An Unruly Instrument - ISIS as the Hitler to the Gulf States' Stalin

Hitler – Stalin’s instrument run amok

“Icebreaker” was Adolf Hitler’s designation by Soviet intelligence. The fall of the Soviet Union gave historians access to documentary material sealed for decades behind layers of obfuscation, lies and half-truths. Papers which Moscow consistently denied as ever having existed reporting on meetings which ostensibly never took place suddenly became public knowledge. It is not surprising, then, that a primary area of new research focused on the seemingly beaten down topic of the Second World War. It would appear that almost everything which could be written or said about that conflict has been and the narrative is as unassailable as a mathematical proof: Adolf Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declared war in line with their guarantees of Polish independence. The Soviet Union intervened, officially to “protect” eastern Slavs from “fascist” oppression (in reality in accordance with the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Protocols to partition Poland), on September 17. One German victory led to another until a setback over the skies of Britain, the invasion of Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, America’s entry into the war after Pearl Harbor and Germany’s eventual defeat.

There could be no question as to whose hands were dirtiest regarding the start of the conflict and that World War II was Germany’s war. Stalin’s arrangement with Hitler was rooted in survival and when that expired with the latter’s invasion, the Soviet Union quickly joined with its ideological foes to defeat their more vicious, common enemy. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham referred to this telling over the past couple of days when he urged the U.S. to tacitly align with Iran in order to prevent the Sunni Islamist ISIS militia from seizing Baghdad and toppling the Iraqi Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. We dealt with Stalin because Hitler was worse, exhorted Graham. Iran could provide assets, along with Turkey, to stop ISIS (presumably with American air power) and keep the Iraqi government afloat.

Unfortunately for Graham and the U.S. national security establishment, the consensus tale of the Second World War’s origins has been savaged by a series of sensational revisionist accounts. Most prominent and convincing of these comes from former Soviet intelligence officer and historian Vladimir Rezun (aka Viktor Suvorov), whose research was published for mass distribution in English five years ago  under the title: The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II.

Suvorov’s work effectively links Hitler’s rise to power to a grand design by Stalin, his Politburo and the Comintern based in Moscow to spark a world revolution through Germany. Far from being a fool who struggled, in vain, to stave off war with Germany, Suvorov contends that there would never have been a war, or a Nazi Germany for that matter, but for Stalin’s efforts. From Stalin’s intervention to prevent the German Communists from uniting with the Social Democrats to form a political block against Hitler in the 1932 German Reichstag Elections to coordinated violence between the Nazis and the Communists against the Social Democrats in East Prussia to the active military assistance provided to Hitler’s rearmament efforts in the early 1930s, Suvorov crosses the “i’s” and dots the “t’s” with Stalin’s own dispatches and meeting transcripts to show that Soviet dictator paved Hitler’s road to power.

Stalin considered Hitler a valuable (almost indispensable) asset to instigate a European conflict and give the Soviet Union the opportunity to finish the unfinished business of 1918. The Soviet leader gave orders to the German Communists that they were to consider the Social Democrats, rather than the Nazis, their primary foes as early as 1927. Moreover, it was Stalin’s financial support for the Nazi election campaign in 1932 that is partly credited with saving Hitler’s movement from bankruptcy. Such support continued until hours before the German invasion in 1941 when trainloads of iron ore and grain were being sent across a border lined with millions of German troops and tanks. In this context, what happened in August 1939 and the invasion of Poland was no mere gamble by Stalin to buy his country time from a hostile Germany, but a tactical move to make Germany the aggressor in a European conflict that would draw in the West European power who, Moscow hoped, would keep Hitler occupied for at least 2-3 years. Unfortunately for the Soviet leader, the protracted war in the west ended in seven weeks and Hitler headed east well ahead of schedule. While this resulted in Germany’s defeat, Stalin’s grand design for a takeover of continental Europe was thwarted.

Thus, Hitler became Stalin’s instrument run amok. Unleashed by the Soviet dictator upon Europe to bring the continent to its knees, he deviated from script and nearly destroyed the sponsor.

ISIS – the Hitler to the Gulf States’ Stalin

The relationship between Stalin and Hitler during the prelude to the Second World War provides an almost perfect analogue to the current crisis in Iraq with the Sunni ISIS militia army. Although a basic knowledge of ethnic and tribal loyalties in the Arab Middle East would make it a common sense assumption, there is now considerable evidence that the “seed” funding for ISIS, when it was just an Al-Qaeda splinter outfit in Syria fighting alongside the al-Nusra Front and other Sunni Jihadist groups against the Assad regime, came overwhelmingly from the Gulf Sunni states – chiefly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. These countries have played the double-game of funding extremists in peripheral conflicts whilst keeping them suppressed at home for many years.

