As some see it, what’s happening now in the Mideast provides the best excuse the Israelis have had in a long time to just sit back and let their worst enemies rub each other out. Senior Israeli officials now view Hamas, the terror group that lobbed thousands of rockets at Israel last summer, as a potential bulwark against supporters of the Islamic State (Daesh in Arabic) in the Gaza Strip. This was the gist of a June 19 opinion piece by Efraim Halevi, former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, in the popular daily Yediot Ahronot. Reports suggest that Israel is now even mulling a truce with Hamas, with one intended consequence being that the group would devote its energies to defeating Daesh.
True, it is likely that both of Israel’s foes could be badly bloodied. And that’s probably a positive. This was the Western calculus during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). As Henry Kissinger reportedly quipped, “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” But when the guns fell silent, neither country was defeated. And both emerged committed and able to destabilize the Middle East and threaten American interests.
The strategy was risky then and it’s risky now. Even so, it’s making a comeback. A growing gaggle of Western governments now appear to be altering their threat assessments of violent groups in an apparent effort to enlist them in the fight against the Islamic State.
Call it the Daesh Effect.
The Daesh Effect is discernible on Israel’s northern frontier, too. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Israel has declined to battle Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, which has been sitting on its border since last year, primarily because it has been fighting the Assad regime and the Islamic State. In fact, the Journal reports, “severely wounded [Nusra Front] fighters are regularly taken across the frontier fence to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals.” The suspicion that Israel was helping Nusra fighters get medical attention was what prompted Israel’s Druze community recently to attack an ambulance transporting a wounded fighter from the front.
But Israel is not alone. There is a growing American chorus asserting that the Nusra Front is worthy of Western support because it, too, is engaged in a battle with Daesh. Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Syria, goes so far as to propose that the suicide-bombing jihadist faction that was not too long ago labeled the “most extreme wing of Syria’s struggle” could be a useful ally, noting that it already works with U.S.-backed groups in Syria, even though it is a designated terror group in the United States.
The Brookings Institution’s Charles Lister claims that “pragmatism” can be detected in the group, which not long ago was a full partner of the Islamic State. The logic here is that the group now not only eschews Daesh, but also seeks “disengagement from Al Qaeda.” This line of thinking gained greater traction after the group’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, pledged last month that his faction would not strike the West. Jolani granted his interview to Al-Jazeera, a television network owned by Qatar, a patron of the group with limitless oil wealth, which is actively engaged in efforts to decouple the Nusra Front from the Al Qaeda network.
The Taliban, another militant Islamic group that enjoys support from Qatar, is taking a page out of the Nusra playbook. The group recently clashed with the Islamic State. It may only be a matter of time before Western governments, which have already committed to leaving Afghanistan after years of warring with the Taliban (and losing), look at the former hosts of Al Qaeda in the 1990s—and the original Islamic State—as a more moderate faction. As NATO commander John F. Campbell noted, the Taliban are “rebranding … they see this is an opportunity to gain resources and attention.”
The Daesh Effect also may soon change the Western assessment of Libya’s Fajr coalition, the Islamist militias fighting a brutal civil war against the internationally recognized Libyan government. These violent factions, after destabilizing Libya, now find themselves locked in battle with the Islamic State. As my colleague Thomas Joscelyn cynically notes, even Al Qaeda affiliates in Libya will look like “good guys” because they are fighting the Islamic State.
Undoubtedly, the Daesh Effect is strongest among those who believe that Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, is somehow the answer to the Islamic State. Former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana recently lauded Iran’s readiness to fight the terrorist group. Similarly, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged nations meeting in Paris last month to include Iran in talks about the campaign against the Islamic State. Bishop, who recently visited Tehran, said Iran had “boots on the ground” and should therefore be at the table.
President Barack Obama, who recently admitted that the United States lacks a “complete strategy” in fighting the Islamic State, also hints at the notion that Iran is an asset in this fight; as Obama recently said, the U.S. and Iran have “a shared enemy” in the Islamic State. Practically speaking, this means that when the U.S. deploys air power to weaken Daesh positions across Iraq, Iran-backed militias have taken up those positions. This includes groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is designated by the United States government as a terrorist entity.
But the Daesh Effect negates such concerns. As Iran analyst Vali Nasr told the Daily Beast, “Like it or not, right now [the U.S. and Iran] are on the same side.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius notes that Washington has even opened a “quiet back channel to Iran to ‘deconflict.’” It’s actually more than a back channel. Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake recently revealed that Iran and the U.S. are sharing a base in Anbar province, Iraq.
The fundamental assumption for the White House is that Iran is a stable and functioning state that has both the will and the ability to engage the Islamic State through its own forces or its proxies, and the other regional (Arab) countries do not.
The Israelis, it should be noted, vehemently disagree with this strategy. They still regard the Islamic Republic of Iran as a mortal enemy, regardless of who else they may be fighting.
Israel is also wary of how the Daesh Effect appears to be part of the administration’s calculus for not pushing to topple Bashar Assad in Syria. While Assad controls neither a stable nor functioning state at this point, the White House sees that the Syrian dictator does have the will and ability to fight the Islamic State. Troublingly, however, he does so with the assistance of both Iran’s Quds Force and Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Both are designated terror groups in the United States, yet the U.S. is doing little to prevent them from deploying across Iraq and Syria to battle Daesh.
To be clear, Obama did not view Iran and its proxies as the key to fighting the Islamic State when the Islamic State first emerged. But as Daesh gained strength, the perceived need to counter the group dovetailed with America’s evolving strategy of negotiating with Iran over its illicit nuclear program. Washington, along with its negotiating partners in the P5+1, has increasingly softened to Iran’s nuclear demands while touting Iran’s ability to play a constructive role in the region. In short, rather than clash with Iran, the White House appears content to reach a détente with an enemy it knows—and even allow it to grow more powerful—if it means not having to put U.S. ground forces back in the region.
The Israelis have not been shy in voicing their concerns about the U.S. approach to Iran. This was what prompted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to defy the White House and deliver his now-famous speech to a joint meeting of Congress.
Israel is not alone, either. The Saudis and the other Gulf Arab states also fear the Daesh Effect. They fear that Iran will use its opening with the West to satisfy core nuclear concerns (for too short a period of time) and perhaps a few other issues but that such an arrangement will serve as a quid pro quo for Iran to deploy its terror proxies across the region.
For example, the Iran-backed Houthis, who have destabilized Yemen, are also in conflict with the Islamic State. How long before they are deemed moderate, or at least less threatening to Western interests, relative to Daesh?
The meteoric rise of Daesh, a group whose threat to the West has yet to be fully understood, has thoroughly upended American counterterrorism policies, while altering the policies of others significantly. At first glance, this appears to be driven by a healthy fear of conflict with a crazed death cult. Indeed, declining to enter into yet another Middle Eastern war with yet another extremist group could be prudent. Anti-Western forces fighting each other may not be the worst thing in the world. But the Daesh Effect has prompted decision makers to engage in mental gymnastics. Sitting back and watching is not a viable permanent policy. Only time will tell whether the price of downgrading longstanding threats will be a steep one.
Jonathan Schanzer is the Vice President for Research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer