Recap from part 1: Ankara is unwilling to move against ISIS because (a) that would aid Kurdish Peshmerga linked to a PKK it sees as terrorist; (b) in a bid for regional supremacy Erdogan turned on the man he used to call brother. (Like others he assumed a speedy end to Assad.) Now there’s no turning back for Erdogan, hence his call for no-fly zones in Syria as the price for Turkey unleashing tanks on IS fighters across the border. Since the latter haven’t any planes, no-fly is code for no Assad.
But there are opposing forces at play too. Neither Iran nor Russia want Assad to go. (“It’s impermissible to use the slogans of anti-terrorist struggle for attempts to replace existing regimes,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow last week.) That limits Turkey’s ability to play off the big powers – for all their differences over Syria and much besides – while back at home Erdogan’s refusal to aid the Peshmerga exacerbates existing unrest over his divisive anti-secularism. It also bolsters hitherto marginalised militant factions within the PKK. “See! We always said you can’t negotiate with Ankara. We’ll have to bomb our way to Kurdistan …”
In short, Erdogan may have led Turkey up a blind alley it can only emerge from by ditching him. I was sniffy about it in my previous email but we can’t rule out the army stepping in.
Meanwhile IS goes from strength to strength.
The second big regional player is Shiite Iran, hurt by sanctions aimed at its nuclear program but infinitely less vulnerable to IS than Syria or Libya, both largely Sunni and both fatally weakened by civil war. Less vulnerable too than an Iraq crippled by years of sanctions against Saddam, by illegal invasion, by the bloodiest civil war of them all and by sectarian governance that not only raised Sunni receptivity to IS ideology but may also have sapped army morale.
(Only last week a BBC Radio 4 report put out as fact that Iraqi forces were routed by Islamic State because battle hardened B’aathist commanders had been replaced by Shiites with less military experience, who then lost their nerve and ran away. Iraqi forces are now doing better, the reporter assured us, due to reinstatement of the ousted commanders. In fact those reinstatements were made back in 2010 – I checked – which affirms a conclusion I drew a while ago: we won’t make sense of this purely by listening to the Beeb and reading the Grauniad.)
But though Iran (and her centrifuges) would be a proposition several magnitudes tougher for Islamic State, Teheran can hardly be watching with equanimity as events unfold in the back yard. The astonishing advances of IS not only jeopardise decades of investment in Assad and Hezbollah but pose a threat from the north-west she’d be unlikely to tolerate. Entry of Iranian forces into the conflict would raise the stakes immeasurably, not least because they’d have no interest in distinguishing IS from the Sunni fighters ranged against it.
And what of those bearing heaviest responsibility for the mayhem? Obama and Kerry, Cameron and Hammond have emphasised Peshmerga opposition to Islamic State to the point where you’d hardly know Hezbollah are fighting shoulder to shoulder with those whose overarching goal, as the world’s largest unrecognised nation, is a Kurdish state. The demise of Assad comes second.
For Israel, more fearful of Iran than she’ll ever be of Islamic State, it’s the other way round. (See here and here.) Her focus is on Hezbollah, not the Peshmerga. I’d say she sees the mess more clearly. While venality and contempt for the Arab Street, seasoned with crocodile tears, drive the agenda as much in Tel Aviv as in Washington or London, Israeli chutzpah is always calculated. The USA and Britain, by contrast, seem genuinely bewildered by the chaos their criminal acts enabled. Their ‘policies’ seem little more than knee jerk responses likely to open up future horrors
For me the amazing thing – far rarer in reality than in national mythologies – is that back in 2003 one man might have changed everything. Without Blair on board, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld would have found it immeasurably harder to pursue their project, partnered with Wall Street and Haliburton*, of regime change in Iraq.
Which is precisely where ISIS got started.
* Naomi Klein’s account, more Keynesian than anti-capitalist, in Shock Doctrine (Chapters 16-18) of what was done to post Saddam Iraq is second to none for its balance of glittering eloquence with copious and impeccable sourcing.