The West confronts IS

The scale and scope of IS marks it out from other jihadist groupings. It continues to be well-funded and well-organised. 

The recorded beheadings of two Americans by the Islamic State (IS) forced the Obama Administration to finally recognise the threat and to come up with a new policy approach which some argue will end up creating an open-ended US military commitment against the IS.

After suggesting that the US had no strategy to deal with the much dreaded IS, Barack Obama finally made a case to American people last week that the IS poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East -- including American citizens, personnel and facilities – and underlined that if left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. In light of this, Obama made Washington’s policy clear: “We will degrade and ultimately destroy (IS) through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” His Secretary of State John Kerry also told the US Congress that the IS “must be defeated, period, end of story. And collectively, we are all going to be measured by how we carry out this mission.” 

The US Congress has gone ahead and approved President Obama’s plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels. Part of Obama’s strategy is to train and equip Free Syrian Army rebels to “strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the extremists” and to prevent US troops from “being dragged into another ground war.” Facing resistance from war-weary lawmakers in Obama’s own Democratic party, the administration reached across the aisle to Republicans for support, a rare bipartisan moment in an otherwise polarised US Congress. Opinion polls show that while Americans support Obama’s campaign of air strikes against IS militants, they largely oppose a long military campaign against the group. With this in perspective, the US and its allies will not do the fighting on the ground. But they will provide the key enablers -- air power and the means to ensure that the application of that air power is effective. 

The West has framed the use of Western air power so far largely in terms of helping Iraqi forces on the ground. But debate has already begun if this will ultimately lead to pressure for putting western troops on the ground. The chairman of Joint Chiefs of the US, Martin Dempsey’s comment regarding the prospect of greater involvement of US ‘advisors’ on the frontlines against IS has underscored the tensions in the West’s military strategy. He admitted that President Obama has left open the possibility of employing US troops in more exposed combat-related roles on a ‘case by case basis.’ 

The White House was forced to clarify that no US combat troops would be deployed to Iraq or Syria. The strategy of the West is also complicated by the ground realities in the Middle East. Though the Syrian government is fighting IS, The West remains reluctant to have any explicit links with Damascus. Clearly in this is a case of my enemy’s enemy is not my friend. It is the chaos in Syria that has helped IS establish itself and then export its brand of barbarism back into Iraq. The focus of the West on IS has freed the Syrian government to put its military might behind exterminating the moderate rebel forces.

Bearing over the superpower

For its part, the IS will relish the prospect of confronting a superpower. The imagery of their murderous behaviour is perfect: they can slaughter Americans like sheep, giving them not only publicity but also credibility in the unique regional milieu. The scale and scope of IS marks it out from other jihadist groupings insofar as it already controls a significant swathe of territory across Syria and Iraq. It continues to be well-funded and well-organised. Its success is also making it possible for it to attract large number of foreign fighters. 

Obama’s new strategy is also hobbled by what many of Washington's Arab allies see as Obama's vacillation and unwillingness to act decisively. He is seen as a reluctant fighter and was forced to confront the IS only after it became impossible to ignore the threat though America’s Arab allies were asking for a more robust response ever since the IS came into the picture. For many in the US, on the other hand, the more US allies inside and outside the Middle East get the impression that Washington will increase its military support, the less incentive they will have to bear more of the military burden. 

It is very likely that Britain will join in this fight against IS, given the threat from home grown radicalisation that it faces and the beheading of a UK aid worker last week. Given the turmoil over Scotland, it is not clear when an announcement on military action might come and whether it would encompass just Iraq or extend to Syria, too. The Australian government has already announced that it is sending 600 troops to the Middle East to assist in the fight against IS.

Australia, like many countries including Britain, is worried about the threat from IS, not just abroad but at home. At least 60 Australians are believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria and northern Iraq, and 15 Australians have been killed so far in these conflicts, including two suicide bombers. One of the largest anti-terror operations in Australian history was carried out by the Australian police after intelligence reports emerged of a plot which reportedly involved beheading a random member of the public after draping them in an IS flag. 

In his address to the American people last week, Obama asserted that “we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” It is far from clear if the strategy he has outlined will be enough to tackle the challenge from IS or if it will be the beginning of another costly American military involvement in the quagmire of the Middle East.

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