A Fresh Look at U.S. National Interests in the Middle East

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The sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) should force the United States (U.S.), Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria - and probably most Middle Eastern nations - to begin a dramatic reassessment of where their national interests reside. Or to put it simply, is the enemy of my enemy, now my friend? Until now, the concern of many U.S. political pundits and leaders has focused on the same old shibboleths: President Barak Obama should arm the resistance trying to overthrow the cruel regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran and Hezbollah are the implacable enemies of the U.S. and Israel, more so than an al-Qaeda. But now reconsideration of such conventional wisdoms cries out for discussion.

The U.S. should determine what represents the greatest threat to its and other nations' interests in the Middle East. The dramatic advance of ISIS in northern and central Iraq throws the conventional wisdom about our interests out the window, requiring a rethinking of who are our allies and who are real enemies. It should be obvious now that the advance of radical Sunni forces in Iraq with the apparent ability to create their "Caliphate" in Iraq and in parts of Syria poses an imminent threat to the U.S., moderate Sunni governments and every Shiite government or force in the region. Moreover, the rise of ISIS also poses a challenge to Israel, as well as to the Palestinians, to rethink their interests, including the potential dangers that following their current policies could create. A look at the new configuration of interests for each country or force may cause some geopolitical talking heads to have severe headaches.

The U.S. now confronts a geopolitical challenge to consider reconfiguring who are its friends and who are its enemies. An answer to this question starts with an honest assessment about who wants to hurt us the most and who does not like us, but who have no interest or ability to attack the Homeland. Obviously, al-Qaeda represent the most serious and immediate threat. While some Shiite groups have a deep antagonism to the U.S., the re is no evidence they are prepared to attack the U.S. homeland. Sunni groups seem more likely to focus much energy on the far enemy - that is, the U.S. - while struggling to create what some may consider this fantasy theocracy, the Caliphate. While groups like ISIS will now confront the fantasy-shattering reality of attempting to govern the slices of Iraq and Syria that they control, the threat they present to the U.S. both in the short and long term emerges as deeply problematic. So how should the U.S. reconfigure its foreign policy positions in light of this new world order?

Looking at the situation from an unusual position for a leftist, maybe "realpolitik" suddenly assumes both the most realistic response and lesser of the proverbial one, two or three of lesser evils. The U.S and Israel, now find that they have a de facto set of interests with governments and forces that oppose the Sunni forces comprising al-Qaeda. The U.S.finds that its interests are now aligned closely with the government in Iran, the much derided government in Syria and the militias battling Sunni fighters in Syria. Of course, there are also the ne'er-do-well moderates in Syria, but they seem like bit players in this drama. So, can the U.S. escape this glaring reality requiring a rethinking of its national interest? In the short term, probably not, but if ISIS consolidates its power base in the areas its blitzkrieg has occupied, more of the thinking class may start to ask questions.

If ISIS consolidates its power, then the U.S. will inevitably be drawn toward an alliance with ISIS' enemies. Among the now defunct "axis of evil" are likely Iran, Bashar al-Assad's Syria, Iran's ally Hezbollah and whatever is left of southern Iraq. The now effectively independent Kurdistan in Iraq also opposes ISIS, as does Jordan. Whether these forces can manage such a reorientation of interests, or to what degree they can, remains an open question because of ideological and political dogma on all sides about who are the U.S.' friends and enemies, and who are Israel's friends and enemies. The extent of this reorientation will depend in part on how well ISIS can consolidate its position in Iraq. Because many Sunnis who welcome them now may soon be fighting them if ISIS attempts to impose a rigid version of Islam, ISIS's threat may not be as strong as the current news cycle projects. But ISIS will most likely be a growing threat. We are now entering a topsy-turvy world.

For the U.S, ISIS represents the more serious threat to its national security - much more so than Assad's Syria or Iran or Hezbollah. The recent news story about Assad's air force bombing ISIS positions in Iraq makes this point. The U.S. is considering using air power, but Assad is already doing what some U.S. War Hawks are advocating.

Should the U.S. encourage Syrian strikes? Should we provide intelligence to Assad to assist these strikes?

