The world is waking up to the threat posed by the Islamic militants known as Islamic State or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The threat is real, as has been made evident by the territorial gains the group has achieved. They have changed the map of Mideast with the seizure of large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria.
Its murderous brutality is also clear from the beheadings it proudly broadcasts to the world and the reports of mass killings in the towns it occupies. The size and scale of that threat must be honestly assessed if it is to be countered effectively.
The world today, however, is responding viscerally and emotionally to the group’s savagery. Islamic State can be defeated, but doing so will require a serious and thoughtful strategy, not a knee-jerk reaction to its brutality.
Islamic State has come a long way since it was dismissed by U.S. President Barack Obama in January as the “junior varsity” of terror groups. It has become a magnet for angry, disaffected and murderous individuals from around the world.
Opposition to the Bashir Assad regime in Syria honed the fighting skills of members and recruits, and they exploited the porous border between Syria and Iraq to move east and fill the vacuum left by the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. His partisan rule alienated Iraq’s Sunnis and undermined cohesion within the country’s army. When it finally faced off against Islamic State forces, the army put down its weapons and fled rather than fight.
The spread of Islamic State’s influence in Iraq has been checked by U.S. intervention from the air. More than 200 airstrikes have halted the group’s advance. France has joined the airstrike campaign. But air power has its limits, and the group’s retention of sanctuaries in Syria, where a vicious civil war continues to rage, means that it can retreat and regroup. A comprehensive strategy is essential to defeat this scourge.
That is what Obama meant a few weeks ago when he said he had no strategy to deal with Islamic State. He was not saying, as was widely reported, that the United States had no strategy to deal with the group. Rather, he was responding to a specific question about military action against Islamic State in Syria, a sovereign state.
Baghdad had asked — sometimes pleaded — for airstrikes that would have limited effectiveness if the Syrian safe havens remained. But crossing the border to take out those sanctuaries would constitute aggression against another state and Washington had not yet decided how to address that problem.
While the removal of those sanctuaries is essential, hitting Islamic State in Syria poses a dilemma for the West. Islamic State is a formidable piece of the coalition against Assad. Any action against it will help the government in Damascus, and there is no escaping that zero-sum formulation.
Nevertheless, Obama has made clear the U.S. objective — to “degrade, and ultimately destroy [Islamic State] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” His plan to do so consists of four parts: a systematic campaign of airstrikes against the terrorists; increased support for forces fighting Islamic State on the ground; continued efforts to prevent Islamic State attacks; and humanitarian assistance to civilians displaced by the group.
While appalled and horrified by the acts of this terrorist group, Obama walks a fine line. He leads a country that remains fatigued by a decade of war. Indeed, Obama was elected president on a pledge to extract the U.S. from its two commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that goal continues to guide his thinking.
The gruesome beheadings of two U.S. journalists have turned opinion in the United States: One September poll shows 90 percent of respondents identifying Islamic State as either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” threat to U.S. national interests. More than 70 percent of respondents now support airstrikes against the group; just 45 percent backed such moves in June.
Obama is trying to avoid being stampeded into intemperate action by the mounting public pressure. He recalls the mood in the U.S. after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and wants to avoid the rush to war.
Defeating Islamic State demands boots on the ground, and there is little stomach for that in the U.S. The West rightly demanded that the Iraqi government take the lead in countering the Islamic State advance, and the replacement of al-Maliki as prime minister was a vital first step in mustering the national resolve to do that.
A broad coalition of forces is required to defeat Islamic State. It will include Western militaries to attack from the air and to provide humanitarian relief. And, some ground forces, mostly special operations personnel, will be needed to guide those airstrikes.
The bulk of the troops should come from regional governments, however. They are the countries most affected by the Islamic State advance, which stand to lose the most from the instability and the savagery that will be unleashed.
Those same countries need to seal their borders to prevent sympathizers from joining Islamic State, and their clergy and faithful must disavow and delegitimize the murderous behavior of the extremists.
Regional governments must also halt their support for Islamic State, a group they once saw as a counter to Assad’s regime, as well as a means to block the expansion of Shiite influence in the region.
Equally important will be an agreement among European governments to end the payment of ransom for hostages, an understandable humanitarian impulse, but one that only fuels Islamic State terror campaigns.
That broad approach is what is meant by the call for a comprehensive strategy against Islamic State. It is the only approach that has a hope of success.
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