WASHINGTON – In politics symbolism is sometimes more powerful that substance. And this is certainly the case regarding the aura of invincibility now surrounding ISIL, the Islamic State firmly established in Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.
Is the Islamic State here to stay?
IS leaders claim to be the wave of the future. However preposterous, their declared objective to establish and then grow a “New Caliphate”, until and unless they are crushed by superior force, look credible to people desperately looking to join the “just cause”.
I believe it was Osama bin Laden who said that people will back the winning horse. Right after the 9/11 tragedy, when an incredulous and shell-shocked America was licking its wounds, the smoke coming out of the destroyed Twin Towers in NYC became a powerful recruiting tool for al Qaeda. Al Qaeda “was” the winning horse. “You see: We are winning. America is on its knees. Come with us. Join the fight!”
ISIL is winning
Right now, ISIL is the new al Qaeda, with the added twist that the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, IS, is not just a shadowy secret organization. IS operates in broad daylight. It controls major cities, like Mosul. It claims to be a “proper state”, a functioning political entity, running a government, controlling territory. Yes, IS is a state “governed” by a terror group.
This is a terrible development. We should not allow this abomination to continue, essentially unimpeded.
Mark my words: Any day that goes by, IS wins the political battle, we lose.
Indeed, any day that goes by, they can claim that they are here to stay. They can claim that nobody dares opposing them because they are strong and because they are righteous. All these are powerful recruiting arguments. “Come to us. Fighting together, we –the true believers– shall conquer the world”.
What the West can do, now
Well, what can be done to undo this mess? On the political front, there is hope now that a more moderate and more inclusive government in Baghdad, run by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, (assuming that he will succeed in forming a new coalition), may be able to reach out to at least some Iraqi Sunnis who joined forces with ISIL, simply because they seemed to be a better alternative to Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Shia sectarian policies.
Convince Sunni leaders
If Sunni leaders may be convinced by a new al-Abadi government that Baghdad from now on will stop discriminating against them, the Sunnis may be encouraged to fight in order to get rid of the oppressive ISIL regime they joined in order to resist Al-Maliki and his Shia forces. It takes strongly motivated moderate Sunnis to fight against radical Sunnis.
Arm the Kurds
Looking elsewhere, The US and the West should immediately arm the Kurdish peshmerga forces, so that they can not just resist but also push back the IS army now threatening Iraqi Kurdistan. And the US should continue supporting the peshmerga with a beefed up, sustained air campaign against ISIL.
Let’s be real: All this will be messy and complicated. But it is doable –and it has to be done.
This is not about American soldiers going back into Iraq to fight another war, with all the well-known political disadvantages of being perceived by all parties as a foreign invader.
Support Iraqis willing to fight IS
This is about strongly supporting a more inclusive Iraqi central government. This is about giving a real alternative to Iraqi Sunni leaders, and about enabling the Kurds to carry on their fight.
Priority number one: destroy ISIL
In all this, it should be absolutely clear to America and its Allies that right now, whatever other problems we know are out there, (the role of Iran, the civil war in Syria, Kurdistan’s possible secession from Iraq), there should be one and only one strategic objective: defeat and destroy the Islamic State.
A fast and crushing ISIL defeat will also be the defeat of its crazy dreams of global jihad, with New Caliphates and all the rest of it.