US President Barack Obama announced a “strategy” to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State (formerly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) on September 10. The announcement came scarcely two weeks after Obama had explained US reluctance to escalate military action against the IS by admitting he did not have a strategy to deal with this challenge. He was roundly criticised by US politicians and pundits for his honest admission.
The announced strategy comprises four components: first, systematic airstrikes against the IS in Iraq, in coordination with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and in Syria if the IS threatens Americans; second, increased support to those fighting “these terrorists”; third, improving counterterrorism capabilities: intelligence, counter-narrative, preventing the flow of Western jihadis and mobilising the international community; and four, continuing humanitarian assistance to civilians and threatened religious groups.
In fact, the announced “strategy” looks very similar to what the US has been doing already for the past several weeks against the IS. The two new elements are: the apparent US willingness to attack IS in Syria and the aim of building a broad coalition against it, including the major Arab states and Turkey.
It is not wholly evident why the IS has emerged as America’s top military target. The head of US homeland security confirmed, before Obama’s speech, that there is “no direct threat from the ISIS” to the US. There is no evidence of ISIS plans to attack the US or even the desire to do so. It poses a regional threat and may attack US targets there. The presence of “foreign fighters” is a possible future threat when they return home. The official said that the major threat to the US homeland still emanates from Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Thus, superficially, Obama’s new anti-IS priority seems to have been driven purely by domestic considerations: on one hand, the growing criticism of his responses to foreign policy challenges, including IS successes, and, on the other, the higher US public support for action against the group after its brutal beheading of two American journalists.
There is no assurance the Obama “strategy” will be successful, especially without US “boots on the ground”. There may be unintended consequences. Attacking the IS may create the very threat it is meant to avoid. It may make Sunni reconciliation within a united Iraq more difficult and enhance Kurdish capabilities to break away from Iraq. Degrading the IS would strengthen the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
Yet, Obama’s “strategy” could become the start of a broader plan to stabilise the region.
The 150-plus US airstrikes against the IS in Iraq have inevitably brought the US into operational alliance with Iranian military advisers known to be attached with the Iraqi Army and Shia militias acting as its auxiliaries. Both the US and Iran have declared that there can be no direct cooperation with the other. Iran’s foreign minister declared some months ago that Iran is prepared to cooperate with other parties to end the sectarian conflicts in the region. It is widely known that the US and Iran have held secret talks for several years which enabled them to reach the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. They also have had quiet contacts in Baghdad.
In exchange for American and Arab cooperation in degrading the IS, which poses a threat to Iran’s allies in both Baghdad and Damascus, and a fair agreement regarding its nuclear programme, Tehran could help to ensure an inclusive government in Iraq, broker a political settlement between Assad and moderate insurgent groups in Syria, dampen the Shia opposition to the Sunni regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, restrain Hezbollah’s threat to Israel and end its support to Hamas.
It is possible that at least some aspects of such a “bargain” have been discussed. Such discussions may have encouraged the Obama administration to launch the strategy against the IS.
To be successful, the strategy would also require the support of the major Arab states. Saudi Arabia’s initiative to convene a meeting of 10 Arab states and Turkey in Jeddah is significant.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE now consider the Muslim Brotherhood and related extremist groups a threat to their own stability and are determined to suppress them. A US strategy which both degrades the IS and other Sunni extremist groups, including the Brotherhood, and secures Iran’s cooperation to contain Shia militias and insurgents across the region, would be doubly attractive.
In turn, the contribution of these Arab powers would be essential to wean the Sunni tribes in Iraq away from the IS and reach a political settlement in Syria.
As yet, Arab support to Obama’s anti-IS strategy is not universal. Egypt has its hands full with putting down the Brotherhood. Jordan fears the backlash from the IS which now operates just across its borders with Iraq and Syria.
Turkey is worried about the fate of its 49 diplomats captured by the IS. Qatar’s closeness to the Brotherhood and other Sunni extremists has complicated its relationships with the US and its GCC neighbours.
A “grand bargain” involving the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia and their respective allies and proxies would be obviously most difficult to construct and consummate. Proxies and puppets are not always easy to control. There is enormous and accumulated mistrust between the principal parties. And the sheer number and complexity of the local, sub-national and regional issues that need to be addressed is daunting.
Unless a comprehensive strategy is pursued, the fight against the IS is likely to prove frustrating. Airstrikes with ground support from unreliable local forces; eliminating IS’ financial sources and countering its brutal ideology will not be sufficient to destroy it. The legitimate grievances that attract its recruits will have to be addressed. Ultimately, eliminating extremism in the region will require the rapid generation of jobs and economic development.
At stake is the present and future stability of West Asia — a region in the midst of multiple and violent transitions — and its impact on the world order.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN
By arrangement with Dawn