Funny How So Many Countries Have Used ISIS as an Excuse to Bomb, Send Troops, Expand Military Action

Militants with the Islamic State are doing battle over the Iraqi city of Tikrit, and its forces continue to fight in Syria and now Libya as well.

While much of the world agrees that ISIS is a pressing threat to peace in the Middle East, it is also becoming apparent that this threat is being exploited by countries around the world to ramp up their own military budgets and expansive foreign policies. ISIS, which has a budget of a paltry $2 billion, is being used as justification for military expansions from the United States to the Middle East to East Asia.

Everyone's Doing It

Following the death of one of its pilots at the hands of ISIS captors, the Kingdom of Jordan has warned that this is “just the beginning” as it expanded military operations against the group; one Jordanian analyst, Hasan Abu Hanieh, explained to Time magazine that the extraordinary anger in Jordan and the increased air campaigns are exactly what ISIS wanted to create. “ISIS wanted to provoke Jordan into attacking it. It is important for them to create chaos in the country,” he said. “In response to any Jordanian attack, ISIS would say it is defending itself. Jordan fell halfway into this trap.”

Following the murder of Japanese citizens, Japan's government called for unprecedented “reform” of its military that would allow it to engage in combative overseas military operations (it maintains a self-defense force and has robust defense spending but is still constrained by its post-WW2 constitution). There is little need for Japan to boost its military to deal with ragtag groups of foreign terrorists such as ISIS, but it may be that the militant group is a smokescreen for its true aim: to broaden its military capacity against regional rival China. Japan this month signed an arms transfer agreement with China, paving the way for it to expand its overseas military role.

In Egypt, President Sisi is consolidating his rule by equating ISIS militants with his primary political opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, which won election in his country before being deposed in a coup. In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, he claimed that the two “share the same ideology.” His courts have made liberal use of death sentences, citing the threat of terror.

Iran, while in the middle of sensitive nuclear negotiations with world powers, has cited the ISIS threat to justify its increasing presence in Iraq. While Iraq's government has welcomed the assistance against ISIS, the rise of Shia militias has been associated with claims from human rights monitors of increased abuses against Sunni Iraqis in areas re-taken from ISIS.

Turkey, home to over a million Syrian refugees, is pushing for a buffer zone and intervention that goes well beyond ISIS – to target Syrian President Bashar Assad, who it has long favored deposing.

France has been stepping up its attacks on ISIS, with its parliament voting 488 to 1 to continue attacks in January. It is also paring back cuts to defense jobs, as part of the response to the Charlie Hedbo killings.

In the United States, the ISIS issue has been politicized to justify all sorts of authoritarianism. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK), perhaps the most high-profile hawk critic of Obama at the moment, claimed that ISIS is working with the drug cartels in Mexico to smuggle into the United States and strike Arkansas; in one absurd claim both a reason to militarize the border and increase the defense budget.

Assad Reframed

No leader has used ISIS to expand his own agenda more than Syria's embattled Assad. In interviews with the Western press, he invokes “terrorists” coming “from abroad” (a reference to foreign fighters ISIS has recruited) and his obligation to defend his country's territory. And to some extent, his attempt to reframe Syria's revolution as his struggle to keep the country from being overtaken by militant Islamists has been successful. In an interview with the BBC, the presenter asked Assad if he'd like to join the Western coalition in battling ISIS and Al Qaeda, a question which would have been unthinkable a couple of years earlier. This month, the U.S. State Department appeared to soften its line, saying any departure by Assad would have to be negotiated with the Syrian government.

Despite claims from Assad that his forces aren't using barrel bombs—cheap explosive devices tossed from helicopters in dense areas —Human Rights Watch has documented thousands of impact sites that suggest these devices are being used. One doctor treating survivors from these attacks said two-thirds of those impacted coming to his hospital are women and children. The Syrian Civil Defense Force, which rescues survivors of bombing attacks, has posted photos of soil discoloration after aerial bombings, suggesting that the regime may be using banned weapons such as chlorine.

All of this puts Assad in a much better position than he was in 2013, when Western nations were actively considering attacking his government.

ISIS' Moment

ISIS is the cause of the moment for those who want to see expansive military adventurism and increased budgets; it has also been a boon for Syria's Assad, who has been able to get his own abuses off the front pages, thanks to ISIS' gruesome execution videos.

But one organization that may benefit most from this is ISIS itself. With only a small territory of land and a tiny budget, unable to defeat either the weak Iraqi or Syrian armies, it is relishing the limelight while others exaggerate the threat it poses. ISIS magazine Dabiq is surprisingly current on events and has already exploited the tiff with Jordan to bolster its recruitment. Alongside an image of the burning Jordanian pilot it posits victims of Jordan's own airstrikes, posturing about the importance of an eye for an eye.

The question is, will the rest of the world stop playing its game.


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