Armageddon can wait

Under similar circumstances, would the outcome in Syria have been remarkably different?

US President Barack Obama’s recent confession that his country did not so far have a strategy as far as the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is concerned has been pilloried as a gaffe. It could, however, also be seen as the plain truth. The US did not really have a strategy a decade or so ago either, when the administration of George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, evidently expecting that the various pieces would magically fall into place once Saddam Hussein was toppled. The tactic represented a disastrous combination of hubris and ignorance.

The extent to which the subsequent implosions and explosions in the region are a direct consequence of that particular debacle is arguable, but there can be little doubt that the big picture would have been less unpleasant in the absence of that neo-conservative folly. Of course, what’s done cannot be undone, and the present crisis demands a resolute response. It’s by no means undesirable, however, for that response to take account of all that has gone wrong in the recent past.

Obama has come under attack, for instance, for hesitating to strike Syria in the early days of the revolt against the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, thereby purportedly facilitating the expansion of Islamist outfits such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Too many critics are inclined, however, to ignore in this context the consequences of Nato’s role in Libya.

Washington allowed itself to be catapulted into that conflict, partly on the basis of Paris and London’s aggressive enthusiasm, and Nato’s mission was a success in terms of achieving the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. But Libya today is being torn apart by rival militias, many of them distinguishable not so much by ideology as by tribal affiliations.

Under similar circumstances, would the outcome in Syria have been remarkably different?

The US has lately been thinking aloud about launching airstrikes in Syria with the ostensible aim of undermining ISIS rather than Assad, based on the assumption that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s troops cannot be quelled by focusing on Iraq alone. That may be so, but there is the wider question of whether they can effectively be tackled at all mainly through air assaults. There have evidently been some tactical successes in Iraq in this respect, beginning with the besieged Yazidis stranded on Sinjar mountain. Then there was the recapture of Mosul dam, and most recently the apparent rescue of Amerli.

In the latter instance, the US airstrikes were effectively in aid of Shia militias spearheading the assault against ISIS — the same militias, with links to Iran, that not many years ago were dedicated to undermining the American occupation of Iraq. “Should such military actions continue,” the New York Times noted on Monday, “they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq.”

Naturally, neither Washington nor Tehran is keen to emphasise this aspect of the emerging situation. Matters are further complicated by the fact that some of the Shia militias betray a penchant for sectarian brutality that, although no match for the revolting atrocities that ISIS is so keen to broadcast, nonetheless provides cause for concern.

It is widely accepted that the ISIS project, which it calls a caliphate, can effectively be foiled only with the cooperation of Iraqi Sunnis. While some of them may already be regretting their half-hearted embrace of ISIS as an alternative to the sectarian discrimination dished out by Baghdad under former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, it’s hard to imagine them praying for the ascendancy of the Shia militias either.

The UN this week decided to investigate “acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale” by ISIS, as well as atrocities by Iraqi government forces. Whether or not such an investigation serves any purpose in the unfolding circumstances, the ostensible even-handedness of the approach is interesting. Meanwhile, there has been considerable concern across several nations in Europe as well as in the US and Australia over young Muslim citizens’ tendency towards jihadist adventurism, with thousands — the numbers are again uncertain — travelling to Syria or Iraq as Islamist volunteers.

This is hardly a novel trend and can be traced back at least to Afghanistan in the 1980s. The worries over it are understandable, although there is no clear evidence of returnees planning domestic acts of terrorism. It is also difficult to altogether dispense with the notion that projecting ISIS as an unprecedented global threat helps some Western governments to deflect attention from domestic woes.

The ISIS threat should not be underestimated, but exaggerations can have the perverse effect of increasing its cachet both within and outside the region. Nobody has a clear idea of precisely how this story will unfold, let alone end. But there’s not much value in pretending it portends some kind of Armageddon.

By arrangement with Dawn

( Source : dc )
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