The Atlantic Got it Wrong: The War on ISIS Further Tore the Middle East Apart

Published October 18th, 2017 - 01:54 GMT
A boy sits on top of a destroyed tank in Syria, AFP/File
A boy sits on top of a destroyed tank in Syria, AFP/File


  • A recent article from The Atlantic claims the fight against ISIS ‘paused’ political conflict and brought otherwise warring factions together
  • The truth is that disparate factions used the war against ISIS for their own political gains
  • The Atlantic article also fails to consider the human costs of the war against ISIS
  • The Atlantic’s logic that the Middle East needs war is most troubling for imagining positive peace for the region
By Ty Joplin

Each Side used ISIS to Further its own Agenda

On Oct. 17, The Atlantic published a piece titled “The War on ISIS Held the Middle East Together” by Thanassis Cambanis, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and columnist at The Boston Globe.

The article claimed that the war against ISIS allowed otherwise warring factions to see past their differences and work together toward defeating a common enemy, and this pressing ‘pause’ on the conflict temporarily brought the Middle East together. The article then decries that this time spent fighting ISIS could have been used to form deeper alliances between the Syrian regime and the opposition and Kurds in Syria, and between Baghdad and the Kurds in Iraq.

In this claim, the author of the piece is short on facts, heavy on oversimplified nostalgia for when ISIS was a military threat, and reliant on a deep misunderstanding of why different groups battled against ISIS in the first place.

The gravest error the article commits is thinking that ISIS’ presence was at all stabilizing enough to be used as a model of Middle Eastern solidarity for the future. This idea demonstrates an all-too common but morbid failure of imagination that quietly relies on a thread of logic that Middle Eastern nations can only come together if there is a war to be fought.

The war against ISIS did more to tear the Middle East apart from inside and out--allowing Iran, Russia, and Turkey to stake their claims in Syria and Iraq, and giving Kurdish separatist movements the opportunity to use the political vacuum ISIS created to acquire geopolitical bargaining chips to be used to move away from Damascus and Baghdad.

The author insists that, when ISIS commenced its blitzkrieg of Northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, all sides recognized this threat and acted accordingly: “[b]riefly united by common cause against ISIS, odd bedfellows temporarily set aside their differences. Although they didn’t always coordinate directly, almost every significant entity in Syria and Iraq supported the anti-ISIS campaign.” The problem with this is that their ‘differences’ or their divergent political aims, were never ‘set aside’ but re-energized and inflamed thanks to ISIS’ gains and losses, which became open land waiting to be seized by whomever could lay claim to it.

The author implicitly adopts the classic phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” but the Middle East is more complicated than that, and there can be three or four sides to a conflict, not just two. While disparate groups did fight ISIS, they did so separately, and with their own interests in mind.

SDF Forces in Syria, AFP/File

When the Syrian Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) besieged Raqqa, they did so to gain the city as a bargaining chip--to get more power in ISIS’ wake to use in future negotiations regarding their autonomy with the Assad regime. The same is true of their massive land grab in eastern Syria in the Deir Ezzour Governorate, where the SDF, supported by the U.S., is in an all-out race to take Syria’s oil fields away from ISIS and thus away from Assad.

They used the fight against ISIS as a means of legitimizing their separatists ambitions, which is the opposite of what “coming together” looks like.

Russia’s intervention too in Syria, which was overtly to tackle ISIS, cemented Assad’s fragmented reign over much of Syria and served to create a foothold for Russian influence in the region. Meanwhile Assad continues to massacre, gass, bomb and torture his people.

Turkey’s supposed battle against ISIS too, with Operation Euphrates Shield, was advertised as Erdogan creating a buffer zone between his Turkey and extremists. Instead, Turkey used it as an opportunity to battle against the SDF and the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), violating Syrian sovereignty with no intention to leave.



Iran’s deployment of Shi’a militias ostensibly to counter ISIS and other extremists has also gone far beyond the stated mission. Iran’s forces are currently working to solidify a direct line of influence from Tehran, through Baghdad and Damascus, to Lebanon.

In Iraq, the author claims that the ‘dispute’ between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurds “simmered in the background while everyone’s eyes were on ISIS.” This is wrong.

Far from simmering into the background, Iraqi Kurds took advantage of Iraqi troops fleeing before ISIS to capture an abandoned but oil-rich Kirkuk from Baghdad. They knew it was disputed, but they, like the Syrian Kurds, were seeking as much bargaining power as possible to lay a legitimate claim to secede from their respective state or at least gain more autonomy from it. The author acknowledges that this is what happened, but somehow discounts or forgets that the Kurdish taking of Kirkuk was thanks to the opportunity ISIS created.

Using their gains from Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurds forced their independence claims onto centerstage with a nationwide referendum--again, an act of tangible ‘coming apart’ that was only possible using the war on ISIS.


The real cost of the Fight Against ISIS

Aftermath of a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo, September, 2015 AFP/File

All this too, is to say nothing of the massive humanitarian crisis that ISIS and the fight against it precipitated in the region--something the author never mentions. The internal and external displacement of countless hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis thanks to the war against ISIS, who will never again see their homes, is an inconvenient smudge in the narrative that the region’s political conflicts were put on hold to fight a common enemy.

The refugee crisis, that the fight against ISIS contributed to, will be perhaps the longest lasting legacy of the Syrian and Iraqi wars, and will thus be the longest serving piece of evidence that the Middle East was further torn apart and that the author is mistaken.

In his focus on the preservation of state structures and territorial integrity, the author must have forgotten about people.


If The Atlantic is right, the Middle East is Doomed

A man is carried after an airstrike in Idlib, AFP/File

Lastly, the author warned that “[t]he conflict will continue, to murderous and destabilizing effect, until and unless these Arab states change their entire approach and self-definition. That’s a tall order, but it’s the only alternative to endless war and fragmentation.” Here, the author is trying to argue that unless Arab states use the lesson they presumably learned in creating mythical alliances to fight against ISIS, they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes they were making before the nascent terror group first rose to power in 2014.

But change their approach and self-definition to exactly what? The author never answers. However, there is a type of hawkish thinking throughout the article that somehow, the Middle East was more stable when ISIS was around, even if it was only a temporary stability, and this stability is good for the region.

If the author is right in this thinking, and ISIS was indeed a common enemy that all sides recognized the inherent danger of and thus put aside their own geopolitical agendas to combat, that spells doom for the Middle East.

The whole region, using this logic, requires proverbial war against ‘common enemies’ to function in a cohesive, supposedly stable manner. This position not only glosses over the terrible cost of war in terms of human lives, broken identities, histories trampled and destroyed, but it also is a massive failure of imagination. The author seems to be relying on thinking that war in the Middle East is the only sustainable status quo, and the end of the war against ISIS is framed to be the entrance into new chaotic territory rather than a phase of re-negotiating borders, states’ reaches, alliances, and hopefully resettling displaced populations.

The war against ISIS was used by Kurdish groups and international powers to further divvy up Iraq and Syria, ripping the region apart and throwing millions of its inhabitants into indefinite turmoil and desperation. It did not, then, do anything to ‘bring the Middle East together.’

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