The awful black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was raised Thursday over the second-largest city in Iraq. Yes, the fanatic ramblings of a man in a cave in the Afghani backcountry little more than a decade ago have been partially realized. The medieval forces seeking to melt the borders of the Middle East and erect a single Islamic Caliphate, loyal to the tenets of an extreme Sunni version of Islam, have made significant, unprecedented gains in the capture of Mosul.
For Israel, as Ron Ben-Yishai noted on Ynet, the greatest immediate danger is that just as ISIS was able to melt the border between Syria and Iraq, so too might it be able to surge into Jordan and destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom.
Ben-Yishai suggested that the prime threat to the regime, which has the firm support of the military and the majority of the Palestinian population at this time, lies in the form of the 1.6 million refugees Jordan has taken in from Iraq and from Syria in recent years. They hold no special affection for King Abdullah and his family.
The US, too, it stands to reason, would not be able to sit on the fence as its true ally King Abdullah was wrested from power. Certainly Israel, covertly, and Saudi Arabia, perhaps overtly, would do all that they could to ensure Hashemite control.
But to this reporter, the most significant blowback from this unthinkable jihadist victory will come not in the form of growing Sunni Islamist control over large swaths of Syria and Iraq – which may happen in the short term – but rather the opposite: Iran and Hezbollah emerging as the “answer,” the adult in the region capable of restoring some stability.
Here’s President Barack Obama in a January interview to the New Yorker: “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told David Remnick. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg asked Obama several months later to clarify what stood out from amid a 16,000-word magazine piece as an alarmingly optimistic statement about the regional intentions of Iran. In the savage war tearing through the Middle East today, Goldberg asked him, which side do you prefer, the Sunni extremists or Iran and its Shiite proxies. Obama said he was “not big on extremism generally” and that he would not choose.
However, “What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive,” he said. “They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits. And that isn’t to say that they aren’t a theocracy that embraces all kinds of ideas that I find abhorrent, but they’re not North Korea. They are a large, powerful country that sees itself as an important player on the world stage, and I do not think has a suicide wish, and can respond to incentives.”
Iran-Syria-Hezbollah – the axis of resistance – is waging regional war against the Sunni majority, which is fighting primarily through its extremist elements. Israel’s defense establishment is divided on whom it supports in this war, which is spreading through Syria and Iraq. Some lean toward Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – both virtual puppets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, because Sunni extremist victories further destabilize the region and imperil Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Others, like former head of military intelligence Amos Yadlin, believe that a Sunni victory next door “may make life more difficult for the brigade commander on the Golan or for the division commander responsible for guarding the border. But from the point of view of the prime minister’s office and the defense ministry, [Assad’s ouster] would be a very positive strategic development,” he told the Times of Israel in May.
This reporter tends to agree with Yadlin’s analysis, and the dramatic developments in Mosul, coupled with the recent statements from Obama, may well push Western powers, who have yet to pick a horse in the race, to put their money on Iran as a stabilizing element – and that is cause for grave concern.