Nature abhors a vacuum and so does geo-political forces. The vacuum of this era is leadership in the Western world. Those with the means do not have the will. This, of course, is the picture of the United States and President Obama. Watching him today on television today as he toured a school in Wales, with his hands in his pockets brought home the image and reality that he is way beyond his capabilities. He is uncomfortable in a situation in which he is not addressing his political groupies. He simply cannot make a decision out of the realm of domestic political cheerleading.
The existence of the Islamic State ( IS) and the seemingly increasing danger it poses to stability, not only in the Middle East but the world in general is a direct result of inaction on the part of the Obama administration for almost 6 years. Doing nothing in Syria, withdrawing in haste from Iraq, and failing to back up his tough words with action, set the stage for what we see today. The IS is not a strong military organization. In fact to label it an organization, misses its true nature. It is a pastiche of young men patched together by a superficial Islamic ideology, all with varying reasons for being part of the IS. The Islamic attraction is underlined by the idea of adventure, loot, and relief from boredom. The thrill of being able to kill, and terrorise, without consequences draw many no doubt. At the top the objective, as always, is not some new Islamic utopia but power.
Do we even understand who these IS people are?
Who is at the top of this movement? Of course this somewhat mysterious al- Baghdadi is currently featured by the Western Press as the leader. It is far more likely that the core leadership consists of the remnants of the old Saddam regime. While Saddam had an ineffective and poorly trained conventional force, he had an excellent organization of intelligence and security forces. They were temporarily dispersed by the US occupation but they remained well-financed by the looted treasury of the Saddam government and bonded together by the deep roots of the Ba’ath party and their Sunni belief of their divine right to rule Iraq.
Why do we continue to misidentify the enemy?
For much too long the conventional thinking has been that the “secular” socialist ideology of the Saddam, Ba’athist party would be the antithesis to the “Islamist” ideology of the IS. This erroneous belief has deep roots and a long history. The pull of a totalitarian ideology whether communist, fascist, or Islamist has a common attraction not only to the disenfranchised and disaffected but the intellectuals and elite. Frederic Hayak in his book The Road to Serfdom described the facility with which many former German communists became ardent Nazis as they realized who was coming out on top. In the Middle East conventional wisdom stressed that Islam was deemed incompatible with communism but in fact many Arab intellectuals found the transition very comfortable. Outstanding scholars of this issue such as Walter Laqueur surfaced this fact and the great Middle East historian Bernard Lewis made the point in 1953 that Islam was less resistant to communism than Christianity.
This blanket acceptance of the incompatibility of Islamism and secular Arab regimes has one reason for the hasty dismissal of the association of the Saddam regime with the 9/11 conspiracy
But in a wider context Paul Johnson and others have drawn a picture of the intellectual elite who gravitate to totalitarianism in the conviction that they, as the elite, should have greater amount of control of the society, which is not forthcoming in a free enterprise liberal democracy.
So in Iraq, the IS has expanded because their opposition has been so feeble and the initial widespread Sunni support of the people. (the fact that apparently some tribes are chaffing under IS rule may be true, but it is probably too late). Underlining this, however, is the knowledge and political military acumen of the Saddam Ba’ath apparatus. Al Maliki’s corrupt and totally ineffective army, rent by sectarian divisions, collapsed, frozen by the fear of the brutality and supposed invincibility of the IS forces. In Syria Assad, had the disadvantage of having a minority Alawi population as support with a majority Sunni disaffected community in opposition.The IS forces, bolstered by foreign fighters and Gulf money from governments and or individual citizens, with an implacable hatred of the Shi’a of Iraq and the offshoot Alawis of Syria has had an build-in advantage.
As the US government dithered and vacilated making empty treats, the IS, temporarily stalled in Syria by Alawi forces fighting what they rightly considered an existential war, the conflict spilled into Iraq. This is the nature of a movement like the IS. They expand until stopped militarily. The regimes of the Arab countries bordering on IS occupied territory have belatedly recognized the threat. Suddenly the fear of the Shi’a has been submerged by the fear of the IS. There have been clashes recently between Jordanian forces and the IS. The largely disenchanted Palestinian population of Jordan have contributed many to the Al Qaeda organization and they will most likely migrant to the IS in larger numbers. The IS has been involved in subverting Lebanon, and attempting to destroy the Shi’a Hezbollah for a number of years. Yet the threatened Arab states remain largely immobile. Why?
The regimes recognize the danger but they will not move militarily against them unless the United States takes the lead and commits forces on the ground to destroy the IS. Pinprick air attacks are not the answer to a largely irregular force. We have to demostrate we are serious. Pinprick air strikes are symbolic, something the Arab states know all too well.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned here so far, concerning air attacks, is to look back at the British handling of the Iraqi revolt in 1920. Modern sensibilities would be offended by the relentless air campaign waged by the British which was undeterred by the amount of collateral damage they inflicted. However, with combined ground forces, it worked and the insurgency was defeated. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the insurgents from the civilian population to which they are largely attached by tribal and sectarian ties. To fight this kind of war successfully, this has to be understood. But no matter how effective the air war, it cannot be won, only contained in this fashion.
Bottom line. The IS must defeated militarily and on the ground.