The Real Red Line in the Middle East

 

If ISIS attacks Jordan, neither the United States nor Israel will be able to stay out of the fray

There is a Sarajevo somewhere in Jordan. It lies well outside Amman, somewhere in the hostile terrain to the east or the north. Were the armed ISIS extremists — who now call themselves representatives of the Islamic State and soldiers of the new caliphate — to cross this line, the current conflict that engulfs Syria and Iraq would likely explode and grow more complex and costly by quantum degrees. This is not the sort of red line that is the product of an ill-considered, halfhearted burst of presidential bravado. This is the type of red line that triggers historic change and is worth considering as we mark the epoch-making events in Sarajevo that spawned World War I 100 years ago.

For now, the wars in Syria and Iraq seem almost to be inviting the United States to remain more or less on the sidelines. Once an amorphous mess, it has seemed to take on something of a shape and symmetry. In both countries today, alliances featuring the ruling governments working in collaboration with Iran and Russia are taking on the extremists. With the announcement this weekend of Russian planes and munitions being shipped to the government in Baghdad, the orchestrated bombings last week of ISIS targets by Syrian jets in Iraq, and the active role of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in both places, it almost seems like a traditional conflict with two sides vying against one another.

Further, with Moscow and Tehran willing to take up the fight against ISIS, it might be tempting for Washington to effectively sit this one out. After all, if the United States wants promises of political reform and the Iranians and Russians clearly don’t require it to intervene, the Iraqis will be even harder for America to deal with. Intransigent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may simply opt for the support of Tehran and Moscow, as well as a tacit alliance with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, avoiding the hard work of creating a truly representative Iraqi government — which also happens to be the most self-serving possible choice. Unfortunately, for the world, the route of “letting others fight our battles for us” might be “easier” — but it’s exceptionally dangerous.

ISIS winning and establishing control over Iraq, Syria, or a large zone encompassing parts of Iraq and Syria would be a catastrophe that could haunt the region and the world for decades to come. Were Assad and Maliki to triumph with big debts owed to the Iranians, it would not exactly be a formula for regional stability, and it promises further insurrections and abuses to come. The most likely outcome, a draw, doesn’t look much better. Northwestern Syria will be a region of nominal governmental control, with the help of sponsors; some portions of Syria and Iraq will get an ISIS caliphate, a hot zone of extremist mayhem that will likely infect much of the region and from which more global terrorist efforts will emanate. Partition-by-default is a formula for unending conflict.

This frames the problem of staying out or disengaged. The United States might mitigate risk by leaving the messy business of a distant war to others with more skin in the game. And, it has to be admitted, this might work. All parties might deplete themselves, wear each other down, stay focused on fighting each other, and leave U.S. interests more or less intact. But this also raises the chances that the United States may get outcomes over which it has little or no influence — that may someday (possibly very soon) require of the country much riskier, more dangerous action, whether it wants to be involved or not.

This brings us to that red line in Jordan. Go find a map. Now you determine where this red line might be. You might say it is right at the Jordanian border because any breach of the sovereignty of such a valued ally and bastion of moderation in the Middle East would be intolerable. Jordan has been so dependably helpful to the United States and its interests, so constructive in the peace process with Israel, and such a pillar of the moderate and reforming path in the region that even the U.S. Congress, champions of inertness and the black hole of democracy that they have become, would likely demand American intervention.

None of this is to minimize the Jordanian military’s will or ability to defend Jordan. Rest assured the Jordanian military would step up in a way that the Iraqi military has not. But imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when the Islamic State that ISIS seeks to establish or its failed-state doppelgänger has had some time to take root, acquire further assets, and start picking at the Jordanian border, perhaps from Iraq and Syria simultaneously. Without saying such an incursion is even likely, simply consider its consequences.

Go back to the map. At least, go back to the map such as it is today. It is clearly changing — as the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg has been predicting would be the case for the better part of the past decade. Amman is 466 miles from ISIS-controlled Fallujah, but only about half that from the border with Iraq. Amman is just over 40 miles from the border with Syria, roughly the same distance it is from Jerusalem.

Now consider ISIS’s assertion that it wishes to incorporate Jordan into its caliphate. How far into Jordan would an ISIS incursion have to go before alarms went off in Washington? How far before Israel felt it must take more aggressive action to defend itself?

Perhaps Jordan would be a red line too far for the would-be Islamic State. Perhaps with the combined firepower of Jordan, the United States, Persian Gulf allies, and, possibly, Israel, they would be stopped dead in their tracks or destroyed. Certainly, we must hope that would be the case. But what would we be left with in a world in which when one terrorist group is destroyed, multiple others pop up in its place? What would the new map look like? What would the cost be of the battles that took place?

Full article: The Real Red Line in the Middle East (Foreign Policy)

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