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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How to defeat ISIS?

Many months and thousands of airstrikes after the US Administration proclaimed its intent to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), progress towards the intended aim remains slow. Many ISIS assets -- human and material -- have been destroyed, but the radical formation has succeeded in acquiring suitable compensation. In fact, the US-led coalition's attacks have helped it settle to its advantage a jihadist civil war, opposing it to rival groups in Syria, and, through the hyped prestige of facing a global alliance, to gain the allegiance of numerous radical factions, from Afghanistan to Nigeria. ISIS has engaged in a defiant propaganda and atrocities campaign to maintain a “shock and awe” effect aimed both at deterring enemies and at attracting recruits. Over the past months, the ISIS theater of savagery has featured the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, the mass slaughter of Egyptian (Christian) workers, as well as the destruction of antiquities, in addition to its established repertoire of beheading, stoning, limb amputation, and crucifixion. The need to put an end to the depravity that is ISIS is yet to be met with a concerted, deliberate effort capable of securing the result.
Despite some eloquent pronouncements, the US administration has not proposed a coherent strategy to defeat ISIS. It is evident that reliance on air power alone, however massive, will not achieve the goal, while inflicting on the civilian population and the infrastructure an increasingly heavy price. With solemn commitments to refrain from dispatching US armed personnel to combat situations, President Barack Obama has been in search for partners able to provide alternatives in both Syria and Iraq. He is yet to be met with success. 
Washington's repeated claim of its intent to “arm the moderate opposition” in Syria, to serve as a ground force against ISIS is absurd, and from the point of view of most Syrians, patently hypocritical. The United States proposes to train a few thousand fighters (in a war that consumes that many on a monthly basis), over a period stretching well over a year, to fight the enemy it has designated, requesting them in the process to postpone their struggle against the regime that has devastated their towns for the past four years. Since the start of the Syrian uprisings, the United States has endorsed successive futile diplomatic initiatives to address Syria's crisis, despite obvious assessments that these initiatives were incapable of bridging the differences between the warring parties. The current claims of “arming the opposition” seem to fall within the same pattern of irrelevance.
In Iraq, where the spectacular ISIS gains last June elevated its perceived threat to international levels, government forces, aided by Shia militias, and supported by Iranian “advisors,”have succeeded in recapturing some of the lost territory. Their achievements were, however, through the use of questionable tactics sometimes mirroring ISIS depravity. The US administration had declared its determination to re-arm and re-train the Iraqi army, which had fared poorly against ISIS' blitzkrieg, to serve as the core of a ground force, with further support from the Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighter. But Baghdad's current maneuvers, with open Iranian involvement, depart clearly from the publicised script. Speculations abound as a result on whether Washington has thus been out-staged, or whether it had implicitly condoned or even approved the Iranian role as part of secret deal.
Irrespective of Washington's stance, the current push by the Iraqi government to regain territory is not conducive to an ISIS defeat. With Iranian-supported militias leading the charge against the Sunni majority regions currently controlled by ISIS, and the alleged participation of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in combat operations, in addition to the open involvement of Iranian military “advisors,” the current push is far from the national liberation exercises that were supposed to restore confidence among the Iraqi Sunni population in the Shia-dominated central government. It was indeed the management of Iraqi Sunni grievances by Baghdad that provided major opportunities for radicalisation and thus enabled the ISIS takeover of much of the Sunni-majority areas of the country. With loud mobilisation calls in Shia media for the eradication of Sunni towns, Iraq seem more headed towards a protracted civil war than to the restoration of the nation's unity. ISIS may retreat from further territory, but its grip on the Sunni population is likely to be strengthened, and its ability to muster resources, regionally and internationally may be enhanced.
Whether attributed to incompetence, indifference, or even the malevolent pursuit of self-interest, one aspect is by now certain about the US ISIS policy: it is unlikely to morph on its own into a lucid productive strategy. Yet the elements for success are all within Washington's reach.
The primary element may be the coherent identification of the character of the enemy. Contrary to ill-informed, politically correct, musings from Washington (including the administration's own pronouncements), the temptation of radicalism is not primarily the result of socio-economic frustration. But contrary to the assertions of “Clash of Civilizations” adepts, it is neither embedded in the nature of Islam, nor is it an unavoidable war of religions -- although mismanaging it is surely enhancing its motion in that direction. Washington ought to recognise Sunni grievances in both Syria and Iraq -- different in each, and unrelated to ideology and theology -- as a basis for its conceptualisation of a solution. In both locales, the failure of the nation-state, which had been confiscated and depleted by dictatorship, has promoted the emergence of factionalism. ISIS has sought, and partially succeeded in ideologising and theologising Sunni factionalism. At its essence, however, it remains a communitarian bond for an alienated population.
A corollary of this recognition is that the Syrian dictatorship, responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands, the displacement of half its country's population, and the destruction of its infrastructure, cannot be “part of the solution.” It is the perpetrator, generator, and catalyst for radicalism; maintaining it will guarantee the survival of ISIS.
The second corollary is that, while Kurdistan has solemnly earned its right to independence, the rest of Iraq has to be made whole again, geographically as well as politically and in its national narrative. Sunni Iraqis cannot be expected to submit to a government that relies on Shia religious edicts for the conduct of politics and openly behaves as a vassal to Iran.

Washington has loitered for too long while the Middle East suffers continuous attrition. It remains, however, the only credible power capable of summoning a global accord on the way out. This way out, the way to defeat ISIS, is through a Syria without the dictatorship and an Iraq remade whole and free, not through conceited statements and concealed questionable deals.

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