North Africa, West Asia

Obama’s strategy beyond an abnormal war

To defeat IS you have not only to beat it militarily, but to undercut the financial and ideological underpinnings upon which it rests, and replace it with something that ensures that it cannot manifest again in future times.

Michael Stephens
15 September 2014
Protest against Islamic State massacres of Kurds and Yazidis in London.

Protest against Islamic State massacres of Kurds and Yazidis in London. Guy Corbishley/Demotix. All rights reserved.It was a speech lacking in detail, but finally President Obama set out the strategy that only a few days previously he claimed he did not have. Given that the speech was an amalgamation of statements from Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel and various Pentagon officials there was nothing particularly surprising contained within it. But we are nevertheless clearer on the extent to which the US will undertake military operations in support of its allies on the ground through airstrikes. By recognising the IS threat in Syria, clearly there is the possibility to extend the theatre of conflict into that country.

It is common knowledge that Islamic State is a lot more than just a terrorist group, yet the President repeatedly labelled IS “terrorists” who “will find no safe haven” from American power. The point here is that engaging IS combatants will not be governed by the normal laws of war, freeing up the mission to allow US forces to strike IS targets with impunity. In short what this means is that if a US missile were to strike Jihadi John, President Obama will not have to phone Prime Minister Cameron to offer an apology for killing a British citizen, nor will Obama have to explain the legal position to his own nation if a US citizen of IS is targeted.

The US will be aided in its efforts by a coalition of partners across the Arab world: the GCC, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan have all signed up to act collectively against the group, while Turkey has indicated its support. Whilst the US does not need any of these countries’ support to help it defeat the Islamic State, it is an important factor in the longterm degradation of the group, showing a willingness by the region to begin tackling its own problems a little more directly than it has done in the past.

Indeed there was an explicit indication given by President Obama to the effect that the region must begin to stand up for itself and tackle its problems both more assertively and multilaterally. Getting a coalition together in such a divided region is difficult at the best of times, but the speech marks the beginning of a sea change in regional politics whereby a unified effort to prevent the extremism of the Islamic state from spreading, and to ensure it never happens again, seems to be in place. Whether it can hold or not is a different story.

But we lack detail in the speech, and a mission must be laid out clearly and precisely in the coming weeks. Defined markers of success need to be laid down for it be understood exactly how the military component of the mission fits into a larger strategy to defeat IS.

Additionally within this military mission the role of regional states taking part needs to be clarified. Will Gulf countries, for example, be placing boots on the ground, or taking part in airstrikes? Will the assistance be limited simply to diplomatic support and some logistical military work to assist US and Iraqi forces on the ground, and will this assistance take place in Syria as well as in Iraq?

These are all variables that should be answered in coming days: the extent to which regional actors take part in the mission to defeat IS will determine the legitimacy of the mission and make it clear how serious regional actors are in solving this crisis in the longer term.

Additionally detailed thinking about what the region would look like without the Islamic State should be taking place. Iraq is working towards a political solution which may yet save the country from total collapse, but Syria is less clear. It is all very well outlining the military mission, but to defeat IS you have not only to beat it militarily, but to undercut the financial and ideological underpinnings upon which it rests, and replace it with something that ensures that it cannot manifest again in future times.

A local solution

Arranging a host of Arab nations to fund and train Syrian rebel groups in Saudi Arabia is a good start, but it is hardly likely to lead to a comprehensive political solution that provides a future for Syria’s beleaguered war weary population.  In short if you don’t want Assad to rule Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and you don’t want IS to rule it either, then there has to be a genuine alternative to both that the people of those regions can accept.

Sending in another rebel brigade, many of whom are tainted by corruption and poor governance is not the answer. Sending in the broken and divided Syrian opposition who have never experienced life under IS and frankly are unsuitable to govern these areas is also not a solution.  The best choice available is for the people in these cities, once they become liberated of IS to choose how they wish to govern themselves. They can elect local councils, and run their own affairs without Assad, opposition or Islamic State interference. Once these are established it becomes much easier to envisage a future for Syria in which people actually buy into their own future and not the dreams of someone they cannot identify with. More importantly, give these people a stake in building a better tomorrow for themselves, with the support and aid of regional powers.

An Islamic solution

Secretary Kerry has pressed Arab states to come out against ISIS and has so far secured the good will of at least ten states. Again, a good start but IS emerged in the region as a product of social ills, poor governance, lack of development, and the type of Islamic education that would make any critical thinker shudder. Here the Gulf states really must up their game. For far too long Gulf clerics fired young men up with ideas of jiahd in Syria to fight against the Shia; in Qatar, Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi likewise turned up the volume when it became clear the Free Syrian Army was beginning to struggle.

There has to be a firm pledge from these countries; no more incitement. The mixing of Sunni Islam and politics has to stop, or else the region will be dragged into a decades-long religious war. Likewise the Iranians must cease their meddling in regional affairs, and get a stronger grip on renegade Shia militias that act in a brutally sectarian fashion.

Furthermore, these countries should all be working toward a counter-radicalisation strategy in the areas that eventually become liberated from IS. Hundreds of thousands of children have been exposed to their ideas and brutal methods. They will need both counselling and Islamic guidance, and instead of paying millions of dollars to Islamic fighters, the Gulf states would do well to be paying those sums to Islamic educators. The war has to be won in the heart as much as on the battlefield.

It is important that we do not get caught up in the immediacy of the fight. IS arose from a product of failed governance, three years of war, and proxy wars between Sunni and Shia tearing the region apart. A military strategy is a first step, but the developmental strategies of education, economic rehabilitation and instituting self governance have to be put in place as soon as possible to ensure that the Islamic State never returns.

Given the US commitment to defeating IS, the military part of the solution is relatively straightforward. The far more difficult task will be fixing a region shattered by war and the governance of IS. The coalition needs to show resolve that lasts for years, and not waver or abandon the people of Syria and Iraq, or else the Islamic State will not be a one-off anomaly of history, but a repeating phenomenon that plagues the region for decades.

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