The death perpetrated by the Islamic State’s lethal, merciless attacks are not always singular in their goal. The genocidal, anti-Western terror group inflicts ostensible harm upon those whom it attacks directly, but ISIS has embraced a strategy that works to push existing rival nations and factions closer to potential conflict.
Many of these international conflicts necessitate military resources taken away from nations that could otherwise deploy them on the front lines fighting the Islamic State. ISIS has made a strategic habit of coordinating attacks that will exacerbate these conflicts, further freeing themselves to rape, pillage, and strategize.
Syria has become the battleground for conflicts that involve several global players, and some fear that eventually, conflicts will bleed over into other nations. One example of is the more than 1,000-year old rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is rooted primarily in the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni nation which has been a professed ally of the West. The Shia-majority Iran has been overtly anti-West since the Iranian Revolution beginning in 1978 and continues to ally itself with Bashar al-Assad's contested Syrian regime. They both compete to spread their ideology in the region, seeing the other nation as hostile because of this.
Upon Iran’s entry into an agreement which lifted US sanctions and allowed for expanded nuclear programs in 2015, Saudi Arabia and Israel shared a rare public protest against the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
Make no mistake; ISIS is aware of the simmering tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention Israel’s tenuous foothold in the Arab-dominated region. And when ISIS conducted a terror attack in Tehran on June 17th, they provoked a response that would further escalate the feelings of insecurity between long-rivals.
Iran shot six ballistic missiles targeting ISIS facilities within Syria. Those with knowledge of Iranian defense strategy said that the deployment of these missiles- the first time Iran has ever shot ballistic missiles across the Syrian border- was also meant to serve as notice of Iran’s militaristic might to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West.
Further destabilizing the situation is the widely-held belief by Iranians that Saudi Arabia has ties to funding ISIS, making it possible, from ISIS’ standpoint, that the attack on Tehran could provoke a direct response by Iran against Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, for now, it was ISIS alone who bore the brunt of Iran’s ballistic missiles.
Still, the attack on Tehran, and Iran’s predictably bellicose response, is going to heighten the urgency felt by Saudi Arabia and Israel to arm themselves against a hostile Iran.
But Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran are not the only players who are being coaxed into sparking old rivalries through efforts to combat ISIS. The Western players involved in the Syrian conflict- namely Russia and the United States – are inextricably divided by their respective allegiances in Syria.
Long documented is the alliance between the Putin and Assad regimes. Lesser known is the United States’ support of a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. This group has been actively combating ISIS in Syria, as has the Assad regime. The Syrian army- Assad’s army-captured Aleppo, and now is engaged in the effort to overtake the city of Raqqa. However, the fight against ISIS has led the SDF to Raqqa too, and they have no intention of ceding the city to the Syrian army, who they also oppose.
This has meant that the US, backing the SDF, and Russia, supporting Assad’s Syrian army, being directly at odds. When the Syrian army dropped a bomb on SDF forces, American anti-aircraft gunners shot the plane out of the sky. Russia, in turn, ceased talks that would allow for communication between Russian and US pilots in Syrian airspace, increasing the risk that some form of accident could occur. More importantly, it was a show that Russia intends to maintain its backing of Assad in Syria, regardless of America’s allies’ interests.
As SDF and Syrian national forces edge closer to their goals of overtaking Raqqa, the battle for the Syrian city may no longer involve ISIS at all. What may instead take place is a showdown between the SDF and Assad’s national forces, which may involve some form of engagement between Russian-backed and American-backed forces.
This does not mean that Russia and America are headed for a direct conflict. However, it does mean that the gulf between American and Russian interests will continue to widen, and relative peace in Syria will continue to be a near-impossible goal.
ISIS, for all of their evil, are not ignorant to geopolitics and the globe’s many alliances. ISIS has proven cunning in its calculated strategy to conduct attacks that will further rattle already rocky relationships, both in the region and abroad. The attack on Tehran, in particular, shows that ISIS has a finger on the pulse of how certain Middle Eastern nations will react, and how to provoke such reactions, leaving fewer forces to eradicate ISIS as a result.