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ISIS and the West

ByMartin Greenacre

Sep 23, 2014
image courtesy of Arlo Kabrahamson

On September 10 this year, while the United States prepared for the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama announced plans for more airstrikes against jihadists in Iraq and Syria. They form part of the government’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Later, at a meeting in Paris, 24 countries vowed to do “whatever it takes” to eliminate the threat. Although Obama made it clear that there would be no boots on the ground, many will bemoan any involvement in yet another conflict in the Middle East.

The issue of whether the West should intervene in foreign conflicts has always been contentious. The only thing one can say with certainty is that nothing is certain. There have been failures, most notably the last Iraq war which played no small part in destabilising an already volatile region. But arguably there have also been successes, such as when NATO intervention in 1999 brought an end to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The first question which must be asked is this: does the West have a humanitarian duty to intervene?

Few would argue that we have no responsibility to assist in a humanitarian capacity, with aid provided to the thousands of refugees displaced by the conflict. France, for instance, has offered asylum to a number of Iraqi Christians facing death if they refuse to convert to Islam. But where does this duty end? The recent video showing the execution of British hostage David Haines, following the beheading of two American hostages, was overtly provocative, and offers just a glimpse of the brutality of the group. Thousands of lives are at risk, due to coincidences of nationality or religion. Senior Pentagon officials have described ISIS as an ‘apocalyptic’ organisation, and many are concerned about the threat they may pose to the world as a whole.

At the same time, the nature of the videos could be interpreted as an attempt to incite a response, rather than deter it. Indeed, military intervention from the West would be a propaganda coup for ISIS, no doubt assisting in the radicalisation of many young men and women who see a predominantly Muslim country being bombarded by the military strength of Western superpowers. As Charles Cooper wrote in The Independent: “We already know their use of YouTube and Twitter is more effective as a marketing tool than many multinational corporations. Imagine what they could do with post-drone strike footage.” Cooper, who is a researcher for an anti-extremism think-tank, argues that intervention would play directly into ISIS’s hands, by allowing them to perpetuate the idea of a Western ‘war on Islam’.

That is why, whether the West directly intervenes or not, the Western priority is to have countries within the Islamic world combat the threat. This would remove any perception of a crusade, and help to create a region capable of governing itself. But this in itself is proving problematic. For instance, Turkey, which the United States sees as a key part of the potential coalition to defeat ISIS, has proved unwilling to get too involved. It is concerned in part for the safety of the 49 Turkish diplomats held by the extremists, and also over the possibility that Western arms might end up in the hands of Kurdish militants whom they consider to be a terrorist group. The two nations most eager to provide assistance via troops on the ground – Iran and Syria – have not been called upon due to the inhumanitarian nature of their own regimes.

The chosen solution, it seems, will be to arm rebel forces. The US House of Representatives recently voted to allow the equipping of ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition. Of course the danger is that the group armed to defeat an enemy proves more dangerous than the last, ad nauseam. But that may be a risk worth taking, especially if the alternative is to support President Assad, who has been using chemical weapons against his own people.

Either way, it is important to remember the necessity of the situation. ISIS, which currently controls an area the size of the UK and hopes to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, cannot be underestimated. Its members are young, wealthy and tech-savvy. Oil smuggling alone is estimated to generate two million dollars a day, with some estimates placing their total cash and assets at over two billion. They are also far superior to groups such as Al-Qaeda in their use of technology to create shock and accelerate radicalisation.

It is clear that the Iraqi army is not capable of facing this threat alone. After three days of fighting in Mosul, the country’s second largest city, 30,000 soldiers turned and ran from 800 ISIS insurgents. The US-trained military collapsed, and US-supplied arms were stripped from military bases. For all the billions of dollars spent training the Iraqi military – which is composed of both Sunni and Shia Muslims – deep-rooted sectarianism has again appeared to undermine any illusion of stability. As Vox reports: “Some Sunni Muslims don’t really want to fight other Sunnis in the name of a government that oppresses them.”

It is also clear that the problem of extremism and radicalisation extends far beyond ISIS. Obama has previously warned against the policy of playing whack-a-mole and using US troops to occupy countries “wherever these organisations pop up”. This underlying problem of radicalisation is one that no amount of intervention from the West can solve. It is only the countries within the Arab world themselves who can address the distortion of their belief system. This will be a long and difficult process given the sheer quantity and vehemence of religious tensions to be found everywhere you look. But the issue of extremism must be tackled at the source.

Although the region has always been troubled, many will blame the current situation on Western intervention in 2003. The occupation, they argue, was a failed experiment in state-building, and created a power vacuum allowing radical groups like ISIS to flourish. There are two possible responses to this notion. You could use the current situation as an illustration of the futility of intervention. The second argument is that the West must finish what it started, and arrest the chaos it created. The Iraqi government has appealed for intervention, as it knows it does not have the strength to defeat this threat alone, in spite of a decade of occupation designed to create the stability required.

Alongside the question of military intervention, it is important not to forget the ongoing humanitarian efforts. The ISIS campaign has displaced over a million people in Iraq alone, while surrounding nations are already overflowing with refugees from the Syrian Civil War. The real action may have to come from within the Arab world, but it is impossible to turn a completely blind eye to the humanitarian disaster facing our fellow human beings.

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