Obama’s vague vision to take on IS

Beyond a few airstrikes and supporting an opposition that is engaged in a bloody battle with Assad, it is not clear how IS in Syria can be dealt a decisive blow.

Beyond a few airstrikes and supporting an opposition that is engaged in a bloody battle with Assad, it is not clear how IS in Syria can be dealt a decisive blow

After months of watching Iraqi civilians suffering under the hands of Islamic State (IS), President Obama announced what many of us expected him to announce weeks ago, namely a coherent strategy for dealing with the IS threat.

As with most Presidential speeches, the details were vague and the speech was a little tangential, drifting off into praising US universities towards the end.

However, what was clear was the fact that the US is seeking to build a broad coalition of Arab States that will work to destroy IS. There will be no US troops on the ground in Iraq and they will rely on airstrikes and training local forces in order to degrade IS capabilities.

Such an approach is welcome and perhaps the only way in which the US could engage in the region since there is zero appetite for another ‘boots on the ground’ war in Iraq.

Obama also made it clear, contrary to what some commentators had speculated, that the US would not work with the Assad regime in Syria but would support Syrian opposition groups. Assad’s regime is a gross violator of human rights and is responsible for deaths of around 200,000 Syrian civilians. However, the track record of the opposition groups is questionable to say the least and most Arab states in the region that the US will work with don’t have a great human rights record either.

IS is estimated to have around 30,000 fighters and at least 12,000 of these are foreign fighters, with 2000 being European citizens. The vast majority of these fighters have joined IS after slipping into Syria through the Syrian/Turkish border. The Turkish government has been accused of turning a blind eye to this phenomenon, keen as they are in seeing the demise of Assad.

It was, therefore, surprising to see no mention of preventing the influx of fighters through this border. Not wanting to single out Turkey in a Presidential speech is a little more understandable.

IS has also taken advantage of funds from the Arab Gulf that have poured into the region in order to bring down Assad. Saudi and Qatar in particular have been accused of funding jihadist forces fighting Assad. Hence, greater pressure needs to be placed on states and private individuals in the region that have financed jihadist groups in Syria.

IS’s precipitous rise is, among other things, a direct product of the wrong-footed policy of funding Islamist militants to pursue international political goals, and those responsible must be held to account.

Dealing with IS in Iraq will also largely rely on the Iraqi government being able to govern in an inclusive manner. The policies of Nouri-al-Maliki alienated many Sunnis so it is vital that the recent reshuffle in parliament learns from the mistakes of the past.

It is also important for the new Iraqi government to encourage civil society initiatives, both online and offline, which undermine the appeal of jihadism. However, beyond a few airstrikes and supporting an opposition that is also engaged in a bloody battle with Assad, it is not clear how IS in Syria can be dealt a decisive blow.

Attention also needs to be paid to European societies that seem to be breeding grounds for jihadists. For example, Indonesia has over 200 million Muslims yet has only contributed around 30 fighters to IS. Compare that to Belgium or the UK which have contributed 296 and 500 respectively whilst the Muslim populations in those countries are 900,000 and 2.5 million.

This should act as a wake-up call for governments and societies in general and encourage people to re-double their efforts in tackling extremist ideology.

Jihadism is inherently a destructive force, it can ruin societies but it can’t build them. Hence IS may be able to hold territory but it will always struggle to hold it and govern it. The international campaign against IS must do all it can to encourage local people living under IS rule to reject their message of hate and division and work with the new Iraqi government to restore peace and create inclusive politics.

This kind of change can only come from within, and it starts with empowerment.

Ghaffar Hussain is the the managing director of Quilliam

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