Making and breaking of IS

October 12, 2014

The present chaos in the Mideast is the outcome of Western and US policies that stunted the growth of open, liberal and moderate societies in the Arab world

Making and breaking of IS

Eventually after months of wait and see approach, the United States and its Arab allies have launched massive air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria unleashing yet another campaign against a Middle Eastern militant outfit, with uncertain consequences. The IS, which is also known by the name Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after its sudden emergence a few months back, has overran large swathes of territory in northern Iraq and eastern Syria and continues to incorporate more and more areas in these countries to its belt.

The US and allies air strikes may halt the advance of the group in different directions but would likely dismember the group to assume a guerilla posture than to act like a rebel army.

The US decided to lead the campaign against the IS after two American journalists covering the events in Iraq and Syria were captured and beheaded by the militant group. However, irrespective of the barbarous executions, Washington had to lead the fight against the IS as it posed threat to the Iraqi regime. Moreover, the US intervention was necessary for preventing Syria from falling in the lap of the IS. It would be extremely difficult for the embattled regime of President Bashar al Assad to stop the IS from overrunning the whole country. Bashar has been fighting rebels, including some US-backed groups like Harakat Hazem, for years and the civil war that started more than three years back has claimed more than 190,000 lives so far.

The US and its allies have so far decided to limit the campaign against the IS to massive air strikes. The US has decided against sending regular forces on the ground in Iraq. This has given rise to a strange situation because without having ground forces in place it would be extremely difficult to capture and hold territory from the IS. For the moment the US is relying on its support to local militias in Syria and Iraqi government forces to occupy territory, cleansed of IS fighters. However, this may turn out to be a faulty strategy particularly in Syria where the Bashar regime forces might man the areas vacated from the IS instead of the rival US-backed militias. The resultant clashes between regime’s forces and opponents may provide opportunities to the IS to stage a comeback once the air campaign subsides.

On the other hand, the US and allies are also banking upon thousands of Syrian and Iraqi recruits currently being trained in Saudi Arabia to land in the war theatre and protect their respective countries against militants. However, the efficacy of these recruits is a big question mark. Thus sooner or later the US would have to send at least small contingents of regular forces to Iraq and Syria to stabilise the region. Mere massive air strikes may not work to eliminate IS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

Ironically, the US and its Western allies have different military strategies to tackle the group. These strategies are linked to their divergent political viewpoints regarding Syria and Iraq.

While the US and its Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, are carrying out strikes against the IS in Syria, the Western allies have apparently abstained from conducting air raids inside Syria. The latter, which include the UK, Netherlands, France, Australia, Denmark and Belgium, have so far restricted their strikes against the IS to Iraq. This shows that the Western countries out there to fight the IS have different political viewpoints regarding the sovereign status of Syria and Iraq.

Ostensibly, apart from the US its other western allies think that Syria, still ruled by Bashar’s regime, has the legitimacy which prevents any other state or alliance of states to carry out independent action within its (Syrian) territory when a government is there. This lack of consensus among the Western allies does not augur well for their war against the IS.

In order to decisively defeat the IS, Washington and its allies or the world in general would have to address the main causes of the rise of the IS or similar groups. This needs strategic approach as tactical moves like air raids would prove counterproductive. Indubitably, the most important cause of the sudden emergence of the IS was the reign of terror, which Bashar’s regime unleashed on the Syrian population, including large number of Sunnis. Yet another important reason for the rise of the IS has been the Shiite-led regime of Iraq, whose policies under, now deposed prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki, marginalised the large Sunni population of Iraq without being able to stabilise the country.

In fact, the sectarian policies of Iraq have brought the country to the verge of collapse as the Kurd-inhabited areas in northern Iraq have already pronounced their independence. The resultant political vacuum and chaos in both Iraq and Syria provided the enabling environment for the IS to emerge and thrive by winning supporters and recruits.

Therefore, the most important way to decisively address the issue of the IS is to restore stability rather statehoods of both Iraq and Syria which their present outgoing regimes have lacerated. In Syria this could not be possible without eliminating the rule of Alawite dynasty, presently represented by Bashar.

At the same time it must also be acknowledged that the rise of groups like the IS and al Qaeda affiliate, Jabahat al Nusra, is not merely the result of draconian and sectarian policies of dictatorial regime of Syria or so-called constitutional Iraqi regime. The radicalisation of Sunni youth of Iraq and Syria or for that matter in the whole Arab world is equally responsible for the rise of such groups. One of the key factors in radicalisation of the youth in the Arab world is the selective and de-contextualised interpretation and exegesis of Islamic scripture which transformed some self-proclaimed adherents of the religion of peace into blood-thirsty creatures. This may be a grand conspiracy against Islam of which even its executors may not be cognizant of.

Realising the contribution of radicalisation of minds of young Arab men and women in the emergence of groups like the IS, US President Barrack Obama recently stated, while addressing the United National General Assembly, that his country "is not and never will be at war with Islam." Separating militants from Islam, he said, "Islam teaches peace," and stressed upon Muslims worldwide to "to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and IS. Their (militants) propaganda has coerced young people to travel abroad to fight their wars, and turned students into suicide bombers . . . We must offer an alternative vision."

The fundamental problem is that how to provide this alternative vision. The US realisation regarding radicalisation of Muslims is commendable but only such realisation would not make a difference. The real thing is how to factor in this realisation in policymaking. Alternative vision to Arab Muslims from the US and the West is only possible if the latter remove the roadblocks to the evolution of open and truly democratic societies in the Arab world.

Looking at the issue of radicalisation in the Middle East from another angle it transpires that the Western and US policies are extensively responsible for stunting the growth of open, liberal and moderate societies in the Arab world. Washington, by supporting personal, non-democratic rulers and regimes in the Arab world, contributed to the rise of an ultra-radical mindset.

Experts on extremism and terrorism often cite the ’frustration-aggression’ hypothesis to explain the joining of extremist-militant groups by youth. These experts contend that when the youth gets disenchanted with the closed political or governance system of their countries, they resort to extremist and violent ways to make their way forward.

Making and breaking of IS