President Barack Obama has announced a more aggressive strategy against Islamic State, including air strikes against its fighters “wherever they are”, even inside Syria – which he had previously ruled out.
By Murat Yetkin
Ankara has been holding security meetings one after the other for the last few days in order to fine tune its stance regarding the U.S.-led efforts to organize coordinated action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which claims statehood on parts of territories in Iraq and Syria. Efforts have stepped up since the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Barack Obama during the NATO summit in Britain between Sept. 4-5.
This was followed by a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel toAnkara on Sept. 8 and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to have talks inAnkara today, Sept. 12, after his contacts in Iraq and his attendance at the first meeting of the international coalition against ISIL in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia yesterday, Sept. 11. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was also there. Obama announced the U.S. strategy to fight ISIL late Sept. 10, almost half a day after the Turkish stance was discussed in a security meeting in Ankara, chaired by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and half a day before the Jeddah meeting.
The content of the strategy was no surprise; it has been leaked in parts for the last few days anyway. The U.S. is going to hit ISIL targets from the air, give intelligence and command-control support for the Iraqi military and Iraqi Kurdish forces, (in a way “outsourcing” the ground war), provide and coordinate logistical and humanitarian support for civilians under ISIL attacks, and train local forces against ISIL and similar radical Islamist forces. The only part of this strategy that does not raise questions is the one about logistical and humanitarian aid to civilians. Questions start to appear with the air strikes in mind. To hit ISIL targets in Iraq is OK, as long as the Iraqi government (and Iran, behind closed doors) cooperates. But hitting targets in Syria could be problematic: The Bashar al-Assad regime has an effective air defense system, supported by Russian technology and a Russian military base by the Mediterranean Sea. But the worst part of Obama’s strategy is the one about training local forces in Saudi Arabia, presumably calling them “moderate” Islamists.
There are reports from the day of the Jeddah conference that Saudi Arabia has agreed to fund such an effort to train and arm ground forces to fight against ISIL, al-Qaeda and others in Syria and Iraq. That recalls memories of Afghanistan, where the U.S. administration of the time had found “moderate” Islamist fighters (“moderate” meant Saudi-backed Sunni tribes back then, since “evil” meant the Shiite Islamic revolutionaries of Iran), in order to stop theRussian invasion by Soviet armies in 1979. They were called the “Mujahedeen,” meaning “Warriors for Jihad,” with a particular, appreciative tone. The Taliban first flourished in the Mujahedeen with the backing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence service of another Islamic regime-U.S. ally, Pakistan, which was also trained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Soviets were defeated and withdrew, which contributed to their disintegration in 1991.
However, Afghanistan had been turned into a major training ground and base of a new generation of Islamist organizations, defying national borders and using terrorist methods extensively. As such, the entire Afghan experience worked as an incubator for al-Qaeda. Like a metaphoric Frankenstein, al-Qaeda turned against the U.S. and the West, which had trained and fed its first fighters. It takes a particular effort of timing for the U.S. president to make his statement about the anti-ISIL coalition on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11. This is especially so for Obama, who had given the order to find and kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Afghanistan was not the first example of the West (not only U.S.) trying to use, or rather abuse religion – in this case, Sunni Islam – for their global policies. The British tried it in India and Ottoman Arabia in the 1910s and 1920s. Nazi Germany tried it with the Muslim Brotherhood, pious Palestinians and Turkic-origin Muslims in Central Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. The Americans and British took the file from Nazi intelligence after World War II and kept trying, thinking that it was a strong antidote against the “Communist threat.” So, the Afghanistan experience had a deep background. And now the training of new “moderates” to fight against new “radicals,” all belonging to different shades of the same Sunni Islamic faith? Supporting autocratic regimes in the region for the sake of energy security and market sustainability, and training and arming the sufferers of those regimes against each other? Is that really a good idea? Turkey should side with the Western alliance against terrorism, but it should try not to get too involved in this fight, which could horrendously affect its internal peace.
This article first appeared in Hurriyet Daily News, a leading Turkish newspaper. Click here to go to the original.
- an increased “systematic campaign of airstrikes”
- providing extra training, intelligence and equipment for Iraqi and Syrian groups already fighting IS (which Obama refers to as ISIL), including sending an extra 475 service members to Iraq – although only in support roles, not as ground troops
- counter-terrorism efforts to prevent IS attacks, “counter their warped ideology” and stem the flow of funding and foreign fighters joining their ranks
- continuing humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians”, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians and others.
