The IS Siren Song Online title: Drown Out the IS Siren Song with a Clarion Call by Jamil Maidan Flores

In that wide swath of land that straddles the border between Iraq and Syria, some 31,000 jihadists are fighting under the black banner of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Some 15,000 of them are foreign fighters from 80 countries, mostly European. As of early this year, they included some 200 Malaysians, 100 Indonesians and dozens of Filipinos.

These are estimates, of course, but there’s little disagreement on their accuracy, give or take a few hundreds. Give or take a few scores, in the case of the Southeast Asian fighters.

Most of them are young, some with a bright future ahead of them. In spite of air strikes by the US-led coalition that kill hundreds of them in a single sortie, they increase in number every day. In the United Kingdom alone, as many as five young Muslims leave everyday to go Syria and fight under the black banner.

In Indonesia, authorities say they’re disrupting the travel plans of would-be IS jihadists. They’re choking the flow of terrorist funds. Yet there’s reportage that some militant factions have sworn allegiance to the IS.

What makes the so-called Islamic State, a blood-drenched mockery of a caliphate, such a strong magnet to idealistic young fighters?

There are the usual suspects: the collective memory of the humiliation that Muslims have suffered in the hands Western colonizers in centuries past, the sense of injustice and the discrimination that Muslims are enduring today in the Western world. The persecution of the Palestinian people, which up to this day stirs deadly resentment all over the Muslim world. The roughness of border guards, the indignities inflicted by security personnel. And the need for a sense of identity that can only be satisfied by belonging to a mighty and overwhelming movement.

But why the Islamic State particularly and not the rest of the jihadist groups? Maybe it’s because the IS has cultivated an image of itself as effective, disciplined, committed and marching inexorably toward world conquest. Through sophisticated use of social media and dramatic show of cruelty, it has created a bandwagon effect that attracts not only new recruits from around the world but also defectors from the other jihadist groups already fighting in Iraq and Syria.

The explosive violence of the IS has imbued it with the seductiveness of pornography. It offers to the would-be jihadists the ultimate worldly adventure: the license to indulge in an orgy of carnage and, at least in the case of the male fighters, to wallow in sexual promiscuity with divine permission.

It also offers the ultimate impunity: the jihadist killed in battle goes straight to heaven to enjoy the ministrations of 72 voluptuous virgins. What’s there on social media today that can beat that promise?

The IS may never be defeated until there’s an effective counter-message to its siren song. That message can’t come from the West. It must burst from within Islam, and ride on the voices of decent Muslims everywhere. It would be a pale and futile message if it only said, “Don’t go to Syria.”

It must therefore be a recruiting message. A clarion call to an activity, a movement that requires a new kind of Muslim heroism. Perhaps community work for the poor? A Muslim Peace Corps? But the message must match the sophistication and passion of IS propaganda.

In Indonesia and other Asian countries today, there’s talk of Meaningful Broadband, a program that would bring the force of the Internet into the service of development. There’s nothing more meaningful that broadband can carry than one that’ll reach out to the hearts and minds of the Muslim youth.

It’ll take a great deal of resources, organization and sophistication. And a constructive alternative to fighting in Syria. It’ll take these to drown out the siren song.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

A China Gift Horse Online title: The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank: A Gift Horse from China by Jamil Maidan Flores

There’s a debate today between those who think the projected Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is the answer to many fervent prayers for national development, and those who fear it’s a Trojan Horse from China.

In Beijing late last week, China, India and 19 other nations launched that bank. Conspicuously absent were Australia, Indonesia and South Korea. As expected, the US and Japan weren’t there.

The US tightly grips the World Bank while Japan has a lock on the presidency of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The two are loudest in questioning the merits and of the bank. No surprise. They probably see the AIIB as a rival to their pet institutions. And a threat to their domination of the global financial architecture.

The World Bank and the ADB have been strong forces for development. With or without a “rival,” they will do a great deal more good in the future. But remove that “rival” and they could be losing a lot of synergy with a potential strong collaborator.

The basic question isn’t whether we need the AIIB, but whether the developing world needs more financing than the WB and the ADB can now provide in real time.