In the case of ISIS, the money came from wealthy backers through a variety of channels ranging from personal donations to money laundering schemes to sham bank accounts backed by Gulf governments. To think that private individuals in repressive and tightly regulated Arab states could funnel millions of dollars to Syrian Islamists without at least the tacit backing of their host governments is naive at best. Although these countries have publicly denied any direct involvement with ISIS and its allies during the opening stages of the Syrian Civil War, they were not especially cooperative in response to pressure from Washington for a comprehensive crackdown on the group’s financing networks. In short, ISIS would have never gotten off the ground (as Al-Qaeda before it) without substantial assistance (in men, money and material) from the very Gulf States which are now supposed allies of the U.S. in its War Against Terrorism. In other words, the ISIS is the Gulf States’ instrument to achieve specific regional objectives – chiefly against arch-rival Iran and its affiliates, allies and satellites.

ISIS deviates from script in Syria and Iraq

Unfortunately for its Gulf backers, the ISIS appears to have radically deviated from its predetermined role. Having consolidated a foothold in northern Syria in the wake of successful counteroffensives by Assad’s forces (mostly equipped by and through Iran), it has swarmed over the border to take advantage of Sunni agitation with the Shia government in Iraq. To make a long story short, there is no way that 800 militia on flat-back pickup trucks could route 30,000 trained and equipped Iraqi troops without substantial popular support. That support came from Sunni tribal leaders in the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit as well as neighboring villages, as corroborated by those on the ground such as Sheikh Abdel-Qaderal-Nayel and experts such as Ben Connable of the RAND Corporation. Some Sunni leaders have even tried to blackmail the U.S. into staging a military response by threatening to join the ISIS if support were not forthcoming. Like the welcome German forces initially received in Ukraine and the Baltic States in 1941, it appears that fear of Jihadists prone to mass shooting and beheading is counterbalanced with hatred for Baghdad’s Shia government. 

Yet the scale and speed of ISIS’ advance might well sow the seeds for not only the group’s ultimate demise, but a new regional order from what is left of Iraq. Having begun as a paramilitary unit conveniently positioned against the Gulf States’ regional rivals, ISIS has grown into its own organism, unhindered by past constraints. It now controls a quarter of one country and almost half of another, significant oil reserves and over $2 billion in hard assets (not including taxes extracted from small businesses and merchants in areas it controls). With a mind and objectives of its own, there is no reason to believe its thirst will be quenched in Baghdad. More likely, as shown by stepped up recruitment and propaganda efforts inside the Kingdom itself over the past week, ISIS may put itself in a position to directly threaten the borders and power structure of Saudi Arabia and its allies (a brief look at where its forces currently stand in Iraq makes this appear all but obvious). It appears that, just like Stalin with Hitler a century ago, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors have let a genie out of a bottle which is poised to overtake them.

 Saudi/Gulf intervention and stalemate with Iran

It is precisely because the ISIS has gained the capability to threaten Saudi Arabia’s borders and slice away most of Sunni-populated Iraq that the U.S. should not intervene (directly or indirectly) to resolve the present crisis in favor of either the Sunni or Shia factions in the region. There is no need to speculate about what Riyadh will do when, if events should reach such a juncture, ISIS decides to turn its attention south and ignite efforts to undermine the Saudi royal family (tagged as traitors and American lackeys by Al-Qaeda). When faced with a choice of ideology or survival, Saudi King Abdullah has repeatedly gone with the latter. The same regime which sponsors Islamists in Syria has cracked down on Al-Qaeda at home and sent millions in financial support to Egypt’s military government against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, just as the Saudis sent tanks into Bahrain to quell riots tied to the Arab Spring a year ago, they will swing into Iraq the minute they feel their personal survival threatened. 

With Saudi tanks in Iraq to reign in the ISIS and Maliki’s government effectively controlled by Iran (more so in the aftermath of the current Sunni uprising), something resembling a Cold War stalemate will develop. Modern Iraq, carved out of whole cloth in the aftermath of the First World War, will be divided de jure as it has been de facto – the Kurds consolidate in the north (to the detriment of Turkey and the benefit of everyone else), Iran turns the Shia areas east of Baghdad into its greater prosperity sphere and the Saudis (assisted chiefly by Kuwait) hold sway over a Sunni autonomous zone in the center and west. I would not be surprised if, behind closed doors in a neutral area somewhere in central Iraq, Saudi and Iranian representatives meet quietly (as Hitler and Stalin before them) to delegate spheres of influence. 

Nowhere in this design is American intervention wanted or needed. Strengthening the hand of one regional faction at the expense of another is not, and never has been, in Washington’s interest. We have a unique chance, now, to let the region ossify into a lasting stalemate anchored by the stable power centers. Europe had its Thirty Years War. Persia and the Ottomans had theirs for over a century. Washington should not make today’s Middle East ours.