As recently as a month ago, Obama had rejected the option of strikes in Syria.
Obama is right to push back against calls within the US for the deployment of combat troops. He is wrong, though, to rely so heavily upon a military solution.
What the address to the nation didn’t address
Politically, Obama’s televised address to the nation had to showcase a strong response to allay the concerns of Americans. Regrettably, there was little to suggest that much effort was put towards developing some of the more important, geo-politically challenging non-military options for fighting IS.
Expanding military action has its limitations. Continued airstrikes run the risk of forcing IS forces to withdraw into urban areas where aerial bombardment would lead to considerable collateral damage – a response that would play into the hands of the very effective IS propaganda machine.
Encouraging Iraqi fighters opposed to IS to engage in urban combat raises the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, and an early retreat if too many civilians are killed. Even if effectively implemented, military might cannot defeat an ideology.
The shift in thinking that is required, at least behind closed doors, is to move away from seeing IS as a terrorist organization.
Fighting a rogue state
Deliberately using Islamic State’s previous name ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Obama today stressed that:
ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.
While Obama is right that IS does not have standing as a state among the community of nations, its strategy is focused on establishing an Islamic State. That’s why any response by the United States should be focused on preventing it from doing so.
A more appropriate response would be for policy makers to see IS as a rogue state. Unlike terrorist groups that seek to disrupt society, IS is focused on the establishment of a new society that requires the support of the people.
Today, they are facing the same challenges as those that the international community faced in rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq, namely building the three pillars critical to a functioning state:
- creating legitimacy
- providing public security
- and catering to the basic needs of the population, such as water, food, health and shelter.
Seeing IS as a rogue state would take the US’s strategy in a different direction. This approach would focus on tracking town by town and community by community how IS is progressing in building each of these three pillars – in doing so, identifying opportunities to weaken each one through targeted military andnon-military responses.
Stemming the flow of oil and foreign fighters
To start undermining IS efforts to establish a state , the US-led international strategy needs to contain and isolate them as well as support alternative centers of authority.
Containing IS through military action including continuing airstrikes will contribute to weakening the group’s legitimacy – albeit marginally – by limiting IS to its current borders. Without battlefield wins, the aura of divine imprimatur is undermined.
Isolating IS will weaken its ability to meet the basic needs of the communities it controls. However, such an approach would require Turkey to prove itself to be a reliable partner.
Year-on-year trade between Turkey and Syria along a border that is largely controlled by Islamic State has increased by 57% – including a 303% increase in vehicles and spare parts. Similarly, it is suspected that the majority of the oil produced in Syrian and Iraqi oilfields is being exported through Turkey via black marketeers.
Foreign jihadists are also guided to Syria via Turkey. Working with Turkey to ensure that not only is there political support, but also logistical capability to close these borders is critical in the near-term.
Hearts and minds
Providing non-military support to alternative centers of authority, such as tribal leaders, Baathists or even more moderate Islamic groups, could also undermine IS’s grip on public security and their efforts to create a growing population of people dependent on them for their basic needs.
This was a common tactic during the Cold War. Critics of such a course often point to the way that Western support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan led to Osama bin Laden’s empowerment. Following the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the political vacuum was filled by a corrupt and incompetent administration, which failed to establish a functioning state, and in turn quickly fell to the Taliban.
This time, the West has more credible, tried and tested partners to work with in the areas that IS currently controls. The Kurds in Iraq have administered a distinct area autonomously for more than 20 years. Turkish Kurdish forces have been in peace negotiations with the central government and have proven themselves worthy partners, especially following their efforts to rescue the minority Yazidi population.
Even Sunni groups who welcomed IS have, in the past, been partners with American forces. Many of those Sunni groups stood alongside Americans in the years following 2006, when together they rid eastern Iraq of al Qaeda. By supporting these groups with non-military assistance, the US and its allies will be in a position to slowly chip away at IS by winning over the hearts and minds of the people.
Seeing Islamic State as an overextended rogue state, rather than a terrorist network, and working to weaken the civil pillars of the state it is trying to establish, offers the best chance of stopping IS.
Denis Dragovic is an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and an international development expert having worked for over a decade with various UN agencies and NGOs in conflict and post-conflict environments in the Middle East (including three years in Iraq), Africa and Asia.
This article first appeared in The Conversation. Click here to go to the original.
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