The ADB itself says that Asia alone needs at least US$8 trillion worth of infrastructures in the next decade. There’s no assurance that the World Bank and the ADB can provide that kind of financing on schedule. By the end of 2013, ADB lending had amounted to only $21.02 billion.

Indonesia’s infrastructure program, much delayed for lack of financing, requires an investment of some $300 billion. President Joko Widodo needs more than that if he’s also to build 2,000 kilometers of road, 10 new airports, 10 seaports and 10 industrial states as he promised.

Indonesia should be among the first to support the AIIB idea. It isn’t. I trust this isn’t because the US has persuaded Indonesia to snub the initiative. More likely, Indonesia was just distracted by the rigors of a careful transition from one administration to another.

In spite of their territorial disputes with China, US allies Vietnam and the Philippines are already into the AIIB. So are Thailand and Singapore, which are also staunch US allies.

OK, the concerns raised by the US are real: will the AIIB meet international standards of governance and transparency? Will it stick to international labor and environmental standards? Will it follow effective project planning, procurement, monitoring and evaluation procedures?

Hence, the founding AIIB members and would-be members should demand safeguards. And full clarification on how the bank will operate. But it can’t be presumed this early that the AIIB will fail every test to its integrity.

On the other hand, given new competition, the World Bank and the ADB may cut some of their red tape, be more hospitable to reform, and collaborate with the competitor.

The AIIB isn’t an exercise in Chinese altruism. It will put to work much of China’s idle savings and thus help the Chinese economy. And it already makes China look good.

So this isn’t a Trojan Horse but a gift horse meant to benefit and to earn brownie points for the giver. Contrary to the proverbial wisdom, we should look this gift horse in the mouth to make an accurate assessment of the animal’s health. We shouldn’t reject it outright.

It’s different when it comes to the South China Sea. Here China’s behavior has earned a tidal wave of doubt on its sincerity. Until it concludes a Code of Conduct with Asean, China must always be confronted in diplomatic and other ways on its salami gunboat tactics.

But it shouldn’t be rebuffed straightaway when it proposes what could be the solution to many problems of infrastructure building in Asia.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Asem, the Third Leg Online title: Why ASEM is vital to Indonesian interest by Jamil Maidan Flores

Late last week, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) held its tenth summit in Milan, Italy. The event involved 51 nations from the two continents plus two regional organizations, Asean and the European Union.

As European Council president Herman Van Rompuy pointed out, these 51 nations account for 60 percent of humankind, 50 percent of the global GDP, and 60 percent of global trade. Remove their contributions and the global economy ceases to be viable.

Once again Indonesia wasn’t represented by its head of state and government at the Asem summit. This time the world understood and excused Indonesia. After all, the summit coincided with the very eve of the turnover of power from Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had just completed his second term, to his successor, Joko Widodo.

It was different in 2010 when President Yudhoyono failed to attend the ninth Asem summit in Brussels, although days after that summit, he visited the Netherlands. Earlier, President Yudhoyono did not make it to the US-Asean summit either.

As a result, speculation was rife that the Indonesian government, in deference to China, was distancing itself from the US and the West. It was around that time that the US announced its “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward East Asia after years of apparent neglect of the region by the administration of George W. Bush.

Fortuitously, the Indonesian government had earlier begun espousing the principle of “dynamic equilibrium,” which rejected all forms of big power rivalry, especially the Cold War type. In the context of this principle, it became easier for Asean to welcome the participation of both Russia and the US in the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Europe, of course, made its pivot to East Asia a long time ago, through the establishment of the Asem in 1996. I remember then Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas pushing for the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand on the Asian side of the Asem equation at an Asean meeting in Bangkok in 1994.

The Thai foreign minister, with irreverent humor, suggested that Indonesia annex both Antipodean countries so it could represent them in Asem. Alatas remained poker faced and let the remark pass. It wasn’t funny.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Asem. It’s the third leg of a global triad connecting the world’s core region: NATO connects Europe with North America; APEC links East Asia with the Americas; while Asem bridges East Asia and Europe. Without Asem, the global architecture, imagined as a triad, would limp on two legs.

