Its new war on the Islamic State puts the United States in the middle of the multiplying fault lines in the Middle East. Polls show that most Americans support it but doubt it will be any more successful than our previous war in Iraq, which bred instability and the Sunni jihadists overrunning Syria and Iraq whom we are now seeking to destroy. I turned to an array of Mideast scholars and experts to learn more about the mission the United States has set itself.
A few facts: An offshoot of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, known as I.S., ISIS or ISIL, is now being defined as much or more by its differences from Al Qaeda as by its similarities. Unlike Al Qaeda, I.S. seeks to gain and hold territory. It is a transnational movement that threatens the existing regional order and thus the global economy. I.S. is smart, media-savvy and rich, taking over banks, businesses and oil fields in the area it administers. About four million people now live in areas I.S. controls, where it acts as a state, providing security and social services. According to Haroon Ullah, who serves on Secretary of State John Kerry’s policy planning staff, it is the largest extremist organization in the world.
In proclaiming itself a caliphate, the Islamic State signaled it does not recognize the borders of the existing nations in the region but wants to incorporate these nations within itself. The jihadists seek to provoke a massive military intervention from the West like the one that brought down the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
While many Americans view Islam as a violent religion, studies show that the primary drivers of Islamic terrorism are political. In fact, a high proportion of people in I.S., higher even than in Al Qaeda, are religious novices who know little about Islam. They see themselves as purifying the Islamic world, but their tactics and behavior are so clearly un-Islamic that they have little credibility as Muslims. What I.S. does offer, however, is a powerful change narrative. In Syria, where I.S. is the most brutal and effective opposition group, it is unifying people who would not naturally be unified.
What are the challenges in mounting a coalition against I.S.? They begin with the question of whether the United States should lead it, the unresolved contradictions in U.S. policy—the strongest foes of I.S. are Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime, parties the United States treats as enemies—the fact that military might alone cannot defeat an ideology and the fractured nature of the coalition the United States is assembling.
Authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are now waging an undeclared war on moderate Islamists—especially the Muslim Brotherhood—whom they see as a greater threat to their hold on power than extremists. The actions they are taking to suppress dissent at home threaten to fuel radicalization and terrorism at a faster rate than they are fighting it. They reinforce the argument made by I.S. that an Islamic state can only come about through violence.
The United States has to go beyond blunt militarism or the narrow counterterrorism approach outlined in the president’s speech, Mideast experts say.
“We are trying to once again apply air power to a problem or set of problems that it can’t resolve,” said Chas W. Freeman, a retired diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Desert Storm and Desert Shield operations. “I think the so-called Islamic State is a serious threat that has to be addressed, but putting the United States in the lead to do so is a mistake and will not work.”
At a minimum, the coalition needs significant buy-in from Arab allies. “It’s going to have to look like a Western/Arab/Muslim armada,” said John Esposito, chair of Georgetown University’s center for Christian-Muslim understanding. “Then they’re going to have to be very strategic in what they do. You cannot have this look like a primarily U.S.-led intervention and have a lot of collateral damage.”
If all goes well, will the war against I.S. be enough to staunch the further disintegration of the region? As long as the violence continues in Iraq and Syria, probably not. While the United States and its allies can militarily degrade I.S., that won’t be sufficient to create peace or stability. Unfortunately, despite the 200,000 people killed there, neither the United States nor those waging a proxy war in Syria seem serious about ending it.