How West has strengthened extremists

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Middle East being rocked by another wave of violence
  • Syrian tragedy spreading well beyond country's borders, she says

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In the past couple of days, the Middle East has been rocked by yet another wave of violence.

You may think this is old news, simply more of the same. But it isn't. New conflicts and attacks are popping up all over the region as the virus of violence that has been allowed to fester in Syria has continued its relentless spread outward.
As a result, the catastrophe of the Syrian people is becoming a worsening tragedy outside that country's borders, too. And the sad truth is you need a spreadsheet these days to keep track of the warring sides and shifting calculations of all involved in one of the most complicated web of conflicts the world has ever seen.
    In the early hours of Thursday, the people of Cairo were shaken awake by a powerful blast. Dozens were injured in an attack that took place in front of an Egyptian government security building. An Egyptian group affiliated with the self-anointed Islamic State, or ISIS, claimed responsibility. The blast was just the latest in an escalating war between the government and the local ISIS branch, which last month saw militants attack an Egyptian navy vessel in a missile strike that showed this is no small-time guerrilla group.
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    The previous day, Turkey saw the latest flare-up in tensions that look to be developing into a much larger conflict between government forces and Kurdish separatists. On Wednesday, gunmen in the heart of Istanbul opened fire on a palace popular with tourists. The same day, in the southeast of the country, eight soldiers were killed; soon after, government F-16s struck shelters of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK.
    The attacks come within weeks of the Turkish government recently agreeing to join the fight against ISIS forces, giving the U.S. and the anti-ISIS coalition increased access to its air bases to conduct bombing raids. But there is a caveat: Turkey has focused much of its attention on Kurdish forces. This has caused some consternation, as the Kurds have been the most effective fighting force against ISIS, and have been supported by the United States and other Western powers.
    A newly released video from ISIS features one of its militants, a bearded man holding a rifle and speaking perfect Turkish, calling on Turks to join the fight and conquer Istanbul on behalf of the ISIS caliphate. Meanwhile, ISIS has launched a Turkish language magazine with a cover story entitled "The Conquest of Constantinople," the old name for Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.
    And in Libya, the internationally recognized government -- which controls a shrinking share of the country -- this week pleaded for help from Arab states as its local ISIS branch continues to make gains.
    The heart of the fighting, of course, is in Syria, where ISIS has built the stronghold that allows it to expand its influence, with large portions of neighboring Iraq now also under ISIS control, with all the medieval brutality that entails.
    The conflict started in Syria as an effort to unseat the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad. But the West's failure to help moderate forces strengthened extremists of all stripes. And as al-Assad looked like he might fall, Iran stepped in to support his regime. Indeed, Tehran has pledged to back al-Assad "until the end," reportedly sending advisers and mobilizing Hezbollah militias from Lebanon.
    Other Islamist groups fighting the government (and each other) in Syria include the Islam Army, operating near Damascus, Ahrar al-Sham, a radical group that has tried to make a play for Western support, and the so-called Khorasan group, which came to prominence after the U.S. said it had been plotting against Western targets. Then there are alliances, such as Jaysh al-Fateh, through which disparate groups have tried -- with limited success -- to work together in their efforts to unseat al-Assad.
    And finally, reports have suggested Iran has been organizing Shiite mercenaries from Afghanistan to fight in Syria. Meanwhile, ISIS is increasingly threatening Afghanistan, a country that had more than its share of problems before this new wave of extremism.
    America's feeble and much-delayed efforts to train moderate Syrian fighters have failed, in part because Washington demands that its trainees fight only ISIS, not al-Assad. This is despite the fact that the alliance known as the Free Syrian Army, which aimed for a secular Syria and which was established by defectors from the Syrian military, had been an important part of the conflict.
    Of course there has been fighting among insurgent groups. But their main goal is ultimately to unseat al-Assad, a goal that the United States says it shares, but is reluctant to put into action out of fear of even greater chaos.
    So, the United States wants al-Assad gone, but seems to want ISIS defeated more. Turkey, for its part, is a NATO ally of the United States, yet despite seeing ISIS as a threat also argues it needs to focus on cracking down on the PKK, a separatist Kurdish group. But the PKK is affiliated with the Syria's Kurdish party, the PYD, which has an armed group, the People's Protection Units or YPG, whose battalions have handed ISIS some of its worst defeats.
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    Sadly, the proliferation of groups and interests means ever more numbers are set to be intimidated, terrorized and brutalized. And with each new group comes a new threat to a government in the region. All this is being fueled by the Syrian disaster, a crisis that is creating ever more conflicts and mini-wars all over the Middle East.
    Ultimately, every new explosion, every new killing, every new refugee, is yet another indicator of disastrous global leadership -- leadership that first failed to prevent catastrophe in Syria, and which then stood back until it was too late to stop it spilling bloodily over its borders and spattering extremist ideology to all corners of the world.