The battle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a game of thrones, with players using alliances, revenge and treachery in order to advance their interests. Three recent news headlines involving ISIL and Chechen resistance fighters illustrate not only the scale of the contest but also how marginal the U.S. has become to the adversaries.
First, in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, a suicide bomber reported to be a native of Grozny named Opti Mudarov, killed five and wounded 12 in an attack on a concert to celebrate Gronzny City Day and the birthday of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.
Second, in Kobane, the Kurdish city in northern Syria that is under siege by ISIL fighters, leading the attack is a Chechen, Abu Omar al-Shishani (birth name: Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili), who hails from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia. He happens to be the commander who spearheaded the capture of Mosul, Iraq, in June.
Third, in Turkey, President Recip Erdogan demanded and received an apology from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden after Biden remarked that Erdogan had expressed regret for supporting the Islamists who crossed the border to join ISIL.
To connect these dots about ISIL and the Chechens is to begin to comprehend why ISIL is advancing its goals to conquer and hold territory despite U.S. airstrikes and the collective might of the U.S. and regional actors.
The Grozny attack illustrated Russia’s risk in the war with ISIL. Even after defeating the Chechens in two civil wars in the 1990s, the Kremlin knows the Chechen threat has grown to become part of an outlaw state. The Emirate of the Caucasus is tied to all the major Islamist militants in the Middle East, such Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) and ISIL.
The true reason the Kremlin maintains alliances with Iran and Syria is to bolster the wedge of Shia power in the region for fear of the Chechens and their Islamist militant allies sweeping all the way from the Persian Gulf into Central Asia.
Moscow will not relent in its alliance with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria because its options are to fight the Chechens and ISIL in the Middle East or fight them in Russia. Militant veterans from Syria and Iraq are said to have started to infiltrate back into Russia, and the Kremlin is primed for trouble.
The Chechens have no home to return to and fight with a ferocity that is unmatched in the region.
The Chechens are ISIL’s shock troops. Shishani’s Chechens lead the siege of Kobane because ISIL recognizes that their violence and zealotry are force multipliers. The Chechens defeated the Syrian army at Raqqa, cracked the Iraqi army at Mosul and are smashing the People’s Protection Unit, the Kurdish army in Kobane.
The Chechens have no home to return to and fight with a ferocity that is unmatched in the region. Shishani, who converted to Islam and whose mother was an ethnic Chechen, is celebrated in his home village for his exploits in Syria and Iraq. Dozens of young men from the region have followed him to ISIL, and the increasing popularity of ISIL worries both Georgian leaders and the Kremlin. Everyone is correctly frightened of the Chechens, especially the minorities whom ISIL is determined to destroy, starting with the Kurds.
There is little evidence that several hundred U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have in any significant way constrained the Chechens. The U.S. is learning what the Russians already know: that the only way to defeat the Chechens is what was done in Grozny — city-leveling urban combat.
As for Turkey’s place in the war, Biden spoke accurately when he acknowledged that the country has aided and abetted ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra. He was obliged to walk back his remarks anyway. His apology to Erdogan showed how marginal the U.S. is to the war on ISIL.
Erdogan supports ISIL and its kindred Jabhat Al-Nusra in order to weaken the Assad regime and its sponsor Tehran and to advance Turkey’s regional hegemony. This is Turkey versus Iran in a pure power clash.
Erdogan also supports ISIL because it is crushing the Kurds and making it easier for Turkey to deny them their longed-for statehood. At Kobane, while Turkey is claiming it will lend a hand, it is in fact standing back and letting the Chechens lead the fight against the People’s Protection Unit. The Kurds, enraged by the Turkish intrigue, have started deadly clashes with Turkish authorities in southeastern Turkey.
Finally, Erdogan is using his support for ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra as a way to promote Turkey’s superiority over Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, especially Qatar, as intended leader of the Sunni world and to revive Ottoman dominance.
The most significant recent regional development, however, is that the emir of the Caucasus, Ali Abu Mukhammad, is said to be one of the Islamist militant leaders who are mediating between Al-Qaeda and its offshoots ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, with the intention of creating a united front against the U.S. and its allies.
Especially confounding in all this is the adversaries’ use of Washington as leverage against one another. Ankara claims U.S. support in its war against Damascus and Tehran. Yet at the same time, Tehran recognizes that the U.S. needs its military might and diplomatic skills in the war against ISIL. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states need U.S. airpower to contain the advance of ISIL, while Riyadh is aware that the Obama administration is making major concessions to Tehran in order to rescue the failing regime in Iraq.
This game of thrones across the region is a war of attrition that will not end for decades. For the moment, the balance of power is moving back and forth between Turkey and Iran. The fall of Kobane would boost Turkey. A defeat of ISIL’s Chechen shock troops anywhere would lift Iran. In either case, the U.S. will remain a bit player.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article misidentified the current emir of the Caucasus. Doku Umarov was emir until his reported death under obscure circumstances in Sept. 2013.