However, for a fuller understanding of what can be realistically expected of Europe, I recommend a look into the views of that irrepressible Vienna-based intellectual, Dr. Anis Bajrektarevic, who says in effect that Europe is dominated today by France on political matters and by Germany on economic issues. Their bilateral alliance, he says, forms the geopolitical axis, the backbone of the European Union.

In that light, the mostly economic “French pivot” to East Asia should be even more welcome. So is the offer of Germany to take up in Asem deliberations the cause of arbitration on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

On the East Asian situation, Dr. Bajrektarevic says that China would be making a strategic mistake if it didn’t embrace multilateralism, and if it didn’t achieve rapprochement with the three champions of multilateralism in Asia: Indonesia, India and Japan. For their part, the three, plus the US, would be well advised to deepen a constructive multilateral engagement with China.

That makes a case for the conclusion of an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

Meanwhile, make no mistakes: for all its internal problems, the EU is constructively involved in East Asia. Indonesia and other Asean countries would do well to encourage a deepening of that involvement.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

How Noble the Nobel Online title: The Nobel Peace Prize: A Message to India and Pakistan by Jamil Maidan Flores

There’s no lack of individuals and groups that find fault with the Nobel Prizes, the array of international awards for those who bring the “greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

The annual awarding of these prizes is in fulfillment of the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist and engineer who made a fortune from his 355 inventions, the most famous of which is the dynamite.

Money goes with each prize. In 2009, it was the equivalent of US$1.4 million in Swedish currency. If there are two winners in a single category, as is the case with the peace prize this year, the money is split equally in two.

Much more important than the money angle is the prestige that the Nobel prizes bestow on the recipients. They’re arguably the most highly regarded awards that a person can dream of receiving.

That monumental prestige partly explains why the awards are often controversial. There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories about them, including the one about their being an operation of the CIA. In fact, the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in literature has a palpable Eurocentric, anti-American bias.

More serious is the charge that the prizes don’t reflect the stipulations of the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel. For example, it’s said that the peace prize should go to those who contribute to disarmament, to the reduction of armies, and to the direct achievement of peace—because this is what Alfred Nobel wrote in his will. A literal reading of the will supports the view that the Nobel peace prize selection committee isn’t complying with the will. A book has been written about this.

The people in the peace prize selection committee counter-argue that while they reinterpret the letter of Alfred Nobel’s will to fit realities of the times, they’re faithful to its spirit. In this debate, I am with the reinterpreters and not with the fundamentalists.

The controversy arose again this year with the award of the Peace Prize to teen-ager Malala Yousafzai, for her campaign to put girls in school, and to Kailash Satyarthi for his crusade for children’s human rights and to stop the traffic in children. Strictly speaking, neither is a peace worker.

But the Peace Prize this year wields a symbolic power that even a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have been dreamed of.

As pundits must have cited a million times by now: she is a Muslim and a Pakistani, he a Hindu and an Indian. Over the ages, their respective co-religionists have massacred each other. Their countries are in a potentially apocalyptic nuclear arms race. Their military units are now in a bloody confrontation along the borders between Pakistani Kashmir and Indian Kashmir. The death toll was 17 when the award was announced.

And yet she and he are working for essentially the same humanitarian cause that yields the desiderata for peace: emancipation of young people from slavery and quality education that will lift them from the mire of poverty, ignorance, prejudice and hatred. And both are eager to work together.

What more can you ask for? What stronger statement can the Nobel selection committee make to bring India and Pakistan to their senses and persuade them to make durable peace with each other?

OK, there have been Nobel Prize lemons. One recent disgrace was the award of the Peace Prize to US President Obama when he had done nothing yet in office. My favorite lemon is the passing over of Leo Tolstoy for the first Nobel Prize in literature in favor of a now forgotten Victorian poet.

