By S. Nihal Singh
Sep 25, 2014
Everyone agrees that while bombing runs and missile strikes can degrade and halt advances of the Islamic State, only boots on the ground can defeat the ISIS
Despite the show of Arab nations’ support in expanding the military strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, there is a sense of international foreboding over President Barack Obama’s gamble. Many shrewd observers believe that the United States is re-entering dangerous territory and is involving itself in another unwinnable war in a region that has proved its graveyard.
There are two kinds of problems the United States faces. First, everyone agrees that while bombing runs and missile strikes can degrade and halt advances of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) only boots on the ground can defeat the ISIS. It poses the question: whose boots?
Second, the tangled web of relations in the West Asia, the loyalties of individual states are not above suspicion. The Arab monarchies have come on board for the present because they collectively fear the ISIS and its philosophy for their own well-being. Iran, a supporter of the Syrian Assad regime opposed by most others, is an effective force against the ISIS and has been indirectly brought into the picture.
Among the many devils in the detail is the fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is delighted at the new turn of events because hammering the ISIS in Syria works to the advantage on his own survival. Unsurprisingly, the Assad regime has welcomed the American bombing runs and has claimed that it was informed by the US in advance.
What is causing concern in international circles is the belief that President Obama is reacting to events and domestic pressures, rather than working to a plan or strategy. Decidedly, the mood in America has changed after the publicised beheading by the ISIS of two American journalists. But in publicly expressing his determination to degrade and destroy the ISIS, he could have bitten off more than he can chew.
Since President Obama’s declaration portends a long-running, if not endless, war stretching well beyond his presidency, how does he plan to achieve his objective, having ruled out American boots on the ground? American officials have suggested that since the crises in Iraq and Syria are of immediate concern to their neighbours, they should decide which of their boots should be on the ground. But relations even among the Arab states are far from convivial and each country will have its limitations in sending troops to fight a war against the common ISIS enemy.
In more immediate terms, many of the Arab states participating in the American-led air strikes over Syria fear reprisals from supporters of the Islamic State. On the other hand, Turkey, which is in some ways the odd man out, is facing a major humanitarian crisis along its border with Syria with the influx of more than 100,000 Kurdish refugees’ crossing over in days because they are fleeing ISIS marauders. Turkey already hosts a million Syrian refugees and has in the past turned a blind eye to the jihadists’ crossing over into Syria to fight the Assad regime.
Turkey refused to join the other regional countries in supporting the American military offensive, citing in particular the 49 Turkish diplomatic and other staff in Mosul, Iraq, kept hostage by the ISIS for three months. Although all the staff have now been somewhat mysteriously released, Ankara’s attitude to recent American moves remain ambivalent.
What is worrying most observers is the fear that the United States is being sucked into another war in West Asia without an attainable end in sight. Destroying the ISIS, President Obama’s stated goal, is a huge undertaking. And in the jihadi world, names and acronyms change with bewildering frequency.
It is true that the coming into being of the Islamic State — a caliphate — has captured the imagination of many jihadists because it is the first time that an insurgent group has captured large territory across two states and is seeking to administer it as a country. But al-Qaeda is far from finished and al-Nusra still has adherents.
Judging by current American plans, the bombing runs and missile strikes over Iraq and Syria will continue for weeks and months and although there will be participation by other countries, it will be primarily an American operation. Difficulties arise from other simultaneous and subsequent steps that need to be taken.
To begin with, the Obama administration let the three-year-long Syrian civil war drag on because Americans were war-weary fighting two infructuous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama’s stand changed when the national mood changed. But by then the ISIS had all the time to win territory in Syria by exploiting the vacuum and using it as a base to seize large chunks of Iraqi territory utilising the Sunni disaffection with the central Shia-dominated regime.
Obviously, the new blows being administered to the ISIS in Syria will slow down and halt their expansion. While the ISIS fighters’ capacities can be degraded, their decimation would be a long-term process and would require the willing support of the two countries’ neighbours. Thus far, President Obama has failed to unveil an overarching strategy to resolve his dilemmas.
Any observer of West Asia knows that there are many shades of gray in the region, with few black and white answers. Even the intractable Shia-Sunni divide represented by two ends, Saudi Arabia and Iran, seems to be narrowing. And in a sense the American-decreed pariah status for Iran is mellowing for the simple reason that Tehran is a fierce fighter of the ISIS although still attached to the Assad regime. In the background there are ongoing talks between the US and Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme.
What is clear at present is that West Asia has entered a new phase in a series of crises that have not left the region for many years. And in spite of President Obama’s efforts to extract his country out of the quagmire, the region has returned to mock American power — and “pivot to Asia”.