By Ali Imran
President Barack Obama’s declaration of “steady, relentless” aerial campaign against ISIS militants “wherever they exist,” to “ultimately destroy” the threat signals a significant new expansion of the war on the group operating in multiple Iraqi and Syrian conflagrations.
Although, the US president told war-weary Americans on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks, that he would take along regional allies to combat the ISIS threat with a comprehensive strategy, his mission statement on military entanglement in Syria has evoked a mix of reactions ranging from support to scepticism, caution, and even criticism.
However, one thing is clear that the US strikes into Syria would make it Obama’s war, one that may outlast his presidency and define his legacy.
The White House’s case for action against ISIL premises on the argument that the militant outfit poses a threat to the region and beyond, including the United States, and builds on support for aerial action that has grown in the wake of the beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Skepticism on the extent of ISIS threat abounds among experts. Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government calls the ISIS threat to the United States “quite modest.”
“ISIS is not all that capable,” Walt says. “It doesn’t have an air force, it doesn’t have serious armoured forces. It’s a threat to locals in the region, but [ISIS] has no capacity to hit the United States in a strategically significant way,” he told Public Radio International.
But far from effective results of a series of ambitious campaigns against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Mali, have raised a number of questions in the complex Middle Eastern turmoil, with regional capitals sticking to their longtime stakes in the outcome.
Analysts point out that the lack of an even-handed approach that would have complemented the military action with resolution to reasons behind the rise of militancy in Afghanistan, insurgencies in Iraq and African countries, has led to some tactical victories in some of the militant strongholds, but the strategic challenges to world peace continue to fester.
Clearly, in the backdrop of endless controversies and loss of civilians in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington cannot afford more of the same strategy, even with aerial attacks alone.
Besides integrating political and economic dimensions, the new Obama strategy needs an inclusive political process for Iraq and Syria, one that is backed up by wholehearted participation of conflicted Arab stakeholders, a daunting challenge.
Obama’s statement reflects both perils and possibilities in the turbulent region. Militarily, though, for the moment, Obama has precluded the possibility of sending ground troops to stem the ISIS upsurge, American military involvement in the region – wracked by perilous sectarian and political fault lines – has the trappings of another sensitive military entanglement.
After all, Obama’s rejection of an isolationist approach marks a dilemmatic reversal for the United States on the international arena, as exactly a year ago the White House was contemplating action against ISIS’ rival, Assad, following the Syrian de-legitimised ruler’s alleged use of chemicals against civilians in the civil war.
Consider now the flip side of the military involvement. If the woefully unprepared Iraqi army, even fast-strengthening Kurds or Free Syrian Army and other moderate armed rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad fail against ISIS, the US would either have to bank on an extensive and much more aggressive airstrikes campaign, or even at some stage it might have to send its military advisors to lead the battles against militant organisation.
Both options are fraught with deadly dangers, with the now familiar unintended consequences of Afghanistan and 2003 Iraq war. Any deaths of civilians in the US pummelling of ISIS militants, who certainly will hide in populated areas to use people as human shields, would be a recipe for disaster. The situation may set off a never-ending cycle of coalition military actions and retaliatory ISIS attacks on citizens across the “line in sand” regional borders, further weakening the fragile Iraqi state, and complicating the way forward for the Syrian moderates struggling in the three-way crisis with Assad and the militants.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, argues against any direct US military involvement, and instead favours indirect support for regional countries to address the turmoil.
His criticism that “for the US, military action has become a substitute for strategy,” in the Middle East, merits close attention as Obama advances his mission.
At the same it is true that in some cases military action may be imperative like defence of people in caught in humanitarian situations, protection of strategic assets like Haditha Dam on the Euphrates, Mosul Dam on the Tigris River and the oil infrastructure.
What Iraq and Syria need most direly is a national solution to their deteriorating crises, based on acceptance of societal pluralism and political inclusiveness.
The bottom line: the two Arab neighbours, who are gasping for oxygenic political reconciliation for their survival, cannot be pulled out of the explosive volcano with the use of unbridled firepower.
