Commentary

Needed: A Global Response for Combating ISIS

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

The brutal murder of the U.S. journalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has many wondering whether the Obama administration will finally act decisively in the Syrian conflict as well as come to the aid of the Iraqi government. In the region, no one believes that the struggle against ISIL will be quick and easy, even with U.S. involvement.  Which is why, across the region, many observers and editorials are calling for widespread cooperation aimed at eradicating the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.  Whether that cooperation will be forthcoming or not remains to be seen, however it is clear that the struggle against IS and other fundamentalist off-shoots has reached a new stage.

Convinced that the fall of ISIL will come just as surely as its rise, Al Arabiya’s Jamal Khashoggi nevertheless harbors no doubts that in order for the world to be safe from what he calls ‘takfirist jihadist salafism’, it will require more than a military victory: “The movement of takfirist jihadist salafism will lose again everything after it emerged and overcame all those who fell under its control, including the Sunnis. We will witness the joy of Mosul, similar to when Kandahar celebrated the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. No one likes extremism.... However, its defeat will increase its violence and hatred. Its destructive idea won’t vanish as well because what has been established and prepared through decades and even spread beyond the limits to reach mosques in Europe and the whole world, cannot disappear in one year. The world will militarily triumph over ISIL and its affiliates, but it needs to work hard in order to prevent the emergence of another generation of the organization.”

This is why many are calling for a more collaborative approach to fighting extremism rather than a go-it-alone one. Even the Syrian government is now calling on the US to join in its fights against the Islamic State, a move interpreted by the Saudi Gazette editorial as a desperate cry for help: “Syria’s readiness to join hands with other countries in fighting the Islamic State shows its desperation. Another dimension has been added to the more than three year old Syrian conflict. The enemy of an enemy, the adage goes, is a friend. Syria is trying this out with the United States, which doesn’t have any love lost for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad....Now that Damascus would be ready to join hands with the US in a joint fight against the Islamic State, the stage is set for a blitz on the Jihadis. Seeking international help, though with a rider, shows that Assad’s regime is truly threatened by the Jihadis and his cry of help is driven by desperation.”

But the Syrians are not the only ones concerned by the prospect of greater gains by the Islamic militants. According to Mahmoud Ahmad, the Saudi government has been especially concerned by the increasing number of its youth falling prey to the ISIL propaganda: “What is happening now is that Saudis, who regardless of all cautionary advise had gone to Syria and Iraq to join in a war that was not theirs, are being used by foreign leaders from northern African countries and some Iraqi leaders from Saddam’s regime as cannon fodder. These Saudi youth are being sent to the front lines to die first. They are being selected to carry out suicide missions and being used to fuel this war.”

There are clear signs that the current crisis is being manipulated by some countries, including Russia, for gaining maximum political leverage. Cautioning against the alienation of Russia, Al Arabiya’s Maria Dubovikova argues Russia’s involvement in the current international efforts to push back against the gains of the Islamic State militants is indispensable: “The ISIL crisis is the most dangerous phenomenon in the midterm perspective as it menaces the whole world’s stability and future. It’s too late to blame anyone for its rise and its unexpectedly impressive strength. The only thing the international community should decide is how to deal with it and how to counter it. To lay the foundation for effective international cooperation, international players must put aside all existing contradictions between the West and Russia....At this time, Russia would be an indispensable partner in the case of involving Syria in counter-terrorism operations.”

Still, there are doubts about Russia’s motives in contributing to this effort. Similar concerns are expressed about Iran, with some observers, including Kuwait Times’ Torkey Al-Dekheil, suspecting the Iranians might be providing financial support: “One significant remark is the statement made by the Iranian defense minister Hossein Dehghan that “ISIL does not pose any threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran!” So at a time when European countries, Jordan, GCC states, Iraq and in fact every country around the world agrees that this organization is a real menace and threat, Iran dares to feel assured about it, that too through its defense minister, which analytically reaffirms doubts about Iran’s funding to ISIL. 

Meanwhile, Gulf Today’s editorial highlights the importance of religious leaders and other regional actors in combating extremism, arguing that only a regional response can be effective in fighting against extremism: “Extremist views need to be contested effectively. The top Islamic authority in Egypt, revered by many Muslims worldwide, has already launched an Internet-based campaign challenging the extremist group in Syria and Iraq by saying it should not be called an “Islamic State.” The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shawki Allam, too has cautioned that the extremists violate all Islamic principles and laws and has described the group as a danger to Islam as a whole....The rise of ISIL undeniably means that the search for a political solution to the Syrian crisis is needed more than ever. A well-coordinated and timely action by brotherly countries can go a long way in dealing with challenges to preserve security and stability in Arab countries.”

Still, it is clear to everyone that the U.S. holds the keys to success and failure, which is why so many commentaries and editorials are dedicated to either critiquing U.S. efforts so far or spurring the Obama administration to do more.  For example, a Saudi Gazette editorial poses the question whether Mr. Foley’s death will finally convince the U.S. to enter the fight against the ISIL: “The latest in an extremely long line of Syrian tragedies is that it has taken the seizure of U.S. hostages and the subsequent execution of the journalist James Foley to get the Obama administration involved in the conflict....The question now is whether or not Obama will at last change tack on Syria. The U.S. and its allies are busy arming the Kurds to enable them to take on ISIL, who once armed themselves from plundered Syrian army stores, but are now awash with sophisticated armaments seized after Iraqi forces cut and ran despite their superiority in numbers and U.S.-supplied equipment....Will the death of a single U.S. reporter finally wake up the American people to the enormity of what has been happening in Assad’s brutal Syria and cause Obama at last to act decisively to end their nightmare?”

In an Arab News op-ed, Hassan Barari takes issue with the Obama administration’s passive response to the ever-increasing threat of Islamic extremism in Syria and Iraq, partly blaming the administration: “After three years of avoiding Syria, it seems that the administration cannot stand idly by while the ISIL rampage continues unchecked. All along, Obama’s decisions have been shaped by his insistence not to involve his country in armed clashes in the Middle East. Even in the face of the growing threat in both Iraq and Syria, Obama maintained the mantra that there would be no boots on the ground. If anything, Obama’s position and his weak image have emboldened the radicals to grow. Many of Obama’s critics could make the case that Obama’s hesitant policy contributed in no small amount to ISIL's growth and expansion.”

Ultimately, what may be need though is more than a limited intervention against ISIL. A recent Khaleej Times editorial makes the argument for a “new geopolitical contract wherein the popular political forces be made direct stakeholders in the process to eliminate terror. The Kurds and other minorities have waited for long to see themselves in the corridors of power with a new identity of their own....Solving the Palestinian statehood question remains at the heart of discord in the region. It’s time to see Israeli atrocities in the same light as the West has awakened to ‘ISIL’ brutality.”