|ISIS fighters (about to execute some poor schmuck in a jacket and a tie) are bad news in so many ways. They are so bad, in fact, that they remind me of another group in recent popular culture. Could it be...|
ISIS (short for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) fighters are a lot like the Orcs in the recent JRR Tolkien movies.
You know ISIS, right? They've been fighting to topple the Syrian government for the past few years, but it seemed like they came rampaging out of a nightmare about the Dark Ages sometime this past winter.
Muslim extremists, they were affiliated with Al-Qaeda until this spring, when Al-Qaeda decided they were too extreme and cut off ties with them.
You know you're an extremist when Al-Qaeda thinks you're too extreme.
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ISIS are a formidable fighting force. In rapid succession this spring and summer, they seized huge chunks of eastern Syria and western Iraq, seized the border crossings between the two areas, and declared the whole damn thing a country, the Islamic State.
ISIS are hideous in every possible way. They have no respect for human life, they carry out summary executions of captured enemies by the thousands, they torture and kill children, they rape the women they come across and sell them into sexual slavery (for about $100 a pop, apparently). As we've all seen, they behead journalists.
They even crucify people. Haven't seen that one in a while, have we? I kind of thought crucifixions went out of style before the Dark Ages.
By all accounts, they revel in this wanton slaughter. They enjoy it.
But they're not unstoppable. We've seen that as well. In the past few weeks, the United States has carried out air strikes against them in western Iraq using mostly F-18 fighter planes, as well as B-2 bombers and drones.
These air strikes sent the ISIS fighters into disarray very quickly, which I guess is no big surprise. The ear-splitting shriek of jet airplanes going 1,200 miles per hour, about to drop 500 pound bombs on your head, will demoralize pretty much anybody. By the time you hear the planes, you've got about five seconds to live.
If you survive, when you crawl out of your hole, the mangled, incinerated corpses of your former roll dawgs will get you thinking about how nice it would be to return to London or Riyadh, or just about anywhere.
And we bombed them with impunity. We didn't lose a single plane or drone, while obliterating numerous ISIS outposts and convoys, and killing hundreds of their fighters.
They had to surrender the Mosul Dam to Kurdish and Iraqi Shiite fighters, and they had to cancel their plans to commit genocide against the Yazidi people.
So why not keep going? ISIS, as we mentioned, are a lot like Orcs. No one minds killing Orcs. They're scum. They're vermin. Why not wipe them out? Indeed, there's no reason to let even one of them remain alive.
It's always complicated when we get into the twisted, secretive world of American foreign policy. Ever notice that? Things are never quite what they seem.
This is doubly so when we're talking about the oil-rich battleground of the Middle East.
I know, I know. We're not supposed to say that. It's absurd to think that our involvement in the Middle East has anything to do with oil. Why would we care about the most precious commodity the human race has thus far discovered, and the very underpinning of modern civilization?
Right. It's silly. We like to get mixed up in ancient, savage feuds in faraway lands because... well, because we're nosy.
But we were talking about ISIS. So why don't we just destroy them, chase them to the Gates of Hell (as Joe Biden says), and kill every last stinking one of them? It's nothing more than they deserve, and something we could accomplish with relative ease.
Yes, the terrain they operate in makes it easy for us to kill them. The lands they hold are mostly wide open desert. We control the skies above that desert. There is nowhere for them to hide. The cities they hold have emptied out - the former residents are now mostly refugees living in other places.
And anyway, when did killing a few civilians ever bother us before? We could carpet bomb ISIS and make their beloved Islamic State into a large parking lot, possibly for some future water park or concert venue.
So what's complicated about it?
The Enemy of My Enemy
ISIS has powerful enemies, who also happen to be our enemies. And oddly enough, their friends happen to be our friends.
ISIS are Sunni Muslims. Being extremists, they believe their first task is to purify their own religion. This means eradicating Shiite Muslims, primarily. Shiite Muslims are more than mere heretics to ISIS - they have corrupted Islam and are an affront in the eyes of Allah.
Who are the Shiites? Well, the major Shiite country in the world is Iran. Since the American invasion, Iraq has also been dominated by Shiite tribes with close ties to Iran. Syria, until the recent apocalyptic civil war, was controlled by the Assad family, who are members of the Shiite Alawite sect. And how about the Lebanese "terrorist organization" Hezbollah? Hezbollah are also Shiites.
These Shiite groups are allies with a couple other groups you may have heard of. One is Hamas, the Palestinian militia so often decimated by Israel. Although the Palestinians are Sunnis, they get the bulk of their funding and weaponry from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.
The other group, which is more of a country, and in fact a world superpower, is Russia. Mother Russia is allies with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and to a much smaller extent, Hamas.
ISIS is sworn to destroy all of these. Indeed, ISIS threatened Vladimir Putin himself the other day. Which made Putin smile. Or gave him gas. It was hard to tell.
|"Did somebody step on a duck?"|
It's quite a coincidence, isn't it? It just so happens that ISIS has all these enemies, and they're our enemies, too.
So who are ISIS's friends?
Also names you might have heard of. In the early days of ISIS, they got most of their start-up funding from wealthy individuals living in the oil-rich Sunni Muslim countries of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, with the tacit approval (and probably the outright cooperation) of the governments of those countries.
