Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
What Russia is doing in Ukraine, it has done in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan: creating a frozen conflict. The philosophy is clear: if you want to divorce me, I’ll make sure you can’t marry anyone else. It is a dirty nineteenth-century power game, but with few casualties.
What ISIS is doing in Iraq is much more fundamental and much more dangerous. It is an extreme copy of Europe’s religious wars of the sixteenth century. ISIS does not only destroy borders. It kills everyone and everything that doesn’t fit into its jihadist ideology.
The result of the current conflict might not only be the disintegration of Iraq into three new states. A much bigger problem is that Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and even Jordan might be forced into a regional politico-religious war. The stunning success of ISIS might convince other extremist groups, now mostly linked to al-Qaeda, to follow its example and found versions of ISIS across the region and beyond. Iraq might be just a preview of what to expect.
A comparison between ISIS in Iraq and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is both unfitting and misleading. No convincing criteria exist to determine which of the two is “bigger.”
However, I would say that ISIS is more dangerous. Putin is a head of state, which gives others a minimum level of knowledge about that actor’s size, capabilities, and even his range of available options for foreign conduct.
ISIS, by contrast, is a growing transnational terrorist group motivated by theocratic ideology and connected to numerous militant jihadist groups. Not only are these militants spread across Iraq and Syria, where ISIS aims at establishing an Islamic caliphate, but they are also igniting chaos and violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa, notably in Yemen, the Sinai Peninsula, and Libya. For more than three years, the region has been hosting a kind of “terrorism carnival.”
Furthermore, it is no secret that fighters from different parts of the world, including Canada, the United States, and Europe, are frequently reported to be traveling to Syria to join the jihad. All these elements multiply the possible dangers of the conflict and contribute to an amplified level of insecurity both in the region and farther afield.
ISIS in Iraq is certainly bigger than Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.
While the international impact of the Ukraine crisis is largely indirect, the global implications of the Iraq crisis are both direct and on a larger scale. The ISIS takeover of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is neither just a local problem for Iraq nor merely a regional problem for the Middle East. It is a truly international problem, with potentially catastrophic global security implications if not handled carefully by Western and Middle Eastern stakeholders.
The crisis increases the likelihood that Iraq could descend into a protracted civil war and fragment, especially as Kurdistan has managed to defend itself against ISIS while the central Iraqi state has not, and as tensions between Sunnis and Shias continue to escalate. The crisis is also pressurizing al-Qaeda, which risks being overshadowed by ISIS, to reassert itself as a powerful jihadist group.
As ISIS threatens to grow in stature and capability, the crisis is increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop the funding flowing from their dissident nationals to ISIS, which would push the two Gulf adversaries closer together after a period of political tension. Security concerns about ISIS in Iraq are also pushing antagonistic international actors—Iran and the United States—to cooperate militarily to stave off the rise of a common threat to their strategic interests in the region.
All these factors are reconfiguring relations both among Middle Eastern countries as well as between them and the West. There is a glimmer of hope in this reconfiguration, as stakeholders’ strategic interests surpass their political rivalries. All parties should capitalize on this opportunity to cooperate and stop the rise of ISIS and the ensuing spread of conflict this would bring to the Middle East and beyond.
Iraq and Ukraine are two symptoms of the same disease. For twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, the world has been seeking a new balance of power. Under former U.S. president George H. W. Bush, it was multinational coalitions with UN support; under his successor-but-one, George W. Bush, it was unilateral neoconservatism; under the current U.S. leader, Barack Obama, it has been illuminated multilateralism plus drones.
Alas, no new world order so far. China warily looks for its place, flexing its muscles over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and bossing Russian President Vladimir Putin about with a convenient gas deal. Putin huffs and puffs, but he is selling the family silver, and the next generation of the Kremlin’s leaders will have a tough act to follow. Europe successfully tackled the euro crisis yet is still perplexed: Do we really want to be world leader?
Obama blinked in Syria; he cannot blink again in Ukraine. Bush left him a quagmire in Iraq, but he should have been a bit more patient. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is paying the price for being insufferable, mediocre, and arrogant. He now misses the Americans he drove out of the country with his vetoes.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has been advocating three Iraqs since 2003—one each for the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias. ISIS won’t buy it, but the group is grossly overshooting its goal. They will find it tough to rule southern Iraq, and the cruel sharia they will impose may unify secular Sunni and Shia. Don’t expect a new world order in 2014, in 2015, or, let’s say, until at least the next World Cup in 2018.
Whether ISIS in Iraq is bigger than Vladimir Putin in Ukraine depends on where one looks from.
For someone looking from a European country heavily dependent on Russian gas that passes through Ukraine, Russia’s expansionist policy in the Black Sea area is obviously a much bigger problem than a terrorist insurgency in the Levant that is not yet threatening Europe directly.
For someone looking from one of the countries around the Levant, ISIS in Iraq is a much bigger threat than Russian aggression, regardless of how much the latter may threaten European security.
For someone looking from Turkey, the answer is not easy. While Turkey is 60 percent dependent on Russia for its natural gas consumption, most of the territories that ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria are close to the Turkish border. Moreover, ISIS recently captured several Turkish citizens, including the staff of the Turkish Consulate General in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still keeping them hostage.
Thanks to NATO’s mutual defense mechanism and Turkey’s multidimensional relationship with Russia, I would argue that Putin in Ukraine is more manageable for Turkey than the ISIS insurgency in the Levant.
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