As a long war waxes in West Asia, there is no simple chart with defined alliances and axes that can act as a roadmap for a twisting path, with detours, U-turns, and bottlenecks.
In Yemen, the crisis of the week, the Saudis and the Americans are ranged against the Iran-backed Houthis. In Iraq, the Saudis and the Iranians, and even the US, have a tacit pact and a common foe in ISIS. In Syria, the Saudis want to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime, which is supported by Teheran. Add Libya, Egypt, Turkey, UAE, Qatar, the Kurds and the evergreen Israel-Palestine issue, and you have a region of transcendent turmoil.
For the US, trying to connect those dots has become an exercise in the sort of circular logic that makes the head spin. It’s a tale of one thousand and one nightmares, and counting. If there isn’t an Arabic equivalent for the term Snafu, there ought to be by now.
The theatre may have become more absurd with Pakistan entering the Arabian maze, but the main feature still remains ISIS, which has seemingly achieved the impossible by uniting the disparate players of the region on a common platform.
The United Nations described the state of Yemen as one of “total collapse”, a phrase that equally fits the Obama administration’s West Asia policy. Just as in January 2014, the American president was dismissing ISIS as a junior varsity version of al-Qaeda, by the fall, he was holding up Yemen as a “model” for successful counterterrorism by the US in the region.
Just over six years of grandiloquent strategising from the White House has given us a world where people actually know who a Yazidi is, instead of confusing the community with an old motorcycle. ISIS’s black flag, meanwhile, is the new standard for global jihadis, as even the Pakistan Taliban seems to be prepared to pivot, to use a favoured Obama word, towards it.
The fallout will not remain restricted to the tracts of the region now being bombed. With two national elections nearing in North America, the effects are already apparent.
In the US, as Hillary Clinton gets ready to announce her candidacy for the 2016 American presidential election, her biggest challenge isn’t likely to come from the ranks of her opponents, but from the distant desert. Clinton may have used several devices for email that was scrubbed off her servers, but she may not have any devices to scrub her record as secretary of state prior to the evolution of the current turmoil in West Asia.
So far, it has been bread-and-butter politics, but this will be jam for Republican challengers and the anticipated Democratic nominee could end up being toast.
Her hope will be that over the next 20 months ISIS fades away like a mirage in the Sahara. But that itself could prove a fantasy as the group is no longer an ordinary terrorist organisation, but as Foreign Policy magazine puts it, rather a “pseudo-state with a conventional army”. Her fable about “dodging sniper fire in Bosnia” may have helped upset the 2008 Clinton applecart, but she’ll have far deadlier ammunition to duck in 2016.
Parliamentary elections are also due in Canada this October. The ruling Conservatives were flailing and trailing the Opposition Liberals until ISIS-inspired terrorist incidents occurred on Canadian soil, including an attack in Ottawa last October. After joining air operations in the Iraq/Syria region, it isn’t just balaclava-clad brutes being shelled into submission, the Tories have also gained an edge in opinion polls over the Liberals.
ISIS isn’t shy of using multimedia to multiply its message of mayhem – from carefully crafted beheadings, to burning prisoners alive, mass executions, taking sex slaves as chattel for the Caliphate, pickaxing patrimony to pieces, throwing gays to their deaths, stoning couples for fornication – each newsflash points to an uptick in the Right’s direction.
In doing its damage, ISIS is also unwittingly playing another role, that of campaign managers for conservatives in the West.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal