Out of the 36 Chinese stratagems for ruse and tactics in warfare, there is one that I always particularly liked: watch the fires burning across the river.
The meaning of the stratagem is easy to decipher: when there are multiple combatants, let others fight one another until they are exhausted, then march in with a fresh force to win the final battle.
THESE DAYS, the fires are burning in Kobani, a Kurdish city in Syria. Kobani, besieged by the hordes of the Islamic State (IS), is in danger of falling into the hands of the Jihadi fighters any day.
Kobani is a town in Syria right at the border with Turkey. The government of Turkish president Erdogan was therefore harshly criticized for not doing more to help the Kurdish defenders to ward off the charging fighters of the IS.
“When there are multiple combatants, let others fight one another until they are exhausted”
While Kobani is not the strategic place some commentators in Western media want it to be, it has become the symbol of the fight against the reign and the terror of the Islamic State. If we cannot beat them in Kobani, where can we?
But does everybody want to knock out the Islamic State, at least just now? There is a serious doubt. Rather it seems that the Islamic State is being instrumentalized by various powers inside and outside of the Middle East to do the job that these powers are not capable or willing to do themselves. IS is the useful tool in the hands of apprentices of sorcery.
This is not to say that the Islamic State doesn’t have a dynamic of its own. When we look at the narrative of the IS, Ceylan Özbudak, a political analyst based in Istanbul says, we see it basically built on two pillars: fabricated hadith of the orthodox Islamic texts and widespread grievances.
Grievances that were particularly felt among the Sunni population of Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki had established an authoritarian regime himself, supported by Iran and favoring the Shia share of the Iraqi people.
The Sunni tribes of Iraq might not especially like the ideology and the brutality of the IS fighters. But when they helped to get rid of al-Maliki, this was just fine. Also in the Anbar province of Iraq, the Chinese stratagems had been studied.
However, the instrumentalization of the IS goes further. Saudi Arabia and Qatar first financed them and now use them. With Riyadh and Doha remaining silent, IS fights and kills the Shia wherever they meet them. If IS should also be strong enough to tackle and topple Bashar al-Assad, this would be even better.
IT VERY MUCH looks like Turkey exploits the Islamic State as well. Have them fight the Kurds, in particular the PKK, Turkey’s nemesis, and their Syrian brothers, the PYD, which both are now actively engaged in Kobani, so Turkey can spare its own efforts.
As with many others, Bashar al-Assad also fell out of favor with Erdogan. Sending an IS force, acting out of a hard won stronghold in Kobani, after Assad seems like an interesting scenario. And then have the two battle it out for the control of the Syrian heartland.
In uninformed Western media the Kurds are often depicted as a homogenous entity. They are not. The Kurdistan doesn’t exist. The Kurds are a very fractured people, splattered across several states, speaking different languages and pursuing diverse interests.
Who in Kurdistan is fighting the Islamic State? It depends on whom in Kurdistan the IS is attacking. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, may fear the IS and will fight it wherever he can and must. But he fears the PKK, the political and military representatives of Turkish Kurdistan, even more. So when IS fights the PKK in Kobani, Barzani is not too eager to come to their rescue.
“IS fights and kills the Shia wherever they meet them”
Let’s talk about the Western powers, finally. Of course nobody in Washington, Paris or London likes the Islamic State. These countries, together with Canada and the rest of the European countries, are also very much concerned about their citizens joining IS in Syria and Iraq and later returning to their home countries to commit terrorist attacks like the one in Ottawa last week.
However many of these countries also share common interests with the Islamic State. Removing Assad is on everybody’s wish list. The 5+1 among these countries were not too unhappy when IS taught al-Maliki and the Iranians a lesson. Any leverage to get Teheran to an easier yes in the nuclear negotiations is a good leverage.
While the Marxist-Leninists of the PKK are certainly applauded for bravely resisting the IS in Kobani, they cannot hope to have many friends within the administration of any United States’ president.
IF WE JUST could manage the Islamic State like a puppet on a string, I hear them say in Washington. Faustian approaches have been tried before. If we just could support the Kurdish fighters in Kobani a little – just as much as it is needed to silence our critics from the humanitarian camp.
And if we could air strike the IS fighters outside Kobani just a little – so they will be bogged down, slowed down, but not completely stopped. Then the fire in Kobani will continue burning and the Chinese stratagem would be executed in an almost unprecedented beauty.
Because the American strategy for the Middle East is fixed, as George Friedman layed out in a recent analysis for Stratfor, “Allow powers in the region to compete and balance against each other,” Friedman explained. “When that fails, intervene with as little force and risks as possible. For example, the conflict between Iran and Iraq canceled out two rising powers until the war ended. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to overturn the balance of power in the region. The result was Desert Storm.”
“Kobani shows the real realities of the Middle East”
The Islamic State is not a given course of history but the consequence and the result of many flawed policies in the Middle East. No one wants IS to be really strong. But many like them to be strong just a little.
Who’s with whom, who is against whom, openly, tacitly: Kobani shows the real realities of the Middle East. This is a region with no pity. There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.
It’s obvious that the Islamic State’s project is inherently doomed to fail. Not least because controlling and administering large swaths of land is not a core competence of a terrorist group.
BUT MAYBE THE STRATEGISTS in Riyadh and Washington have placed their bets without taking the devil into account. The main fighters of IS are survivors of a combat Darwinism that began in Iraq in 2003. They are hard to kill. And maybe they will be survivors once more, not getting exhausted and die as the strategy wants them to.
And perhaps in the end the Islamic State will be gaining an unplanned momentum and the fire will burn those who have been watching it burn for too long. It will still be a day in Washington and Paris. It may get darker in Ankara and Riyadh. But it will mean good night in Damascus, Baghdad and Mosul.