration clearly wants to give Iran an out.

Our negotiation position with Iran is weaker than it was before the Islamic State mess because Iran has taken advantage of it and the Obama team hasn’t. That’s not all.

Iran is a close ally of both Iraq and Syria. Iran’s Shiite government appreciates every American bomb dropped on the Islamic State in either country. Iran’s investment in Syria — which has been labeled a terrorist-supporting nation by the United States since 1979 — is considerable. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers fight alongside Mr. Assad’s troops against their common enemy. We are helping both with airstrikes against the Islamic State. In this case, as so often in the Middle East, our enemy’s enemy is still our enemy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be enjoying our dismay. Russia has been a strong supporter of Mr. Assad because, first, it disadvantages us. Second, Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base, a massive facility, is hosted by the Assad government in Tartus. Russia won’t give up that base, so maintaining Mr. Assad’s regime is a priority for Mr. Putin. He has invested money, arms and — possibly — military trainers and other forces in Syria. As our military intervention helps Iran indirectly, it helps Russia as well.

We have neither sought to gain, nor gained, ground against Iran, Syria, Turkey or Russia in the chess game that will determine the outcomes in Iraq, Syria, Iran or Russia. In the 19th century, the powers that sought domination in the Middle East and southwestern Asia maneuvered in what was called “The Great Game.” The Obama administration’s maneuvers don’t bring that to mind, but they do make us recall what Casey Stengel said to the 1962 Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Jed Babbin is a former deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and co-author of “The Sunni Vanguard” (London Center for Public Policy, 2014).

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