Growing ideological threat

Western governments are facing tough foreign policy choices. Such a struggle against an ideology has not been witnessed before by the world.

It wasn’t much of a vacation for the US President, Barack Obama. The world kept intruding into his golf and he had to keep returning to the real world much as we would have preferred to keep playing. The beheading of the American journalist James Foley by the jihadist militant group Islamic State (IS) shook the world by the sheer coldness of the murderers. It was as if that was routine. In fact, it indeed was. In numerous interviews by various media outlets, the IS fighters have shown no compunction about what they have been doing in Iraq and Syria. In fact, the murderous acts are something they crave to attain martyrdom. 

Just days back, around 200 Syrian army soldiers appeared to have been caught and executed by IS as they attempted to cross the desert to government-held territory in the Orontes Valley to the west. Not surprising then, that the US has described IS, which has seized large swathes of northern Iraq, as the biggest threat it has faced in recent years. Steven Sotloff, another US journalist, who vanished last year in Syria, had appeared in a video showing the killing of US journalist James Foley. The militant on the video said his life depended on the next move of US President. The IS has called Foley’s death a revenge killing for US airstrikes against militants in Iraq, and has suggested that other hostages would be slain if the attacks continued. 

In his remarks after Foley’s murder, Obama said the US would “do what we must to protect our people” though he stopped short of promising to follow the IS in its safe haven within Syria, where apparently, Foley had been killed. Washington did reveal that several dozen special operations troops had been on the ground in Syria briefly in an effort to rescue the hostages, but did not find them. Soon after Obama vowed relentless pursuit of the terrorists and the White House revealed that the US had launched a secret rescue mission inside Syria earlier this summer that failed to rescue Foley and other Americans still being held hostage, the US launched a new round of airstrikes against the IS. Despite strong protests from Syria, the Obama Administration has not ruled out military operations in Syria to bring those responsible to justice, suggesting that the US “reserves the right to hold people accountable when they harm Americans.”

West and Assad

Despite calls to work with Syria's President Assad to defeat the threat from IS militants, the West has ruled this out so far. Whereas Assad has never posed a direct threat to the US homeland, IS is actively scheming to carry out a mass casualty attack against the US. From a US national security perspective, IS is the more immediate threat. But British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made it clear that an alliance between the UK and President Assad was not an option, as it would not be "practical, sensible or helpful.” Similarly, the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey made this clear Thursday when they agreed that Syria is 'probably the central core' of the Isis problem.

Britain has been particularly hard hit by the murder of James Foley because some experts think that Foley’s murderer is a British national as the accent sounds like the man coming from London, a mixture of multicultural speech patterns often heard on the streets of the city. The UK government estimates that around 500 British nationals may be fighting in the Middle East though this might be a massive under-estimate. There are now growing calls in the UK to strip UK jihadists of their passports to stop them returning home and launching terror attacks in Britain. 

The British government is looking at bringing in tougher laws to protect the country and Prime Minister David Cameron is facing growing pressure to commit British planes to join US air strikes against the IS. The UK has already agreed to ship weapons to Kurdish forces fighting the extremists. Though it has pledged to use the UK’s “military prowess” to stop the brutal Islamist fighters, the British government has ruled out putting British “boots on the ground” again in Iraq.

Dozens of Americans are believed to be fighting with the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq, or alongside other extremist groups. Free Syrian Army fighters are understood to have killed at least one US citizen, Douglas McAuthur McCain a few days back and there are reports that a second American fighting with the Islamic State group has been killed in Syria.At next week’s NATO summit in Wales, the US is likely to seek support from its European allies to participate in or support air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq.

British parliament had voted against supporting for strikes against the Assad regime last year. Now it will be back to square one for Britain as it will have to decide what sort of military footprint it wants to have in the Middle East. Western governments are facing tough foreign policy choices and there is no easy resolution in sight. It’s a long-term struggle against an ideology the likes of which the world has not witnessed before. 

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