Combating ISIL

9 July 2015

On July 6, 2015 President Obama delivered remarks after meeting with military leaders at the Pentagon to discuss US strategy to degrade and defeat the Islamic State (ISIL). Here are key quotes from his remarks and a few comments:
… This will not be quick. This is a long-term campaign. ISIL is opportunistic and it is nimble. In many places in Syria and Iraq, including urban areas, it’s dug in among innocent civilian populations. It will take time to root them out — and doing so must be the job of local forces on the ground, with training and air support from our coalition…”
Very true. ISIL must have done enough by now to make sure that any assault by the coalition would lead to civilian losses among Iraq’s Sunnis and galvanize them against Baghdad and its allies.
“… As with any military effort, there will be periods of progress, but there are also going to be some setbacks…”
“… ISIL’s recent losses in both Syria and Iraq prove that ISIL can and will be defeated…”
This is also true. But longer the battle, greater will be the appeal of ISIL. In spite of difficulties in gathering one, a unified Arab force may provide the answer.
“… ISIL is surrounded by countries and communities committed to its destruction…”
I beg to differ. In spite of occasional statements of condemnation, regional countries do not constitute a united front against ISIL. Some have internal vulnerabilities arising from presence of ISIL supporters among the population. Others have a totally different set of priorities and don’t even see ISIL as an issue.
… our strategy recognizes that no amount of military force will end the terror that is ISIL unless it’s matched by a broader effort — political and economic — that addresses the underlying conditions that have allowed ISIL to gain traction. They have filled a void, and we have to make sure that as we push them out that void is filled…”
Filling that void is the fundamental challenge in the Middle East. Actually, it is more than filling the void. It is, in the first place, doing away with authoritarianism, nepotism, corruption and a stagnant political culture. A decade of US involvement in Iraq shows that this can only be a long term goal.
“… In Syria, the only way that the civil war will end — and in a way so that the Syrian people can unite against ISIL — is an inclusive political transition to a new government, without Bashar Assad — a government that serves all Syrians…”
Again, very true. But we should not lose sight of the fact that there are those who support President Assad because they dread the alternative. Preventing politics of vengeance and striking a balance between different interest groups is not going to be any easier than ending the fighting.
“… We see a growing ISIL presence in Libya and attempts to establish footholds across North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Southeast Asia…”
This is why the battle to degrade and defeat ISIL cannot last forever.
“…this broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they’re defeated by better ideas — a more attractive and more compelling vision…
… And this larger battle for hearts and minds is going to be a generational struggle. It’s ultimately not going to be won or lost by the United States alone. It will be decided by the countries and the communities that terrorists like ISIL target. It’s going to be up to Muslim communities, including scholars and clerics, to keep rejecting warped interpretations of Islam, and to protect their sons and daughters from recruitment. It will be up to all people — leaders and citizens — to reject the sectarianism that so often fuels the resentments and conflicts upon which terrorists are currently thriving…”
Absolutely true. The problem is that there are very few among the scholars and clerics who would openly reject sectarianism, radicalism and violent extremism. Political leaders make statements every now and say that they embrace all segments of the population regardless of their ethnic, religious or political affiliation. Generally, such statements are designed to save the day.
The more attractive and more compelling vision that President Obama has mentioned can only be genuine democracy, not one that is “good for the Orient”. But Western public discourse on democracy has become suspect for the peoples of the region in view of its double standards. Some regimes are closest allies and economic partners of the West yet decades and decades away from democracy. Leaders overthrown by the Arab Spring revolts and Western interventions were previously pampered in European capitals because of business interests.
As I wrote in an earlier spot democracy cannot be airdropped. It can be promoted but not lectured. Moreover, it travels by land. The most plausible way of promoting democracy is leading by example. Atatürk’s reforms were watched with envy by Middle East peoples because they represented an extraordinary effort from within the region. EU’s 17 December 2004 Brussels summit was followed by nearly two hundred media representatives from Moslem countries because Turkey was to be given a date for the launching of accession negotiations with the EU. Unfortunately, over the last 5-6 years Turkey has lost much of the democratic ground it has gained. On June 7, elections were held. A month later a new government is still not even in sight. What people hear from leaders over the entire political spectrum is utterly disappointing.
A course correction in Turkey remains essential to course correction in the Middle East. This is not an easy task. But, compared to other methods of denying ISIL and its likes the terrain on which they thrive, it is the least costly.

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