But the Peace Prize this year is no lemon. It’s a refreshing lemonade in a world that thirsts for peace.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The UN Security Council Is But a White Elephant by Jamil Maidan Flores

A couple of months ago in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar I saw my first white elephant. It was on display in an elegant pen that you get to view before going on to visit the city’s main temple. It fascinated me that this white elephant was more yellowish than white. I’m now writing, however, of a much less fascinating white elephant.

To begin from the beginning, sometime in 1944 when nations were negotiating toward the establishment of the United Nations, the consensus was that the collective security of the international community would be placed in the hands of a security council. There was also a widely supported proposal that regional organizations would form that council.

If that happened, perhaps a regional organization in Southeast Asia would have been formed earlier to immediately fill the region’s seat on the council. And perhaps today that regional organization, not necessarily named ASEAN, would be enjoying a permanent seat on the Council.

But that didn’t happen. The US President at the time, F.D. Roosevelt, was bent on having the UN Security Council dominated by the five principal victors of World War II: the US itself, the Soviet Union, the UK, France and China. These became the five permanent members (P-5) on the Council. That’s what happened.

Perhaps on a dream that the other four would always follow the US lead, or that they would reach consensus most of the time during a crisis, each of the P-5 was gifted with the power of veto.

But reason dreaming produces monsters. In this case, a white elephant. To my mind, that is what the Security Council becomes whenever there’s an issue in which a P-5 member has a conflict of interest.

Say the issue is the loss of legitimacy of Syria’s ruler, Bashir al-Assad. Any move against Assad is bound to be vetoed by the permanent member Russia, because Assad is Russia’s boy. Thus on this issue the Council is paralyzed.

The reality therefore is that regarding every controversial issue in which a P-5 member has a big stake, the Council simply morphs into the classic white elephant: useless but maintained at a sacrifice and impossible to get rid of.

Many remedies have been proposed for this anomaly. But none of the P-5 is willing to give up the power of the veto, nor is any willing to have that power diluted. So every proposed remedy is vetoed. The veto perpetuates itself.

Comes now France, a P-5 member, proposing, with Mexico seconding, that the P-5 “voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto in case of atrocities or genocide or crimes against humanity or large-scale war crimes.” In each case, the mechanism for the non-veto would be activated by the UN Secretary-General, perhaps on the request of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, or 50 member states.

The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, hosted a meeting on this initiative late last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Many countries sent their foreign ministers to express strong support. Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa, of course, was there, since thorough reform of the Security Council has been a longstanding plank of the country’s foreign policy.

The other P-5 members didn’t send their foreign ministers. I hear one sent a deputy foreign minister. Another sent an ambassador. According to my source, that’s as cold a shoulder as you can get from any group of countries in the UN.

This is a modest but well-advised and reasonable move that deserves to be championed by all humankind. But, alas, just one veto by a P-5 member will be enough to abort it

Very likely the UN’s white elephant will go lumbering on its way as usual.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

He Who Hesitates: A Hegemon in Autumn

Hamlet now resides in the White House, say observers with humor. In the Oval Office, he walks in slow circles, a hand propping his chin, reciting: “To act or not to act, that is the question..” To act or not to act—in Syria, in Ukraine, in the South China Sea.

In Syria, the US has not helped the moderate rebels enough, allowing the jihadists to dominate the opposition side of the civil war, preparing the stage for the irruption of the Islamic State (IS). In Ukraine, the US imposed sanctions that Russia brushed aside as it swallowed Crimea. In the South China Sea, in salami slices, China is changing the status quo while the US proclaims its neutrality on overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile Barack Obama walks around in the Oval Office reciting, “To act or not to act..”

The metaphor is amusing and attractive. It reduces the complexity of geopolitics into the quandary of a character whose foible is to think too much and to act too little too late. The metaphor is therefore misleading.

It’s not that Obama is indecisive or doesn’t know what to do. I think he has a clear view of how thin is the range of his options. And he’s aware that every option can lead to unforeseen consequences.

Nor is it the case that the powers of the US have been so utterly degraded that it has ceased to be a hegemon.

Its economy may have been weakened by decades of reckless consumerism and by the global economic crisis of 2008. Its finances may have been strained by imperial overreach, as Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, waged expensive wars.

