Cracking the ISIS Conundrum - Obama and the Arab World

One year is a short time in politics. In the summer of 2013 Obama reportedly seriously considered launching air strikes against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against its civilians. Earlier, Obama had publicly drawn a line in the sand, a red line saying that there would be consequences if Assad took that route. French President Francois Hollande had readied his aircraft to join American aircraft for the minatory mission to Damascus. Obama stayed his hand because American public opinion, weary of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, was not ready for a further U.S. military commitment in Syria with unpredictable consequences. Also equally important, Obama's feelers in Congress revealed only lukewarm support for the initiative. In view of these negative portents, Obama stayed his hand. Assad continues to rule, and Syrian civilians continue to suffer and die.

The lightning move by the former Al-Qaeda component, which now styles itself as the Islamic State (or ISIS), to capture a large chunk of territory in northern Iraq, in addition to the portion that it had already conquered in northeast Syria, stunned not only the Middle Eastern countries but also the U.S. and the E.U. In its first assaults last June and thereafter, ISIS was threatening to make inroads into Iraqi Kurdistan. This rang alarm bells in Washington because of the presence of U.S. diplomats and other assets in the Kurdish areas. Obama therefore rightly launched airstrikes to stop ISIS from capturing further territory in Iraq, a country in which the U.S. had already expended much blood and treasure. As a reprisal, ISIS executed two American journalists whom they had captured in Syria. They also posted gory pictures of James Foley and Steven Sotloff being beheaded by a masked terrorist with a British accent. These pictures went viral, causing revulsion and fear in the U.S. and indeed across the world. The ISIS penchant for the gory displays of heads separated from their bodies has continued, including the treatment meted to David Haines, a British hostage who, similar to Foley and Sotloff, was also captured by ISIS in Syria.

President Obama is faced with a veritable Hobson's choice in "degrading and destroying" the utterly vile ISIS marauders in their rampage across north Syria and northwest Iraq. Led by the self-appointed "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it has felt no compunction in killing Sunni men and women, Shi'as, Kurds, Yazidis and Christians. The only group that I remember, which engaged in such wholesale slaughter, was the Mongols in their sweep across Western Asia 700 years ago. The Mongols built a tower of skulls of their victims to incite utmost horror and submission from the affected populace. ISIS seems to have taken a leaf out of the Mongol pages, without, of course, realizing it.

Obama had sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to round up support among the Arab countries surrounding Syria and Iraq on the valid ground that ISIS, if left unchecked, would expand its territory at their expense. He seemed to have received a proforma response without any solid military commitment. The other two countries who could take on ISIS are Turkey and Iran. The Turkish response is currently hobbled by two considerations: First, ISIS, while taking Mosul, kidnapped 49 Turkish diplomats, including the Consul General, and secondly the U.S. support to the Kurds is unwelcome in Ankara as it might incite the Turkish Kurds, who have lately been quiescent to once again raise the banner of independence from Turkey. Because of these constraints, Turkey, which is a U.S. ally, and also a NATO member, has been extremely cautious in helping the U.S. campaign for multilateral support against the ISIS fanatics. As far as Iran is concerned, the U.S. cannot publicly request a robust response from the latter given the lack of diplomatic relations, and a long history of suspicion and hostility, which informs the relationship between the two countries. Also, the U.S. Congress, not entirely surprisingly, has failed to approve the $500 million requested by Obama to train the so-called "moderate Syrian rebels" to counteract both the Assad regime and ISIS elements in Syria and Iraq. According to the media reports today, the money for this purpose will now have to be appropriated by the executive from some other head, presumably without Congressional approval. This is yet another symptom of the deadlock in Washington, which does not bode well for a united leadership stance against ISIS, which, if left unchecked, would be an unmitigated disaster in the Middle East.

The U.S. has so far launched a few desultory strikes on ISIS targets without causing major damage to their military capabilities. Today's report suggests further ISIS incursions into Iraqi Kurdish territory, the result of which has been the terrified flight of an estimated 100,000 Kurdish civilians into Turkey. I do not think that the Turkish authorities would view this influx into southern Turkey with any degree of equanimity given the fraught relationship the Turkish government has had with its Kurdish minority. President H.W. Bush took six months to launch one of the biggest coalitions against Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iraq. Led by the United States, this coalition was successful in not only ousting the Iraqi invader from Kuwait, but also destroying the Iraqi army. The unintended consequence of this action, taken in the Iraqi desert 23 years ago, has now boomeranged as the reconstituted post-Saddam Iraqi army could not face the ISIS fighters. Most of them shed their uniforms and fled southward. Creating a new and strong Iraqi armed forces structure would depend on the Iraqi government shedding its sectarian outlook, of which former Prime Minister Maliki was a notorious practitioner. The Sunnis were persecuted and marginalized. The Kurds felt disaffected. New President Abadi will have to repair the dangerous fault lines in Iraqi society if there is any hope, even with massive foreign aid, to build up an army capable of taking on ISIS. It should also be remembered that ISIS is not a typical insurgent group. According to credible reports, ISIS earns over $3 million per day from selling oil from the territories it has conquered, apart from donations allegedly from ISIS supporters in the Gulf countries. The U.S. and others have to work closely with these countries to stem the flow of such funds, absent which ISIS will become a really tough nut to crack.