Fighting ISIL on the Battlefield and Beyond

November 23, 2015

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris President Hollande declared that France was at war. President Obama called the attacks “an attack on the civilized world”. In a telegram to his French counterpart, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the attacks were “the latest testimonial to the barbaric essence of terrorism which throws down a challenge to human civilization”. Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “This attack on liberty targets not only Paris, it targets all of us and it has hit all of us, and that is why we will also all respond together.”

Despite such expressions of solidarity, the question “how to conduct this war?” remains because this is not just about just fighting the Islamic State (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria. It is also about finding ways and means to discredit its ideology; diminishing its appeal; narrowing its base; creating platforms if not alliances between the West, Russia and Moslem countries. This is a huge task, now further complicated by problems of homeland security and the Syrian refugees.

The most immediate challenge is dealing ISIL a fatal blow in Iraq and Syria since an aura of invincibility has helped it draw thousands to its ranks. It is clear that the air campaign by the “65-nation coalition” is not going to accomplish that. What is needed is a ground force. But to create a ground force there has to be some agreement between the US and Russia. But, these two major powers remain at odds because of the Ukraine conflict and disagreement on the future of President Assad. One may rightly ask, “if the Ankara, Beirut, Paris and Bamako attacks and the downing of Metrojet Airbus cannot help narrow other differences what can?” It seems that these differences are more about great power rivalry/competition than anything else and the world would see this week if President Holland can help to bridge the gap. The cornerstone of President Obama’s approach to the Middle East has been to spare the US another major military intervention. The wisdom of this policy is unquestionable. However, the alternative cannot be an endless air campaign. The alternative is cooperating with Russia and others to gather, despite multiple difficulties, an Arab land force to take on ISIL. An Arab force because Iraq and Syria are Arab countries, the combatants are essentially Arabs and only such force can help prevent political/cultural complications which may otherwise surface at a later stage. A coalition can provide support but it should be Arab troops to recapture Arab cities and towns like Mosul, Raqqa and others.

The long-term issue of defeating ISIL’s ideology would require a visionary approach by Moslem countries which will not be easy to say the very least. Because for decades Middle East dictators resisted political reform. They suppressed dissent. They failed to raise their peoples’ living standards. Yet, most of them were able to maintain cozy relationships with the West. Thus the Islamist opposition, much better organized than others, paid a price but gained strength. In its dealings with the Middle East, the West, more often than not, gave the impression that it was after only its narrow political and economic interests so much so that its public discourse about reform and democracy became suspect. The invasion of Iraq deepened anti-Western sentiment. Projects like the long-forgotten Alliance of Civilizations launched by Spain and Turkey produced hardly anything. And finally, the Arab Spring turmoil gave the most extreme groups a welcome opportunity to raise the flag.

In the face of the brutality displayed by ISIL, leaders of Moslem countries have said that ISIL does not represent Islam. True but not enough. They need to launch a comprehensive program which would give world’s 1.6 billion Moslems an enlightened understanding of their faith through enlightened education and thus deprive ISIL of its base support. Unfortunately, such moves carry the risk of alienating the largely conservative masses. Therefore, they have little appeal for governments. “Secularism” which could have been the antidote to sectarianism and fratricide is still anathema to the Middle East. According to newly released data that the Pew Research Center collected in 11 countries with significant Muslim populations, people from Nigeria to Jordan to Indonesia overwhelmingly expressed negative views of ISIS. This was also the case in Turkey. But in a “secular” country which was expected to set “an example to follow”, although 73% had an unfavorable opinion of ISIL; 8% held a favorable opinion and 19% remained undecided. Add a few percentage points from the “undecided” to the “favorable” and that would put support for ISIL above 10%. Turkey has a 10% electoral threshold for political parties to make it to the parliament. In other words, the 10% threshold is a criterion for political significance. In Saudi Arabia where such surveys are not allowed ISIL can be expected to have much larger support. In brief, leaders, governments in most Moslem countries would be reluctant to engage in a coordinated frontal attack against ISIL’s ideology beyond condemnations of acts of terror. Thus for now there seems to be no other option than dealing with ISIL on the battlefield and addressing at the broader problem at a later stage.

Yet, in an eclipse of the mind situation, President Assad’s future continues to divide the world…

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