The US may therefore be a hegemon in the autumn of its decline, but still a hegemon. It’s still the biggest boy in the park.

If you are that biggest boy, you’re not called on to fight every boy near your size who challenges you—if you can get a bunch of smaller boys to do your fighting for you. You can cheer them, pay them, buy them lunch, but don’t throw any punches yourself. Save your strength for the time when you really have no choice but to do your own fighting.

This is precisely what the US is doing in Iraq-Syria and in Ukraine. This is what it is trying to do in the Asia-Pacific, which is what the “rebalancing” is all about.

This is a Cold War strategy that may work today because the situation is much like what it was in the depths of the Cold War. The difference is that at the latter part of the Cold War, China was on the US side, against the Soviet Union. Today China has grown bigger and stronger and it’s on the Russian side, against the US.

Moreover, China has persuaded some of the small boys not to be on the US side.

No fighting has broken out in the waters of East Asia, but it could be ignited by an incident in the course of China’s bold assertions of its territorial and sovereignty rights. We’ve been lucky—so far.

It’s in Syria that Obama may be lulled into forgetting the limits to power—specifically the power of the US presidency. He may overdo the air strikes against the Islamic state. He may in the end put boots on the ground. If he does all that, then the strategy unravels. And the next US president will have his job cut out for him: clean up the bloody mess.

There’s a popular saying, “He who hesitates is lost.” The humorist James Thurber once wrote a funny fable with this moral: “He who hesitates is sometimes saved.”

I go with Thurber.


By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

To Fight Terror, Go for the Roots

When US President Obama admitted that he had no strategy yet on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the neocons and the war freaks of American politics mercilessly lampooned him as a wimp.

One-time Republican presidential aspirant Ron Paul took a contrarian view and said, “Good!” Good that unlike his critics, Obama doesn’t believe in solving every problem by bombing it to smithereens and putting troops on the ground. Good that Obama doesn’t believe in printing dollars to pay for another war of choice.

Ron Paul spoke too soon. Last week Obama announced a strategy apparently designed to make him look like a bullet-chewing macho. He has a strategy after all. And it entails bombing the problem but not putting boots on the ground. OK, maybe a few—to advise allies on how to fight terrorists who wield US-made arms.

Many of Obama’s critics are underwhelmed. But most members of the US House of Representatives are impressed enough to legislate support for Obama’s strategy. They will fund the training of Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.

Apart from carrying out a systematic campaign of airstrikes and supporting the forces fighting the IS, Obama’s strategy also calls for intensive use of American counterterrorism capabilities, and the dispatch of humanitarian aid to displaced civilians. So it’s a strategy with four planks.

The most striking part of it is, of course, the air strikes. That’s also an unwieldy part. It’s OK to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, because then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested it. But there’s a bit of a legal nicety involved if you do that in Syria.

Nobody has recognized a government in Syria that is not Bashir al-Assad’s. So if the US bombarded the IS on Syrian soil, it would be violating international law if Assad did not request it. That is if sovereignty still counts for something.

In fact Assad can take advantage of the legal awkwardness of the projected US air strikes in Syria by simply making such a request. Would the US desist from attacking the IS on Syrian soil because Assad requested it? No. But when the US strikes the IS in Syria anyway, it would look like compliance.

The Obama strategy follows a tradition. George Friedman of the Geopolitical Weekly has written: “US strategy ought to be to maintain the balance of power in a region using proxies and provide material support to those proxies but avoid direct military involvement (read, boots on the ground) until there is no other option. The most important thing is to provide support that obviates the need for intervention.”

That, I think, is essentially another way of stating the Obama strategy. It’s a Cold War strategy. One that will settle for a stalemate in case the enemy is too strong for the proxies to defeat. In this case the enemy is the IS and the proxies are the Syrian rebels, the Kurds, the Shi-as and the Sunni tribes that won’t accept the IS.

The main deficiency of this strategy is that it says nothing about addressing the root causes of terrorism. It’s silent on what drives young people—most of the IS fighters are under 30—into the arms of a murderous and merciless ideology. What are their grievances? And how may these be redressed?

