U.S. President Barak Obama has set a difficult goal in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). “Our coalition isn’t just going to degrade this barbarous terrorist organization,” he said in mid-December, “we’re going to destroy it.” He reiterated this goal after ISIS’ killing of the Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh. But to achieve that goal, he will need to bring Iran on board, especially in the Syrian peace talks.
The ISIS crisis is so complex because it links ideological and geopolitical conflicts across the region. The terrorist group, a non-state actor seeking to create an Islamic caliphate, is anti-nationalist, anti-state, and, indeed, against any known political borders whatsoever. It capitalizes on tensions in Iraq and Syria between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds and, more broadly, between Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. This strategy has allowed ISIS to stay alive. And the U.S.-led coalition against the group will only add to the differences, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the region’s two main players. As a matter of reality in the region, then, the preservation of international security—the goal of the coalition against ISIS—cannot come at the expense of any state’s security and interests.
Indisputably, the international coalition against ISIS has been able to weaken the terrorist group. Yet, as the coalition’s focus shifts from military tactics to a political solution, the United States’ role at the head of the table will stand in the way of progress. Understanding as much, each regional actor has developed its own specific strategy for containing the ISIS threat. Iran is suspicious of the coalition’s air operations, which include some Arab rival states operating over Iraqi territory and beyond. Turkey is worried that the conflict could diminish Turkey’s regional political and economic role and empower Kurds at Turkey’s expense. Saudi Arabia mainly aims to restrain ISIS, which presents an ideological challenge to the government, and to weaken the Bashar al-Assad
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