ISIS: it is the ideology that matters


President Obama on Wednesday authorized a major expansion of the military campaign against rampaging Sunni militants in the Middle East, including American airstrikes in Syria and the deployment of 475 more military advisers to Iraq. But he sought to dispel fears that the United States was embarking on a repeat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the New York Times reports.

“Working with our partners,” he said, “we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding; improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter its warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.”

The strategy drew commendations and criticisms from analysts and observers.

“It is one thing to declare the sanctity of borders; it is quite another to assure that those borders provide their inhabitants peace and security rather than oppression and instability,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.”

The missing piece of the president’s approach is a concerted international program to help weak states deliver the popular contentment that reinforces loyalty to nations as they now exist, he wrote for the Times:

In the 1950s, containing the Soviet reach and the terrifying nuclear arms race were obvious first priorities. The problem Mr. Obama faces, from Donetsk to Mosul, is quite different — the simultaneous drives of a relatively weaker Russia and a terror-prone faction of religious Middle East extremists to bite off chunks of nearby states by inflaming sectarian, tribal or ethnic antagonisms within them. Today’s Russian menace and Islamic State horrors are threats to be sure, but largely because Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and other potential targets all contain within them ethnic groups and sects fighting over power and influence. So Mr. Obama’s big challenge is to help weak states reconcile, compromise and unite, and thus deny enemies a chance to start civil wars.

“If that sounds like nation building, it is,” Nasr concludes.

It is legitimate for the US to pursue ISIS, according to a senior administration official, because it is “the true inheritor of Usama Bin Laden’s legacy.”

In other words, it is the ideology that matters, not the organization, analyst Yishai Schwartz  writes for the New Republic:

Ideologies are notoriously difficult to stamp out. They evolve and spread and can go underground. States cannot. And while the Islamic State is most definitely a terrorist group, it is also a state. It has territory under its control and centralized bureaucracyall of which makes it more easily destroyed.

Different countries are suspicious of the United States for different reasons, but all feel betrayed in some way by recent U.S. policies, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Institute in Qatar.

“They see the security threat posed by the Islamic State. They want it defeated, because at the end of the day, the Islamic State overturns states, and as states, they are threatened,” he tells the Washington Post.

However, he said, “there’s this nagging doubt that this strategy is intended just to serve American interests and not the broader interests of the region.”

Barry Pavel, a former Obama national security aide now at the Atlantic Council, said the president might be acting too tentatively.

“I’m not sure half-steps into Syria are ultimately going to achieve the president’s goals,” he tells the Times. “It’s a fine strategy for contain and disrupt. It’s not a strategy for defeat by any means. If you want to defeat ISIS, you have to go all-in to Syria, which the president isn’t prepared to do.”

Obama’s challenge in persuading the American public to support his strategy against the Islamic State group has less to do with how many troops are in the fight than answering the question, “What are the strategic objectives of the United States?” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution who worked at the State Department from 2009 to 2012.

“You can say ‘no boots on the ground,’ but that does not really solve their anxiety,” she tells the Washington Post. “They want to know what defines the end of our engagement.”

ISIS is purely and simply not a terrorist organization any longer. Neither is it the simple manifestation of nihilistic evil the president makes out, analysts Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberley Kagan write for the Weekly Standard:

ISIL has described a very clear vision of seizing control of all of the territory of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories.  It intends to abolish all of the borders and redraw them according to a new structure of governance suitable to its hateful version of an old Islamic heresy.  That vision also makes it more than a simple terrorist organization.  It’s awfully hard to develop a sound strategy when you start by mis-diagnosing the problem so profoundly. That’s why the “strategy” the president just announced has no chance of success.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg worries that the U.S. “will be counting on a dysfunctional Iraqi army; intermittently effective Kurdish guerrillas; Sunni tribes of dubious loyalty; and, of course, the Free Syrian Army—the force that Obama has spent three years disparaging as a collection of farmers and carpenters and engineers—to do the hard work of rooting ISIS out of presumably fortified towns and cities.”

“Much of what Obama is promising in this ramped-up campaign is help for these outfits, but the U.S. has spent a dozen years training the Iraqi army, with negligible results,” he notes.

It is imperative that international action does not bolster the IS ideology, says Quilliam, the UK-based anti-extremist group.The following issues need more attention, it suggests:

  • It is vital that international action against IS does not tacitly give legitimacy to the Assad regime, which has played a central role in the unprecedented turmoil wracking the region right now. Hence, the international community must also take a strong line against all of those responsible, including Assad and IS, by working with, and supporting, the most competent Syrian opposition groups.
  • The border between Turkey and Iraq/Syria must be secured to help prevent the flow of foreign fighters to IS, fighters who comprise a significant percentage of the group. The porous border between Turkey and Syria, in particular, must be secured, something for which Ankara must take immediate responsibility.
  • Greater pressure needs to be placed on states and private individuals in the region that have financed jihadist groups in Syria. IS’s precipitous rise is, among other things, a direct product of the wrong-footed policy of funding Islamist militants to pursue international political goals, and those responsible must be held to account.
  • More training and support needs to be offered to the Iraqi government to help counter the appeal of jihadism in the country. Concurrently, European governments must do more to counter the appeal of jihadism amongst their own populations and support initiatives that undermine jihadist messaging and recruitment efforts on- and offline.
  • Diplomatic pressure must be exacted upon Baghdad to ensure that the recent reshuffle in parliament makes tangible change. It is imperative that the Sunni community in Iraq is not alienated again and that the new government rules in an inclusive manner.
  • With at least 12,000 foreign citizens from 81 states fighting for IS, we must be aware that military action will cause the deaths of some of these people, including Britons. British citizens are still the responsibility of the UK government, and we must therefore redouble efforts to prevent more Britons going to fight and, equally, set up deradicalisation programmes in prison for those who return.

“Jihadism is an inherently destructive force, not a constructive one,” Quilliam’s Managing Director, Ghaffar Hussain, said in response to last night’s speech. “The international campaign against IS must do all it can to encourage local people living under IS rule to reject their message of hate and division and work with the new Iraqi government to restore peace and create inclusive politics. This kind of change can only come from within, and it starts with empowerment.” 

But the composition of Iraq’s new government does not inspire confidence that it can embrace inclusive politics.  

“Much of the praise for this new government is unwarranted and premature,” said Wayne White, a policy expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former State Department analyst. “Most of its cabinet members are retreads from previous sectarian governments.”

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