Sep 23rd 2014

A War Worth Fighting, But We’re Not There Yet

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
It appears that we may be going to war against the Islamic State (IS). I use the word "appears" advisedly, because appearances may be deceiving. It's true that we've already bombed almost 200 IS targets. And it's true that the President has declared his intention to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the IS, with Vice-President Biden upping the rhetorical ante promising to "follow them to the gates of hell".  It's also true that Congress has now appropriated significant sums to train and arm a select group of Syria opposition fighters. But even with all this, there are still too many pieces of this puzzle that don't fit or are missing to be able to say what we are doing or where it will go. 

I'm not one of those who scoffed at the President, a few weeks back, when he told reporters that he had not yet developed a strategy to confront ISIL—the precursor to IS. Despite the rants of critics on the right—some of whom think that a good strategy consists of bombing first and asking questions later—I want my President to spend time developing a strategy.

I also don't agree with those same hawks who argue that if only we hadn't left Iraq or if only we took military action in Syria sooner, ISIL wouldn't be the menace it is today. These critics forget that we left Iraq because the Bush Administration had negotiated an agreement with the Iraqi government that would have put US forces who remained in the country after 2011 at great risk. After more than seven years of occupation, Iraqis wanted us to leave. These critics also ignore the simple fact that any US engagement early in the Syrian conflict would not have doused the flames of the conflict, as much as it would have added additional fuel to the Syrian fires. 

Increased American arms to the opposition would have resulted in increased Iranian and Russian support for their ally. Direct US engagement would have created an even greater incentive for extremists to come to Syria. And, in any case, the President understood that in the process of winding down two failed wars, the American people had little tolerance for getting into a new one.

What's different today is that the grotesque behavior of ISIL, coupled with their rapid advances on the ground, has created a sense of urgency and outrage provoking demands for an American response. And so the President has responded with: some initial steps designed to stop ISIL's advance; an intensified effort to mobilize an international coalition of partners willing to join the campaign against the IS; and the development of a strategy that will be able to accomplish the objective of degrading and destroying the IS.

The painstaking work needed to build a coalition is the first order of business. But putting together the pieces that will be required to accomplish this mission will not be easy. Most of our NATO allies share outrage over ISIL's behavior, but too many remain gun shy. Turkey, which shares borders with both Syria and Iraq, has been an enabler of some of the violent extremist groups now allied with the IS. They may feel threatened by dangers posed by this now out-of-control creature they helped nurture, but they have given no indication that they ready to take military action to confront it. Arab allies in Jordan and the Gulf are conflicted. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been the most forthcoming in offering support to the coalition—but they have also asked important questions about strategy and have wanted assurances about the commitment of others to join the effort. 

What about the strategy? ISIL has fed off of the deep grievances of Sunni Arabs in both Iraq and Syria. In the former they are a disenfranchised minority, in the latter a disenfranchised majority. In Iraq, one key component of the effort to defeat ISIL must include reforming the system of governance to provide for full Sunni partnership. The first step involved removing former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who had tormented Sunni Arabs while recklessly pursuing a sectarian agenda. His successor has been inclined to create a more inclusive government, but efforts, to date, have been less than satisfactory. Key ministries have gone to sectarian figures and the main Iraqi armed forces fighting the IS remain Shi'a militias many of whom maintain strong ties with Iran. Compounding this problem is the fact that the other main armed force waging war against the IS is the Kurdish Peshmerga—whom many Iraqi Arabs fear harbors separatist ambitions.

Given this unsettled state of affairs, many Sunni Arab states will be cautious about the extent of their involvement if they fear that the result will be to consolidate Iran's hold over Iraq. Despite ISIL’s barbaric actions, these Arab states understand that if Sunni grievances have fueled that movement, bombing Sunnis in order to allow Shi'a militias to take over will only fan the flames of sectarian hostility—with the potential of making a bad situation even worse.

If finding a strategy is difficult for Iraq, Syria presents an even more complicated situation. The outrage that fueled the ISIL movement was the relentless brutality of Syrian government and its refusal to consider serious internal reforms. The external political coalition that represents the Syrian opposition to the regime is diverse and includes several thoughtful visionary leaders. But there are concerns that this external leadership's ties to the armed elements on the ground in Syria are less than organic. The groups engaged in the fight against the regime are remarkably fragmented, with many now espousing some form of extremist religious ideology. They fight the regime and each other. While some of these groups have been bitterly opposed to the ISIL, there are indications that they may not support a US-led effort to oust the IS, if they feel that the beneficiary will be the regime.

Facing this complexity and the obvious dangers involved, there are many who are opposed to any US action. But given ISIL's terrorist actions against all who oppose their rule, their genocidal campaigns against minorities groups in areas they have subdued, and the existential threat they pose to the entire region, doing nothing is as unacceptable as the hawk's inclination to just do anything.

Finding the right course of action will be like threading a needle. It will require leadership, discipline, a long term commitment, and thoughtful diplomacy. That's why I say it appears we may be going to war. This is one that's worth fighting, but we're not there yet.   

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