Right now these are just theoretical questions, but events may force answers very soon. While some neo-conservatives will argue for military aid to the anti-Assad "moderates," this group appears militarily and politically weak. Besides a recent article in The Atlantic magazine reports that military supplies for supposedly friendly groups can easily find their way to unfriendly hands. Moreover, even if the aid stays in friendly hands, it forces Assad to divert resources from fighting ISIS.

Presumably, ISIS also has its sights on Syria. Imagine the implications of an ISIS-like group controlling Syria, both for the U.S and Israel. The U.S. will also have to draw closer to Iran because ISIS's enemies are both the U.S.and Shiites. This will push both countries to reach some agreement on Iran's nuclear program and to find other areas of cooperation, whether acknowledged or not. Suddenly, the forces backing Syria's Assad, especially Hezbollah, could be viewed in a different light, perhaps not as friends, but certainly not as mortal enemies.

The implications of ISIS's rise also has earth-shaking implications for Israel, forcing leaders there, not blinded by dogmatic projections of enemies, to reconsider Israel's interests in light of this new geopolitical reality. Certainly, Israel does not want an ISIS-like group controlling Syria. While Syria has always maintained rhetorical attacks on Israel, in practice, it has acted very carefully, even declining retaliation when Israel periodically bombs Syrian territory. An ISIS-like regime would most likely assume a more militarily aggressive posture towards Israel. If the Assad regime represents Israel's interests better, then groups supporting Assad, such as Hezbollah, could be viewed as lesser enemies than before.

But the most dangerous implication for Israel of ISIS's rise rests with the right-wing Israeli government's unwillingness to make the concessions allowing the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The most obvious truth-test for current Israeli "good" intentions is belied by the increasing planting of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, thus undermining any realistic chance for a political settlement with the Palestinians. So, what does the rise of ISIS mean for the Palestinians? Given the increasing Palestinian frustration with Israeli policies, the lure of groups like ISIS may increase. This would be good neither for Israelis nor for Palestinians. Israel always expresses concerns for secure borders, but secure borders means non-threatening states: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But what role would a Palestinian state play for Israel's security?

It is not in Israel's interest to have the largely Sunni Palestinian population radicalized by the success of ISIS. Most Palestinians want a stable national state not dominated by religious extremists. If nothing more, a viable moderate Palestinian state would represent a buffer between it and radical Sunni forces. Moderate Palestinians have as much interest in opposing ISIS as does Israel. The rise of Hamas in Gaza until now has represented more the frustration of the political stalemate than the desire of many Palestinians to create an Islamist state under Sharia law. But if no realistic opportunity to create a real national state emerges, then the attraction of more extreme views increases. If Palestinians see groups like ISIS as successful in obtaining their political goals, then the appeal of such groups will increase. But remember, at one time, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was viewed as the implacable enemy of Israel. But when at least the appearance of actually creating a Palestinian state was dangled before the PLO in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, it moderated its stance. The same can be expected of Hamas, but not if Palestinian political frustration continues unresolved.

The choice facing Israel now seems stark: either make the concessions necessary to allow Palestinian leaders to negotiate a viable national state or face the increasing possibility of ISIS-like groups emerging among Palestinians, making the current manifestation of Hamas look like moderates. Any further radicalization of the Palestinian political process remains neither in the interests of Israel nor of the Palestinians. But the initiative for any political settlement must first come from Israeli concessions involving limiting and then withdrawing at least some settlements from the West Bank and allowing Palestinians to exercise the full rights of any independent state. Whether the mortmain politics of right-wing Israeli politicians can be loosened from doctrinal rigidity to reach such a political accommodation remains difficult to believe, but facts on the ground can sometimes rouse even common sense. If this could happen, then Palestinians, who are among the most secular of Arabs, can become a bulwark against extremism. Whether Israeli politicians can now understand that a stable moderate Palestinian state represents their true national interest remains to be seen. But hope springs eternal.

Conclusion: This article has attempted to outline some of the questions that the rise of ISIS seems to compel U.S. and Israelis - and other interests also - to address. Because so many things in the Middle East remain in flux, some of these geopolitical explorations may be premature. But the logic of the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend makes these explorations necessary and important.

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