Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Last Thursday (Sept.11), Jeddah hosted a key meeting to form a strategy to confront the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS) or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At the end of the meeting, the ministers representing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and the United States declared their “shared commitment to stand united against the threat posed by all terrorism, including the so-called ISIL, to the region and the world.”
But can they succeed? There are new circumstances that could make this effort succeed this time. First, there is now a new government in Baghdad that appears committed to undoing the misguided and divisive policies of the previous government, which helped ISIL flourish. The ministers “hailed the formation of the new, inclusive Iraqi government and expressed their support for the immediate steps it has pledged to take to advance the interests of all Iraq’s citizens, regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity.” They committed to strengthening “their support for the new Iraqi government in its efforts to unite all Iraqis in combatting ISIL.”
Removing doubts about whether the new alliance would be limited to combating ISIL in Iraq only, the meeting announced that it aimed to “destroy ISIL wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria.”
The countries’ meeting in Jeddah agreed to do their share in the fight against ISIL, including stopping the flow of foreign fighters through neighboring countries, countering financing of ISIL and other violent extremists, repudiating their ideology, contributing to humanitarian relief efforts, and assisting with the reconstruction and rehabilitation of communities brutalized by ISIL. They also committed to joining “as appropriate” the military campaign against ISIL.
The night before the Jeddah meeting, President Barack Obama gave an address dedicated to fighting ISIL. He outlined four key elements of US strategy.
First, the US “systematic campaign of airstrikes,” started in August, would expand. Working with the Iraqi government, the US would expand its efforts beyond current levels to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offensive. It would not “hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq.”
Second, the US would increase support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. In June, it deployed several hundred American service members in Iraq to assess the situation. Based on that assessment, the US plans to send 475 additional service members to Iraq, who are not supposed to have a “combat mission,” but to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment. The US would also support Iraq’s efforts to strengthen “national guard” units to help Sunni communities secure their own areas from ISIL control.
On Syria, Obama announced that the US had “ramped up our military assistance” to the Syrian opposition, calling on Congress (again) to give him additional authorities and resources to train and equip opposition fighters. To dispel any notions that the Syrian regime could be a partner in this fight, Obama said, “In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on Assad regime that terrorizes its own people — a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.”
Third, the US would double counterterrorism efforts, including cutting off ISIL funding, stemming the flow of foreign fighters, and countering its ideology and message. Obama announced that, in two weeks, he would chair a meeting of the UN Security Council to “further mobilize the international community around this effort.”
Fourth, the US would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians who have been displaced by ISIL.
This is the American strategy in sum. There is no “shock and awe” by US military forces, or threats of “going it alone.” As we saw in the Jeddah conference, the new coalition is drawing support from earlier international and regional commitments, including UN Security Council Resolution 2170, and the Arab League Resolution 7804 of Sept. 7, 2014, as well as the consensus demonstrated at the NATO Summit in Wales the week before, and expected in further meetings in Paris and New York over the coming weeks.
Obama made clear that “In each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners. Already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq, sending arms and assistance to Iraqi security forces and the Syrian opposition, sharing intelligence and providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.”
Nor were there outlandish promises to defeat ISIL in weeks or months. American officials have said that the fight could take “one, two or three years,” thus dispelling any expectations that the fight against ISIL would be over soon.
There are parts of the US strategy that would not work without regional cooperation. For example, fighting on the ground in the absence of US troops will have to rely on reliable local forces. In Iraq, for example, the government will have to regain the confidence of Sunnis to win against ISIL.
It will have to supplant the sectarian and ethnic militias that have taken advantage of American airstrikes and have engaged in revenge attacks and ethnic cleansing in Arab Sunni villages abandoned by ISIL. In Syria, the US will have to regain the confidence of the moderate opposition, which felt abandoned before, and bore the brunt of the combined onslaught directed at them by the Assad regime and ISIL.
Countering ISIL ideology is another part of the strategy where the US is ill-equipped. This should be the job of Muslim scholars. ISIL’s misleading ideology should be exposed by Muslims first and foremost.
Finally, the main challenge facing the newly created coalition to defeat ISIL lies in regional powers that have contributed directly or indirectly to its creation, such as Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, which have already voiced their opposition to the new coalition.
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