Nearly everyone claims to want to do something about ISIS, but nothing ever happens. In reality, the only powers directly affected by ISIS that are willing to fight are Iran and Syria, with a little help from Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Pessimistic intelligence assessments prepared for the Pentagon warn that there are multiple agendas being pursued by almost everyone else claiming to be involved in what has been misnamed a multinational coalition. Iraq, a frontline player in the conflict, has been hampered by a dysfunctional and corrupt military that just cannot make headway against the more resolute ISIS fighters, even with U.S. air support. Indeed, ISIS reportedly benefits from more than a sprinkling of renegade Sunni former officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army.
Elsewhere, the duplicity is more openly on display. The Saudis would prefer to see ISIS in Syria rather than Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as an Iranian proxy. They support ISIS secretly, while they are pretending not to, and have focused their military effort on bombing Yemen. Ditto for the Gulf States, most particularly Qatar, home of the United States Central Command. Jordan, nervous about its own internal security, reacted when its pilot was publicly burned to death but has since largely dropped out of the fight except as a venue for the failed U.S. effort to train “moderate” militants.
But Turkey and Israel take the prize for countries playing on both sides. Turkey planned and staged its shootdown of a Russian warplane to disrupt development of a genuine coalition against ISIS, preferring instead to press ahead with its war against the Kurds and Assad. The Turks have been allowing militants to cross their border from Syria with relatively little impediment, a point raised by Obama in recent discussions. More to the point, they have been exchanging weapons and cash for oil, which ISIS is pumping out of the fields that it has occupied in Syria and Iraq. Turkish President Erdogan’s son Bilal is behind the syndicate that exports and sells the oil, transactions that might well amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. An attempt to investigate Bilal in 2013 was derailed when his father intervened to fire all the prosecutors and policemen involved. Turkey will not be joining the fray against ISIS at any time soon.
And then there is Israel, which has made clear that it prefers terrorists to Assad. United Nations observers have for months been reporting its collaboration with militants across its border on the Golan Heights, to include some al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS. It is also buying ISIS oil through Turkish intermediaries. Recent reports out of Iraq reveal that an Israeli colonel named Yusi Oulen Shahak, a reputed member of the elite Golani Brigade, was captured while embedded as an adviser with an ISIS tactical unit. Israel’s government has not commented on the claims, and its media is avoiding the story, but it just might be true given the convoluted politics of the region. In any event, the Turkish, Saudi, and Israeli predilection to pursue their own interests separately underlines the immensity of the problem for Washington, which knows exactly what is happening but is unable or unwilling to openly contradict or rein in its would-be allies.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.