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This is a crucial and underappreciated point about why defeating ISIS is so difficult

Iraqi soldiers on a May 2015 training exercise.
Iraqi soldiers on a May 2015 training exercise.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty

There is, to many casual observers of the Middle East, a certain puzzle in why ISIS has managed to hang out, improbably, for so long. The group is much weaker than all of its neighbors — it is a small, underfunded, and unprofessional force compared with the relatively larger and more modern armies of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, not to mention of Iran and Saudi Arabia — and it is at war with all its neighbors. So how has it survived against all these stronger foes?

To use a crude metaphor, it would be something like the scrawniest kid at school starting a fight with every single kid on the playground simultaneously, and then somehow holding them all off for 18 months and counting.

So what's going on here? The conventional wisdom is that the anti-ISIS allies are "divided." But Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains in an insightful and important piece at War on the Rocks that there is something much more important going on here.

Every country in the Middle East is at war with ISIS. Yet none of them see ISIS as their primary enemy. In their view, Knights explains, the war against ISIS is merely a precursor to what they believe will be far more important battles to come, often against one another. "In many cases actors are fighting the Islamic State purely to better position themselves for these other conflicts," he writes. "The many wars within the war against the Islamic State ... are already beginning."

Their primary goal isn't to defeat ISIS. Rather it is to prepare for what they see as "the next war — or, likely, wars." Here's Knights's thesis:

All of our allies and rivals have far more complex goals than degrading and defeating the Islamic State. For them, the current battle is really a game of positioning for the truly decisive action that will begin as soon as the Islamic State is defeated.

He goes through a few examples. For one, Iran and Saudi Arabia are primarily concerned with fighting ISIS in a way that will best position them for their Cold War–style competition for influence in the post-ISIS Middle East. That means focusing more on pushing their respective proxies against one another than on pushing those proxies against ISIS.

Another example: Kurdish groups are showing tremendous success fighting ISIS, but their primary goal is not to defeat ISIS but rather to establish long-term control over certain territory they see as rightfully Kurdish. Currently, that Kurdish goal overlaps with fighting ISIS, but when it ceases to overlap — most ISIS-held territory is of no interest to Kurds — they will cease being such terrific allies.

In other words, the anti-ISIS allies aren't just divided — they see this all as a staging ground for the coming struggle for power and control over the Middle East between Sunni and Shia, between Arab and Kurd, between Saudi-led and Iran-led factions. As long as they believe these bigger and more important conflicts are coming after ISIS, they're going to focus on those and not on ISIS. And that means they're not going to be particularly good or effective at fighting ISIS. It's an enormous problem.

So what can the US do about all of this? How can the US solve this problem?

Knights sees America as stuck in "impossible choices between traditional Sunni allies and the up-and-coming Shia actors who are critical players in the war against the Islamic State." Either the US needs to balance the competition between the Iran/Shia faction and the Saudi/Sunni faction so that they will not seek to overturn one another, or it needs to choose a side. In either case, Knights says, "the United States needs to start preparing to deter or fight the next wars now because our opponents are already starting to act."

These are important points. This Middle Eastern divide is a problem that's going to plague US strategy and interests in the region throughout the fight against ISIS, and indeed long after ISIS is defeated. That means well into the next administration.

Unfortunately, if any of the presidential candidates in either party are aware that this problem even exists, much less have solutions for it, they have done nothing to signal as much. Their explanation for the ineffectiveness of the anti-ISIS coalition typically boils down, "It's because President Obama is insufficiently tough or persuasive," and their answers are, "I will fix this problem by being personally tougher or more persuasive in such a way that will convince our allies to better fight ISIS."

This rhetoric isn't just superficial and simplistic, although it is certainly that. It completely ignores the structural factors that lead Middle Eastern nations to see fighting ISIS as not their primary goal. It ignores the fact that Middle Eastern states are ultimately guided by their own interests in the region, not by their leaders' assessments of the character traits of whomever happens to be US president. It takes a very big problem and pretends it is a very small problem.

That might be better politics and easier to manage into sound bites, but it is dumbing down Americans' understanding of the Middle East and of why the struggle to defeat ISIS is taking so long. And it tells Americans to ignore the enormous and long-term structural problems that will be with the Middle East, and thus with the US, for years to come.