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#4727, 4 November 2014

Spotlight West Asia

Islamic State: The Efficacy of Counter-strategies
Ranjit Gupta
Former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB)

The efficacy of the US strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) can only be meaningfully evaluated in the context of the current regional and international geopolitical configurations. It should be self-evident that there is no possibility at all of any political approach to successfully confront and overcome the challenge posed the IS. If the IS is not defeated, the whole system of nation states in West Asia will almost surely crumble. At the present critical juncture, given the ground realities in Iraq, Syria and the Arab world in general – and internal divisions amongst Arab states and between Arab states and non-Arab states such as Iran and Turkey – it should also be clear that there is no possibility of any regional military coalition being forged to take on the IS.

Therefore, countries of the region have little or no choice but to have the US lead the fight against the IS even though Washington’s military entanglements in the Arab and Muslim worlds have greatly adversely affected its credibility, influence and standing in the region; and have in fact been one of the primary causes of the rise of Islamic extremism. After all, the US has been the preeminent regional security architect for the past several decades and remains the major weapons supplier to regional countries barring Iran and Syria.

No other Western or non-regional country can do it or will even be willing to attempt to do it by themselves; even their involvement is predicated only on the US leading the war. Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and UK too have joined in conducting airstrikes in Iraq. In a break from the traditional policy of not supplying arms to countries in zones of conflict, Germany will be supplying arms to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have carried out airstrikes in Syria. There are varying accounts of Qatar’s involvement. After doggedly refusing to allow any support for any military action in Iraq or Syria against the IS despite intense personal efforts by US President Barack Obama and the secretaries of state and defense, Turkey has reluctantly allowed the Free Syrian Army fighters and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to transit its territory en route to Kobani to dislodge the IS from there.  

The central feature of the strategy is to carry out airstrikes both in Iraq and Syria initially to stop the heretofore irresistible advance of the IS and to degrade its capabilities. This has happened in many sectors if not everywhere. The US and its partners have by now carried out a few thousand airstrikes. However, Obama has made it clear that there will be no American boots on the ground, meaning Americans in the tens of thousands will not be there as in the past. Such involvement will only exacerbate extremism. Another caveat is that combat activity must absolutely include the active involvement of regional countries. This is what the US has been implementing. Even though it is clear that the war cannot be won through via air strikes alone, the reality is that the world has no better alternative to this approach for the present.  

So far, however, a Shiite coalition, of Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias and the Iraqi and Syrian governments, has been the main force arrayed against the IS on the ground apart from particularly valiant contributions by the Kurdish Peshmerga. Thus we have the strange scenario of seeing the US and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Shia ruled Iraq, the Assad regime and those sworn to overthrow it – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US and assorted Islamist extremist groups, Kurds of different nationality groups and factions perpetually at loggerheads with each other, all in the same camp warring against the IS, tacitly cooperating with each other even if they more often than not publicly deny any open explicit collaboration. This is a part of the ground reality even if not a formal part of US strategy.

However, the fight against the IS cannot be compartmentalised. It occupies 2/5ths of the total territory of Syria and 2/5ths of the total territory of Iraq and is actually stronger in Syria; the border between the two countries has been erased. The IS cannot be defeated in Iraq without being defeated in Syria and therefore it will have to be confronted in Syria also. Despite recognising this as exhibited by the airstrikes in Syria, countries opposed to Assad are maintaining that they will not cooperate with Assad in fighting the IS and will continue supporting so called ‘moderate’ rebels by supplying arms. Such distinctions are completely arbitrary and subjective and have proven to be counterproductive. The US has promised $500 million worth of arms and training is going to be provided to the rebels in Saudi Arabia. This will only exacerbate and prolong Syria’s civil war and undermine the dire need of a united response to the IS.

The coalition’s policy approach in Syria maybe alright as a temporary tactic, but strategically, it is completely counterproductive.

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