The war to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has entered a dark tunnel. And with it the bottomless conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The search for a ray of light moves next week from Moscow to Washington, when Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz makes his first visit as monarch for talks with President Barack Obama.
The three worried Arab rulers received in the Kremlin Tuesday, Aug. 25, by President Vladimir Putin could only talk in circles: Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi,is embattled on three fronts, Sinai, his border with Libya and Cairo; Jordan’s King Abdullah II – is wedged between two wars; and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, has sent his army to fight the Yemen insurgency alongside Saudi Arabia.
For them, resolving the Syrian conflict looked like the silver bullet, the key to ending all their troubles. But whichever Russian or Iranian plans and ideas they considered for a way forward, they were all forced to come back to the same impasse. Even Putin and Obama can’t get around or ignore two solid facts:
1. In the year since the US built an international coalition for fighting ISIS, the brutal Islamists have not been cut down; they have instead been empowered to seize more turf outside their Iraqi and Syrian conquests, such big oil fields in Libya, an ascending threat to Egypt and big plans for Lebanon.
2. A major letdown has followed on the high hopes reposed in Iran. The nuclear deal negotiated with the six world powers – and the elevated regional status conferred on Iran – hinged closely on US expectations that Tehran would put up effective military resources for tackling ISIS.
But the Revolutionary Guards, the popular Syrian and Iraqi forces the Guards established,and the Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias they imported – none have proved a match for ISIS and jihadi tactics.
In Syria, ISIS stands fast, unthreatened in the terrain, towns and oil fields they have captured, in the past year – excepting only on fringe fronts, where they have been forced back by local Kurdish rebel fighters.
Hizballah is a big part of the disappointment. It was supposed to serve as a bulwark against ISIS invading eastern Lebanon from Syria. Instead, these Lebanese Shiite fighters, allies of Assad’s army, are bogged down in a bitter battle for the strategic Syrian town of Zabadani, after failing to breach Syrian rebel defenses in forays from the south, the north or the center.
The door is therefore open for the Islamist State to march into Hizballah’s strongholds in the Lebanese Beqaa valley and head north to the port of Tripoli for a foothold on the Mediterranean.
Whether Bashar Assad stays or goes, which might have made a difference at an early stage of the Syrian insurgency, is irrelevant now that his army and allied forces are in dire straits.
In Iraq, the forces fighting ISIS are equally stumped. The jihadis are in control of a deadly string of strategic towns, Ramadi, Faluja, the refinery city of Baiji, Mosul, and most of the western province of Anbar, including Haditha which commands a key stretch of the Euphrates River.
Here, too, the Islamist terrorist army’s lines remain intact, unbroken either by the undercover Jordanian Special Forces campaign 200 km inside Anbar, albeit backed by US and Israeli military and intelligence assistance; by the “popular mobilization committees” set up by the Iranian general Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy of the Al Qods chief Qassem Soleimani, or less still by US-trained Iraqi army units.
This week, the impasse spurred two combatants into chilling escalations:
— Iran began shipping its solid propellant missile, Zelzal-3B (meaning “earthquake”), across the border into Iraq, in the hope that this powerful projectile, with a range of 250km , would give the Revolutionary Guards their doomsday weapon for tipping the scales against ISIS.
— The Islamists, for their part, embraced a new tactic, known in the west as “SVBIED mobile defense.” Scores of armed vehicles are packed tight with hundreds of tons of explosives and loosed against military convoys on the move and static enemy positions and bases.
This tactic quickly proved itself by killing the 10th Iraqi Division’s chief, deputy and its command staff, as well as the deputy chief of Iraqi forces in Anbar.
In Moscow last week, Putin offered his three Middle East guests Russian nuclear reactors, arms, joint pacts for fighting terror and assorted ideas for the future of Bashar Assad. But he too had no practical proposals for bringing the Islamic State down.
President Obama may likewise offer King Salman all sorts of assistance for standing up to ISIS, but he will find no buyers in Riyadh for his failed policy of reliance on Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran, for liquidating the Islamist threat looming against the oil kingdom from neighboring Iraq. Neither is US aid much use for stemming the tide of pro-ISIS radicalism spreading among young Saudi men.
As matters stand today, therefore, the Islamic State faces no tangible threat – even if Iran does go ahead and achieve a nuclear bomb.