The continued advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) on Sunday brought the radical Sunni movement to the borders of Jordan and consolidated its control over al-Anbar Province. The Iraqi military continued its rapid collapse into uselessness, losing all the country’s military border outposts to ISIS. There is now a huge Sunnistan stretching from Aleppo to Tikrit and from Mosul to the Jordan border.
Can little Jordan withstand this onslaught itself? Will the Salafis in Zarqa rise up in support of ISIS? The country is straining under the stress of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and bracing for another wave of Iraqis. The Jordanian military is professional and good fighters, but it is not clear that it can easily deal with urban revolts if they were to occur.
Another way of putting it is that a notorious would-be al-Qaeda affiliate that now own substantial real estate is a day’s drive from Israel’s borders. Will it reach out to the Palestinians, with implications for Israeli security? The beach at Tel Aviv only seems a long way from al-Walid, the Iraqi border town that fell to the Sunni radicals yesterday.
The inability of the Iraqi military to mount a riposte to this rapid loss of territory raises questions about when exactly it can hope to begin pushing back effectively. Not since the Mujahidin lost Afghanistan to the Taliban in 1994-1996 have we seen this kind of rapid territorial advance for a radical vigilante movement in the region.
US policy is self-contradictory. In Syria, the US is attempting to undermine the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad, a regime guilty of crimes against humanity. Since al-Assad’s most effective opposition is ISIS, the US is de facto an ISIS ally in Syria, just as the Reagan administration was an ally of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In Iraq, the US tilts to the central government in Baghdad, dominated by Shiite religious parties, and so is a dire enemy of ISIS.
It may well be that the US will need to back away from trying to overthrow al-Assad for a while, to allow that regime to try to chase ISIS from the Syrian north. However wicked the Syrian Baath Party is, it is no threat to the US. ISIS is.