Remember our great ally Saudi Arabia? The largest oil-producing country in the world? Homeland of Osama bin Laden and the alleged 9/11 attackers?
The majority of the foreign fighters in ISIS are Saudi Arabians. Hmmm. Wouldn't want to annoy the wealthy Saudis by wiping out their little cat's paw, would we? I mean, the Saudis have all the...
Yeah. I know. We're not supposed to talk about that.
|"Yeah. Let's have some meats."|
And It Gets Even More Complicated
This being the Middle East, it wouldn't be enough if this whole ISIS thing was a simple proxy war between us and Russia, would it?
Nope. Naturally, there are a few added twists.
One is Turkey. Turkey has been allowing ISIS convoys to pass through their territory. They've been buying oil from the Syrian and Iraqi oil fields that ISIS has seized, and selling it on the world markets.
And they wink at all the raw ISIS recruits pouring in from places like Europe and the US and Canada and Australia.
If you're a disaffected Muslim kid in England, and you decide you want to join ISIS and get in on all the beheadings and rapes and mass executions, what do you do?
First, you get in touch with them through the internet. Then you go to Turkey and hang out for a few days until your contact picks you up. Then you cross the border into Syria.
Of course, the Turkish secret police take note of your presence (you stick out like a big pulsating sore thumb), but they don't arrest you or send you home. They let you pass through, even though they know you intend to commit atrocities against civilians.
What gives with Turkey? We know they have the sexy Turkish baths. And we remember that old movie where the American kid ends up in a nightmarish Turkish prison.
But that's all we know.
Well, Turkey is a modern, largely secular country that likes to dabble in Islamic religiosity from time to time. They are an ally of ours. Sort of. Eh.
They like us, but they don't like our friend Israel. They like to send food and supplies to the besieged Palestinians. They also like to send weapons to Hamas. But as much as they don't like Israel, who they really don't like are the Kurds.
We think of the Kurds as our friendly ally in Iraq. Those independent-minded Kurds, with their battle-hardened fighting force, the Peshmerga.
But the Kurds are actually a despised minority, that live in a region they call Kurdistan. Kurdistan doesn't exist on any map of the world. Unfortunately for the Kurds, Kurdistan is largely imaginary.
The Kurds don't have their own country. The place they think of as Kurdistan is made up of small parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Until the collapse of Iraq and Syria, there was zero chance of there ever being a real Kurdistan.
But now Iraq barely exists. Syria is totally demolished. And the Kurds see their chance.
No way is Turkey going to allow that to happen. They'd rather let the Orcs have a country than the Kurds. So they've quietly thrown their lot in with ISIS.
Whose Side Are We Really On?
As always, we are on our own side.
Did you notice when we started bombing ISIS? We only started bombing them when it looked like they were about to overrun our friends the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi Shiites. We bombed them because they overstepped, not because we think they're evil.
We were careful to make it clear that our objectives were limited. Namely, to put them in check and keep them from overrunning the Kurds and Shiites. Also, since we were in the neighborhood, to save the Yazidis, which was admittedly a nice gesture on our part.
In Iraq, we like the Shiites. Of course, the Iraqi Shiites have close ties to the Iranian Shiites. The tribal and kinship ties are so strong, in fact, that the two groups don't see any difference between themselves.
But we don't like the Iranian Shiites. And we are very reluctant to partner with Iran to fight ISIS. In fact, we like the fact that Iran has to face off against ISIS, and waste blood and treasure fighting them.
In Iraq, we also like the Kurds. But we don't like Turkish Kurds. This is true even though Turkish Kurds and Iraqi Kurds (and Syrian and Iranian Kurds for that matter) see themselves as one people.
The Turkish Kurds have a fighting force called the PPK, which is on the ground, fighting side by side with the Peshmerga against ISIS. In the United States (and Turkey), the PPK is officially a terrorist organization.
So while we like the Kurds having a semi-autonomous region in Iraq, we have no plans to allow them to establish a country that includes part of Turkey. If they try to do that, they will find themselves in a very unpleasant place.
This is a place that Saddam Hussein, Mohammar Qaddafi, and Osama bin Laden all found themselves. Which is to say the place reserved for former friends of the USA. Which is to say dead.
Meanwhile, although we did bomb ISIS in Iraq, we haven't touched them in Syria. In Syria, they're fighting against the Assad regime, who we don't like.
In fact, we encouraged the protest movement that originally destabilized the Assad government, and until very recently, we were helping fund and arm the rebel groups in Syria. We may still be, but we don't talk much about it anymore because ISIS is one of the rebel groups in Syria.
It wouldn't make a lot of sense if we were simultaneously helping and bombing ISIS, now would it?
Uh, would it?
For their part, it's clear that ISIS doesn't want to think of us as their enemy. They only started beheading American journalists after we started bombing them. The message in the beheading videos isn't, "We're coming to get you."
The message is "Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone."
Our intention is probably to do exactly that. They can have western Iraq. They can have eastern Syria. If they can keep Assad on his back foot, and serve as a check to Iranian power in the region, so much the better.
They can keep their weird little Islamic State pseudo-country, and commit whatever medieval atrocities they like within it. As long as they continue to serve our purposes.
The painful truth is, if you're like me and want to see ISIS exterminated, we'll both probably have to hope that the Russians do it.
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