Jamil Maidan Flores: IS and the ‘Common Enemy Effect’

By Jamil Maidan Flores on 08:45 pm Aug 24, 2014
Category Columns, Opinion
A rebel fighter walks along the front-line in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Aug. 23, 2014. Saudi Arabia is to host a meeting of foreign ministers from several Arab states to discuss the Syrian conflict and the rise of Islamic State jihadists, Egypt’s foreign ministry announced. (AFP Photo/Rami Al-Sayed)

A rebel fighter walks along the front-line in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus on Aug. 23, 2014. Saudi Arabia is to host a meeting of foreign ministers from several Arab states to discuss the Syrian conflict and the rise of Islamic State jihadists, Egypt’s foreign ministry announced. (AFP Photo/Rami Al-Sayed)

The Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), now a self-styled caliphate, seems to have succeeded where diplomacy has failed. It has managed to make strange bedfellows of key players in the Middle East who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day.

Look at the scorecard: First, the United States and Iran have teamed up against the IS, with the US clobbering IS convoys and artillery emplacements from the air, while the Iranian Quds Force operate on the ground, supporting and advising the Iraqi army and mobilizing militias against the IS. Neither the US nor Iran admits they’re working together, but they own up to “coordinating their actions” against the IS.

OK, this isn’t the first time Iran and the US fight a common enemy. There was the Taliban and then Saddam Hussein. But this kind of “coordination” between the two doesn’t occur every day. This time it took an IS to make it happen.

Now Shiite Baghdad and Kurdish Erbil are working together to stop the IS fighters.

This wouldn’t have happened if Nouri al-Maliki had not been replaced by a less rabidly sectarian Haider al-Abadi. Al-Maliki was tossed out because he alienated the Sunnis and the Kurds and stuffed the Iraqi military with incompetent proteges, who ran away as the IS fighters charged toward Baghdad.

So Erbil and Baghdad are talking again, but can al-Abadi bring back the disenchanted Sunni tribal chiefs into the Iraqi fold? He’ll need both canny political skill and uncanny luck to succeed.

Even Bashir al-Assad is getting into the act. Within a 48-hour period recently, the Syrian air force hammered the IS headquarters in Syria. It has kept up the air attacks, as IS fighters march toward Aleppo, a major Syrian city.

So al-Assad has changed sides. Until recently he wouldn’t touch the IS fighters. But now these bloodthirsty terminators have captured many of his Russian-supplied tanks and are reaching for his neck. So he orders air strikes against them. And tells the world: I am your ballast against terrorism and extremism.

To the US, he seems to say in effect: “You do your air strikes against the IS on the Iraqi side while I bomb them on the Syrian side. I’ve got your back, buddy.” Who’s he fooling?

A White House spokesperson has taken the trouble to emphasize that the US and the Syrian regime may happen to hit the same target, but the US will never work with Assad. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has intimated that the US may do its own bombing of the IS on the Syrian side of the border.

Meanwhile, various militant organizations are calling on all Muslims to rise in arms against the IS. Al-Qaeda has denounced the IS for its brutality, which alienates other Muslim militants. You see, the IS doesn’t practice religious discrimination: It decapitates everyone it wants dead — Yazidis, Mandaeans, Christians, Shiites, fellow jihadists, whoever.

Social psychologists have a name for the impact the IS has created: the “common enemy effect.” One study I’ve read says people who think they have a powerful enemy find the world more coherent. Things make more sense. They know who is responsible for their troubles.

And nothing unites nations or groups of people as quickly as a common enemy. Studies have shown, however, that fighting a common enemy doesn’t necessarily create trust. Those who are also fighting your enemy are not necessarily on your side. Al-Qaeda doesn’t become the Salvation Army just because it condemns the IS.

It has been said ad nauseam: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Hogwash! The enemy of your enemy, if he dreams of cutting your throat after you have both disposed of the other bad guy, is still your enemy.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.