The dramatic events occurring in the Middle East in the last few months have again muddled the primitive black-and-white picture painted by proponents of a new Cold War between Russia and the West.

The rapid advances of an Islamist army under the banner of ISIL (subsequently renamed ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the mass ethnic and religious slaughter that is taking place there, the blood-soaked videos featuring the executions of Americans and Europeans, and ISIS’ threats against the United States, Europe and the Russian leadership now top the list of the developments making a powerful impact on the global agenda, which was previously entirely dominated by the events in and around Ukraine.

Leaving the intricacies of yet another Middle Eastern conflict to the experts in the field, we can attempt to draw a number of general conclusions on the subject.

First of all, it should be noted that the events taking place in Iraq and Syria have highlighted once again the futility and counterproductive nature of efforts to export European political norms and institutions—both democratic and socialist—to the rigid Islamic societies that find themselves at various stages of tribal and feudal social development.

One may remember that these efforts actually began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which plunged this peaceful patriarchal country into the abyss of civil war, turning it into a foothold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Afghanistan’s tragic experience has since been repeated in the course of the West’s military interventions in Iraq and Libya. A similar scenario is likely to be replicated in Syria if the Bashar Assad regime collapses, and in Afghanistan following the prospective NATO troop withdrawal in 2016. After the NATO withdrawal, a wave of militant Islamism threatens to originate there, engulfing Pakistan, Central Asia, Russian North Caucasus, and other regions.

The above countries and regions certainly differ, but the general rule is that, for them, democracy does not appear to be an alternative to authoritarian secular regimes, which are often repressive at home and aggressive abroad. Instead, the western-imposed regimes are succeeded by Islamic extremists that generate chaos, violence, arms and drug trafficking, as well as support for international terrorism.

It is counterproductive for both East and West of the European civilization to exploit Islamic extremism in their struggle against each other, and their attempts to remove other adversarial regimes. In most cases, such efforts eventually backfire. The United States and its allies learned this the hard way, when the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which they organized and armed against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, subsequently perpetrated horrendous terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe. The Islamic militants that the West nurtured now engage in military and terrorist operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, and other countries.

The militarized Islamic organizations that the Soviet Union created within the framework of the Palestinian “national liberation movement” later sent their fighters into wars against the Soviet Union and Russia in Afghanistan, North Caucasus, and Tajikistan. They also contributed to the organization of terrorist attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities.

Any distinctions drawn between “good” and “bad” Islamists are artificial and come at a substantial cost. This is especially evident in Syria at the moment, where the United States is trying to distinguish between the ISIS and the Syrian Liberation Army militants. The former are being bombed, while the latter are being armed, even though there are no guarantees that militants and weapons do not move back and forth from one group to the other. Besides, the airstrikes frequently hit the wrong targets.

In using the struggle against the Assad regime as a way to undermine the regional positions of its Iranian and Russian supporters, Washington is also weakening the bastion of resistance to militant Islamism in the region. This strengthens those bent on overthrowing American allies in Iraq, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as potentially in Afghanistan.

In addition, it is extremely important that the great powers observe international legal norms and act through legitimate international institutions in all uses of force overseas. The 1991 military operation in Iraq and the 2001 anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan were successful to a large extent because they were conducted in accordance with the UN charter and prerogatives, which afforded them broad international support, not just from the allied states.

However, both political attention, as well as material and human resources shifted to Iraq, while sustaining prolonged antiterrorist operations and economic reconstruction in two countries proved too heavy a burden for the United States and its partners. This has ultimately brought about the effective defeat of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and the current ISIS offensive there.

It is also worth mentioning that legitimacy is an extremely controversial issue in international relations and thus should be approached with utmost caution. For instance, Washington still asserts that the Assad regime lost its legitimacy in its “war against the Syrian people”. Why then didn’t the United States reject Assad’s decision to join the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013? Why did it cooperate with the “illegitimate” government as 1,000-ton stockpiles of these weapons of mass destruction were being removed from the country?

We have finally arrived at the most important point.  Relations between Russia and the West are in deep crisis right now. This crisis is not exclusively related to events in Ukraine, but also the legitimate interests of the post-Soviet states, the system of European and global security, the possibility of equal partnership between Russia and the United States, NATO and the European Union, Russia’s own development and its search for its place in a polycentric world. This unprecedented crisis threatens a return to international relations at the time of the Cold War.

Yet, this crisis is caused by conflict within the framework of the same European Christian civilization. One should not underestimate the danger of these conflicts: after all, two world wars sprang from the midst of this civilization in the 20th century. But in this day and age, these conflicts are no longer antagonistic—especially after the struggle between communism and capitalism became a thing of the past, giving way to the competition between different models of market economies and their political supplements and interests.

The ISIS offensive in Iraq and Syria, and the atrocities that accompanied it have become a message from heaven of sorts. It serves as a reminder to Europeans that they have an immeasurably more frightening enemy standing at their gates. ISIS openly declares that it will settle for nothing less than the destruction of European civilization, and pursues this goal by combining the activities of terrorist network s inside the United States, Europe and Russia with full frontal offensives in the adjacent regions.

However, we are not witnessing the Huntingtonian clash between Christianity and Islam. ISIS’ victims are now mostly Shiite Moslems and non-Arabic peoples, as well as Islamic regimes gravitating toward Iran, Russia and the United States. In reality, this is a clash between modern civilization (all its diversity and conflicts notwithstanding) and the medieval world of religious fanaticism, uncompromising ideology, intolerance of any differences of opinion, total war, mass genocide and individual acts of unparalleled cruelty. Moreover, all of these dangers are amplified by cutting-edge information technologies, global communications and modern weapons. This is exactly what World War III looks like.

The current conflict between Russia and the West, as serious as it is, pales in comparison. While this conflict is not about mutual destruction, it could seriously hinder the concerted efforts to combat the common enemy, which, incidentally, does not care about the disagreements Moscow has with Kiev, Brussels and Washington.

During the Cold War era, the USSR and the United States would probably have supported opposing sides of the new war in the Middle East. In the following twenty years, they would probably have actively cooperated on the issue, as they did during the 2001 anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan.

Presently, the sides do not work against one another, but they do not act in concert either (with the exception of the UN Security Council vote on ISIS). Nevertheless, while opposing each other on the Ukrainian issue, engaging in a sanctions war, and even flexing their military muscle, both Russia and the West supply Iraq with weapons and military equipment. Besides, Moscow is providing military aid to Damascus and is protesting against the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

At the same time, in his UN speech, the Syrian foreign minister approved the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS on his country’s territory. In this context, Iran becomes the ally of Syria, Iraq, Russia, and the United States, while still being subjected to Western sanctions and remaining Israel’s enemy on account of its nuclear program. Meanwhile, the U.S. president, also in a UN speech, called Russia a greater threat to the international security than ISIS (although a lesser threat than the spread of the Ebola virus).

Thus, the modern world presents us with an incredibly complex, conflicting and at times somewhat bizarre picture. The new crisis in the Middle East has served as a prism, breaking this picture up into its constituent elements.

Finally, the positive outcome of the 2001 operation in Afghanistan and the negative results of the 2003 invasion of Iraq suggest that airstrikes, raids by special forces, and even ground troop offensives do not in and of themselves guarantee victory in the struggle against militant Islam. They can merely delay or postpone the extremists’ advances. To win, the great powers and their regional partners must unite in combating the common threat. They should realistically assess the international security priorities and urgently resolve the conflicts that stand in the way of their unity.

  • Alexey Arbatov