President Barack Obama has no intention of destroying the Islamic State. The air strikes are largely pin pricks, and the mobilizing of some 400 advisers to Iraq is window dressing.
The Islamic State exists as a political structure whose function outweighs the political and military costs of defeating it, not just for America but also for the Sunni sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. Consider that to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, America flew 800 sorties a day, but America flies only seven sorties per day against ISIS.
ISIS provides a direct check on the hegemonic interests of Iran to extend its reach from its eastern border into the Levant. A nuclear-capable Iran that stands to receive tens of billions of funds is a threat to the Sunni interests in the region.
Sunni regional concerns were heightened in March 2010, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was given the opportunity to form a government even though his party had not won the election. With backing from Iran, Maliki set about to consolidate his power and push out the Sunnis with whom he was supposed to share governance.
The Shiites have a long memory of their oppression under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni oligarchy, and in the Middle East retribution is inevitable.
Maliki not only pushed the Sunnis from power, he also sought support among most of the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias. His inspiration was Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad, whose brutal attacks against Syria’s Sunni majority were largely ignored by the international community.
The Islamic State burst on the world stage as part of the Sunni opposition to al-Assad’s Alawite sect, a Shiite subgroup.
The notion that the Islamic State did not exist three years ago and is the direct consequence of American policy ignores that the Islamic State started in 1999. It began with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian national, who formed an Islamist group for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Jordan.
Zarqawi was also obsessed with the Shiites as heretics, and even told Osama bin Laden that his movement was not sufficiently concerned with taking on the Shiites. Al-Qaeda recognized Zarqawi who swore allegiance to bin Laden, but there were profound policy and tactical disagreements between them. Zarqawi’s fiefdom was known as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Two American bombs ended Zarqawi’s life in 2006, and the movement seemed to die with him. But the Sunni uprising against Syrian strongman Bashir al-Assad resuscitated it. Assad’s brutal war against the Sunnis that began with the “Damascus Spring” in 2011 gave al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia a new cause.
The Islamic State ultimately grew out of a merger of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and two other Sunni groups.
Al-Qaeda was concerned with the far enemy, the West, while the Islamic State was concerned with the near enemy, the Arab rulers who did not conform to strictures of Sharia and the Shiites.
The Islamic State preached an alluring imminent eschatology and a final Armageddon-like battle, with Allah sending Jesus to rescue the remnant of the faithful. It is this eschatology and ISIS’s image as Islam’s first warriors incarnate that appeal to young Muslims all over the world.
The function of the Islamic State is to balance the Shiite ascendancy. The Islamic State fights Shiite Iraq and Syria. The threat they pose is tolerated even by the Gulf sheikdoms as long as ISIS is focused on stopping Iranian hegemony.
The Islamic State is selling captured Iraqi oil at 25 dollars a barrel, less than half the world market price. The oil ends up in Turkey and even with the detested Iranian Shiites.
Islamists who leave the West to fight the near enemy in the Middle East are not going to attack targets in the West. Terrorism on Western soil conducted by so-called lone wolf jihadists is generally inspired by al-Qaeda, not ISIS. ISIS is a type of safety valve that draws potential terrorists from the West to the Middle East. Most of them will probably achieve the martyrdom they desire.
ISIS causes chaos. As long as there is chaos, there is a need for foreign intervention, American in Iraq and Russian in Syria. With chaos and bloodshed come arms sales and political and economic influence.
America no more created ISIS than did Russia, Internet conspiracy theories notwithstanding. Neither America nor anyone outside of Syria, Iraq, and the Kurdish forces is willing to pay the price in blood and treasure to defeat ISIS. If that were the case, an international force could defeat ISIS in a matter of months.
ISIS is a chain reaction. As long as it is controlled, its chaos is perceived to serve a multiplicity of purposes within and outside the region.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a senior fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought.