Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.
Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.
The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.
The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.