What environments warped the hearts and minds of these young people? How may these environments be reshaped?

The Obama strategy is silent on these questions. Yet, it’s not a bad strategy. It may work to some extent, depending on how well the proxies fight.

But until the root causes of terrorism are addressed, the 80 countries that produced today’s IS fighters will keep on manufacturing terrorists.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Who Cares About Ukraine? We should!

Late last week, a cease-fire deal went into effect in east Ukraine, giving both the government forces and the Russian-backed separatist rebels some respite from the bloody fighting.

The lull is not expected to last, as the rebels insist on their goal of an independent state, and Russia will keep on sending armaments and “vacationing volunteers” (battle zone tourism?) to the rebel side. On the other hand, new, heftier sanctions will be inflicted on Russia. The US will soon lead military exercises involving several allies inside Ukraine. A NATO quick-reaction force will be deployed near the western border of Ukraine.

Putin seems unimpressed. The Russian people will suffer the brunt of the sanctions, but pride and the reliving of past glory will probably sustain them.

What amazes me is the dawdling response of the Western powers to Putin’s methodical and aggressive destabilization of Ukraine—when in fact they’ve been provoking this kind of behavior since the Berlin Wall fell in 1990. Over the bitter objections of a weakened Russia, they kept hustling NATO eastward, finally promising eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008.

Naturally, Putin was incensed. A NATO spearhead on Russia’s Western border would be a security nightmare.

By then strong enough to invade Georgia, invade he did. And in recent months when the pro-Russian president of Ukraine was ousted in a coup, Putin promptly annexed Crimea and threatened to gobble up the rest of Ukraine. But he knows the Ukrainian heartland is a poisoned pawn, so he settles for destabilizing the country so it can’t join NATO.

On the eve of new economic sanctions, with perfect timing Putin allows the pro-Russian rebels to agree to a cease-fire. A cease-fire that was born moribund. But we can hope against hope that it will last long enough to lead to a real dialogue.

You may dismiss Putin as just a glory-seeking strongman, but the grievances that embittered him are valid. Address those grievances and his jitters, and he well may reveal himself as human. The West should stop treating him like the Cold War loser that a predecessor, Gorvachev, was. This means NATO should stop marching eastward.

What both Europe and Russia need is a buffer zone, in the same way that the French and the British needed a buffer zone between them in Southeast Asia during colonial times. That’s why they allowed an independent Thailand to stand between them. Ukraine—and for that matter Georgia—can serve the same purpose for Europe and Russia today.

So long as Russia binds itself to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, there’s no need for Ukraine to join NATO. Nor does the West need Ukraine in NATO. With a buffer between itself and NATO, Putin’s Russian bear should be less skittish.

Given that, Putin can be persuaded to leave Ukraine alone to engage Europe to its heart’s content in non-military ways, and to become as democratic as it wishes to be. The same goes for Georgia.

And both Europe and Russia will reap peace dividends.

Now, why should we in ASEAN care about what happens in distant Ukraine? Well, as in the financial realm, there’s contagion in conflict. Look at the tragedy that befell Malaysia’s MH-17.

And there’s the tyranny of limited resources that has gripped even the big powers. If they fight a war over Ukraine, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham will say thank you, sirs, for your inattention, and merrily keep on growing as an evil global threat. And if the US is in that war, its stabilizing presence in East Asia will become less reliable. Especially in the South China Sea.

So we should all care what happens in Ukraine. Governments here should keep calling on those directly involved in the muddle to start talking sense with one another.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The IS and the ‘Common Enemy Effect’

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. But this kind of “coordination” between the two doesn’t occur everyday. This time it took an IS to make it happen.

Now Shi-ite 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 protégés, 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 towards 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, Shi-ites, fellow Jihadists, whoever.

Social psychologists have a name for the impact the IS has created: the “common enemy effect.” One study I’ve read about says people who think they’ve a powerful enemy find the world more coherent. Things make more sense. They know who’s 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’ve both disposed of the other bad guy, is still your enemy.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio