By Irfan Husain
September 27, 2014
OFTEN, the choice is between good and bad. At other times, it’s between bad and worse. But in the Middle East, it’s between worse and worst.
Here, while we know who the bad guys are, the good guys are not as sharply defined. The Islamic State (IS), through its campaign of slaughter, rape and pillage, has placed itself far beyond the pale. Anything done to ‘degrade and destroy’ it can only be applauded.
However, the profiles of those forming the coalition doe not inspire much confidence. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Qatar have all helped in creating the extremist threat that now poses a real danger to them. By sending money and arms to jihadist rebels in Syria for the last three years, these countries have helped conjure up the IS nightmare.
But the country doing the heavy lifting in the aerial campaign is the United States, and its record in past interventions is dismal at best. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, American force has left behind a mess. Having said that, it is the only country with the capability to act quickly and decisively in halting the IS cancer.
It is all about power, and not faith.
Looking back over the last century, Western intervention in the region since the First World War has caused nothing but trouble. Oil has propelled most of this interference, and the result is before us in the shape of dysfunctional governments and despotism. Yet such is the addiction to hydrocarbons that Saudi Arabia, the promoter-in-chief of the Wahabi ideology that motivates much of the global jihad, is still wooed and supported by the West.
Time and again, America has claimed victory over Al Qaeda, only to see the terror organisation morph into another militant threat elsewhere. Thus, there are now branches of the franchise operating in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Other gangs kill under its flag in Somalia and Algeria.
This proliferation reminds me of Jason and the Argonauts from Greek mythology. This mythical hero was required to perform several impossible tasks in order to gain the Golden Fleece. One of them was to sow a field with dragon’s teeth; but wherever he planted them, fierce soldiers sprang up from the soil to fight him.
We are now caught up in a situation where the only force capable of defeating the jihadis — the United States — provokes the emergence of ever more ruthless terrorist groups. But if the Americans don’t act, who will?
We recently had a situation where the IS threatened to slaughter thousands of Yazidis and Kurds in Iraq. Had American fighter aircraft and drones not intervened, I have little doubt that we would have witnessed a genocide on an epic scale. As it is, hundreds were killed, and many women raped and enslaved.
IS responded to this intervention by beheading two American hostages. This, in turn, caused such revulsion worldwide that President Obama faced little opposition when he declared war on the IS, calling them a ‘network of death’.
But as US aircraft — together with a token presence of some Arab states — pound IS targets in Syria and Iraq, it is obvious that air power alone cannot defeat this well-organised and well-funded group. However, stating the obvious will not bring allied boots on the ground.
The Americans ask, quite rightly, why regional countries are not doing more to counter the threat they so clearly face. While neighbouring states have taken the easy option of sending a few planes into a low-risk situation, they are not about to dispatch troops to face IS fighters in Iraq.
Iran, the one country that has the capability to take on IS, is anathema to Washington. Turkey is struggling to cope with a flood of around 1.5 million Syrian refugees. And while it may open its airfields to American aircraft and offer other logistic support, it is unlikely that it will send in troops.
Logically, the coalition ought to be coordinating its operations with Syria, but Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of his opponents has made this politically impossible for Obama. However, by training and arming ‘vetted’ moderate Syrian rebels, the Pentagon hope to create an anti-IS force. But this is a pipe dream: surely, the Afghan and Iraqi experiences ought to have shown the futility of this approach.
What then is the solution? How do we stop these dragon’s teeth from producing deadly jihadists? Firstly, we must not be confused about what’s driving this bloody campaign: it’s all about power, and not faith.
Muslim ideologues and clerics, fearing marginalisation in a globalised, rapidly-changing world, are resisting their loss of power. Although they may not frame the discourse in these terms, this is basically a struggle that pits essentially insecure people fighting to regain relevance and authority against the forces of globalisation.
To gain legitimacy and recruit foot-soldiers for their jihad, Islamists use religion as a rallying cry. But as their actions show, in reality they know very little about the faith they claim they are killing for.