To his credit, the US president did pledge that the US action depended on the new Iraqi government embracing political inclusiveness, but any actions against ISIS in Syria would imply a perplexing support for Assad. On this point, though, Obama also rightly reiterated the US position that Assad has irrevocably lost legitimacy as a ruler, yet the situation on the ground in the three-way war — between Free Syrian Army, ISIS and Assad’s regime — is too complicated to lead to simple conclusions anytime soon.
A wider international angle to the Syrian conflict emerges from the fact that ISIS has pulled in 12,000 foreign militants fighting for it in new kind of franchise that has risen in ungoverned geographical and political spaces of Iraq and Syria.
The unprecedented fighting in Libya after the 2011 aerial bombardment, Afghan fragility despite years of war and some development and the 2003 Iraq war that blew open Iraqi low-stoking troubles, and led to a steep state collapse and the society’s plunge into a fathomless sandpit of Shia-Sunni sectarian animosity, offer a lot of instructive lessons.
If Obama – now into sixth year of his presidency and a charged political climate in the mid-term election year — is to redefine his policy in the Middle East, his counterterrorism strategy should not be fixed, overly militaristic or unilateral, but should evolve in accordance with the obtaining situation.
Besides, the coalition cannot defer prospects of reconciliation to sectarian-driven Iraqi and Syrian politicians. Obama sounded a right chord when he said the future US actions depended on the new Iraqi government’s reconciliation success.
The severely strained socio-political standoff and multipolar Arab politics demand that raison d’être for a strategy be predicated on a two-tier objective: to nudge the two countries into embracing inclusive governance through constitutionally protected reconciliation (under new Iraq government and in post-Assad Syria); and to curb the ISIS militancy to the extent it may not pose a threat.
A comprehensive fight against militancy in the region should proceed with the realisation that in both Iraq and Syria young people back insurgency or rebellion due to alienation with their regimes. The reigns of suppression carried out by Nouri al- Maliki and Assad made the Sunni opponents political outcasts – a boon for militancy as ISIS and other militant groups exploited the grievance to unleash their terror.
Pragmatically as well as ideally, before it launches a wider military campaign, the international coalition must meet the gigantic task of ensuring participation of Iran and Saudi Arabia – the two bitter regional rivals with competing ideologies – and then encourage the new Iraqi administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi into pursuing pluralistic governance.
In Syria, the coalition has no option but to seek the ouster of Assad as a pre-requisite to national reconciliation, and action against ISIS, which is headquartered in Ar-Raqqah. The world cannot afford to tolerate a ruler who, according to conservative UN estimates, has slaughtered 200,000 of his own people.
If accomplished in the complicated web of Middle Eastern politics, such developments could boost the fight against ISIS extremism, and that in turn will advance the argument for other regional countries to renounce other militant organisations. Although, the Middle Eastern landscape has flared up from a wrong fuel mix of domestic and international issues over the past several decades, casus belli for the latest conflagration appears to be the autocratic rulers’ denial of democratic rights to the people.
In supporting democratic aspirations of the people and the moderate voices, the world may have a rare, though nettlesome, opportunity to confront some of the Middle East’s longstanding issues head on, and in the process reinforce regional and global security.
Democracies may not be easy to deal with – in contrast to one-phone-does-it-all dictatorships – but ultimately it is democratic governance that would give economic hope to the Arab main street, raise stakes in inclusive growth, and serves as bulwark against militant terror and state failure.
Coalescing Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are united in their fear of ISIS, on the side of democracy, would be a hard job but if it happens, it would be a tremendous development. Other regional countries including Turkey, the GCC states, and neighbours of Iraq and Syria would also be required to contribute meaningfully to the comprehensive solution.
In his book, The Second Arab Awakening: And the Battle for Pluralism, Marwan Muasher this year underscored the terse new post-Arab Spring reality.
“In short, the only way for Arab governments— new and old— to maintain power will be to share it. Absolute power has ceased to be an option. For both civil and religious parties, the commitment to pluralism must be unambiguous, permanent, and irreversible.”
Though vitally important, stabilising Iraq and Syria would in the larger scenario be initial steps towards fostering peace in the region, where Israeli-Palestinian conflict also continues to simmer with no end to the Palestinian’ sufferings. But doing so in a fair and transparent manner is a huge task requiring determined and courageous leadership on all sides — something that is in short supply.
This piece first appeared in Pakistan Today on September 13, 2014