It has become popular, in some circles, to refer to them as “the Orcs.” And not just because it’s easier than using their frequently changing English titles – ISIS, ISIL, or simply the Islamic State – but also because their swarms of black-flagged militants, in their campaign of territorial conquest driven by mass ethnic murder, rape, crucifixion, and beheading, resemble not so much anything in modern human history as some spectacle out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gothic bestiary.
You don’t see a lot of people objecting to the term. They are, in an Orc-like way, almost the perfect enemy: So extreme in their methods and coldly ascetic in their vision that even fellow Islamic extremist organizations and authoritarian regimes have turned against them in revulsion. While their military success has been impressive, they have united a surprisingly wide variety of nations, factions, faiths and forces against them.
We are now witnessing the spectacle of a Coalition of the Begrudgingly Willing that has brought together the United States, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, Europe, Canada, Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Party in an extremely awkward but very real alliance against the black flag.
So, as distasteful as this may sound during a week in which the group decapitated a journalist and pledged genocidal murder, it is worth asking whether the Islamic State is the best possible enemy that could have emerged from the chaos of the post-Iraq war, post-Arab Spring Middle East. Unlike other potential threats, this one has transformed the politics of the region in profound ways. While still posing a terrible threat to thousands of lives, by attempting to form a grotesque Caliphate, the IS fighters have provoked many changes that were long overdue:
Forced Iraq to confront its sectarian divide. During the eight-year-long occupation by U.S.-led forces, the signature strategy was to empower Shia politicians, military leaders and communities as a replacement for the largely Sunni Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. So it was no surprise that Iraq’s first elected prime minister, the former Shiite dissident Nouri al-Maliki, governed as a Shia partisan.
This came to a head in June, when IS militants breached the Syria-Iraq border and quickly seized almost a quarter of the country – in large part because Sunni troops in the Iraqi National Army either deserted, melted away or acquiesced.
Previously, Mr. al-Maliki could treat sectarian problems as matters to be brushed away. Now they had become a threat to the basic integrity of Iraq. His decision to step down last week was an acknowledgment that the country’s future existence depends on building a governing coalition that works for all sects. It is not clear whether this will materialize, but leading Sunni figures said this week that they will support the new government – something that would not have arisen without the IS menace.
Brought Iran out of the cold. After a decade of isolation, Washington and Tehran are now very much talking. When U.S. forces bombed IS positions in support of Kurds last week, right on the edge of Iran’s border, there were no complaints from Tehran. The chilling prospect of another Sunni-Shiite war conducted across the Iraqi border – the last one, in the 1980s, decimated Iran’s population – has made the Islamic regime far more willing to open itself to the world.
“It is a measure of the seismic changes that have occurred in Washington, Tehran and the wider Middle East that Iran and the United States are now broadly on the same side,” writes Christian Emery, an Iran specialist at the University of Plymouth. “Both are threatened by the rise of a new generation of Sunni jihadi groups who want to break down the state system in the Middle East. Both want to avoid further U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf. Both want to resolve the nuclear crisis.”
Called the bluff on Qatar. Since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2011, wealthy Qataris, some closely associated with the kingdom itself, have backed Salafi militias fighting secular dictators in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. The IS appears to have received support from Qataris.
This has now become a huge liability for the Qatari regime, which has crucial relationships with the United States, and is especially sensitive to international condemnation as it is due to host the World Cup in 2022. Qatar is now being pressured either to crack down on this dangerous game or risk becoming the region’s latest pariah state.
Secured the Kurds. The Kurds of northern Iraq had been trapped between Turkey, which has waged periodic war against them, and Baghdad, which has often been hostile. In the battle against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Turkey had backed militias, including IS, and opposed Kurds. Now the dynamics have changed: Washington and Tehran are both arming the Kurds, and Ankara, terrified of the IS threat it helped gestate, is suddenly mending bridges with the Kurds and backing them in the fight. Never have they been in a stronger position.
Given the U.S. a second chance. The IS occupying forces, researchers say, are coming to be resented and opposed by their subjected populations the same way that U.S. forces were. U.S. President Barack Obama, by backing an array of opposition forces but avoiding an invasion, could end his country’s regional image as Public Enemy No. 1 – overshadowed, very darkly, by a new and very different sort of threat.