In his article that documented his interviews with US President Barack Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg mentions testimonies from Obama’s aides that state he likened ISIS to the Joker in the film Batman. There is a scene in the film where a gang of men are angry at the evil joker who threatens to burn the city, and so they decide to kill him.
Does the president mean that the belligerents in Syria are the gang of men or has the whole world realised the danger that ISIS poses to them all; the Americans, Russians, Iranians and those in the Gulf? The approach is correct in general, ISIS is the Joker that aims only to destroy and has no other intentions.
What Obama’s outlook lacks, and what is not included in the film, is that ISIS was born in Iraq during the days of the American occupation. It was led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the first leader of the organisation. Most of his men went to Iraq during the occupation via Syria- the country led by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and an ally of Iran. In Iraq, they killed more than 4,000 Americans in the name of Iraqi “resistance” and Al-Qaeda. In the end, the Americans withdrew during Obama’s presidency and did not leave any arrangements for governance.
We can argue about the origin of ISIS at length. However, the organisation is nothing but a natural product of the chaos and proxy wars that have engulfed the region. Obama made a mistake at the beginning when he considered ISIS to be a problem specific to the people of the region and a struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. After ISIS beheaded westerners and its dangers extended beyond the borders of the region, Obama discovered that the organisation is a problem that threatens the world and will continue to do so even after Obama leaves the White House at the end of the year. The world, whether led by Russia, the United States or Europe cannot fight the organisation without paying attention to the need to control the chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. A huge task like this cannot be successfully undertaken by a single country, no matter how great it is. Success requires the cooperation of countries in the region and the world.
It is impossible to secure stability in the four countries without acknowledging that the main source of tension is Iran, a country whose sanctions have been lifted from it and whose main activities until now have been igniting fire in the region. The Middle East has lived and depended on the balance within regional and international arrangements, whether that be during the Cold War or after it. When Obama told The Atlantic Magazine that Saudis need to learn to share the region with Iran, he did not explain what he meant by sharing.
It is not a bad idea if sharing means an understanding on cooperation. Saudi Arabia and its allies, namely the five GCC countries along with Jordan, Egypt and Morocco are countries that do not have a military or expansionist approach. As for Iran, it has continued to export chaos and encourage armed groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. There are presently 16 militias in Iraq that resemble these groups and that are loyal to the regime in Tehran. The country that must end violence is Iran. The United States can encourage Iran to engage in healthy regional competition, through trade, economic investment and political cooperation.
This is the concept of regional participation and sharing that can be achieved. However, if Obama means the division of the map of influence in the region into an Iranian camp and a Saudi camp, then this is a recipe for long and serious internal strife, and Syria is nothing but the first scene of this terrifying play. Speaking of Libya, the president admitted how disappointed he was with his European allies when Muammar Gaddafi’s regime fell and commented that they are not qualified to lead any war. Whatever view he holds on them, Libya should not be a place where the Americans want to prove the failure of the Europeans. Libya was as much of a problem for the United States during Gaddafi’s rule as it was for Europe.
Washington made a mistake when it turned its back on Libya after it later became clear that the country was not just a port through which thousands of illegal immigrants sailed to southern Italy and the rest of Europe, but that it had become a welcoming breeding ground for terrorist organisations. The Libyan crisis has properties that are similar to what is happening in Syria, except that is easier to impose a new political system in Libya due to the lack of a regime like Assad’s, in addition to the fact that there isn’t a major international conflict there yet.
Finally, Obama’s expression of disgust at the Middle East is not political. The Russians who have dreamt since the time of the Tsars of gaining access to warm water have begun to swim in it. All senior leaders in the region have been forced to go to the Kremlin during the past two years because of the deliberate absence of the Americans. These leaders have built multiple relations with Moscow; a matter that did not occur to anyone and that has not happened before.