Commentary by Ryan Caviston
As the campaign against ISIS grows, so do the challenges of providing lasting stability in the Middle East. The United States, Great Britain and a host of other allies from the Arab world and elsewhere have launched a series of airstrikes against the radical ISIS in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure placed on the ever-dwindling Iraqi Army. In Washington, Congress recently approved a measure that would arm moderate Syrian rebels. But one has to ask: will airstrikes and arm sales be enough to combat the overwhelming power of ISIS? We had better hope so.
If history has shown us anything, it is that the Arab world does not often approve foreign armies taking up residence within their borders; I am recalling the al-Qaeda/Saudi Arabia/U.S. military triangle in the First Gulf War. We can certainly argue that the rise of militaristic Islam, while an extremely complex subject, certainly had something to do with the presence of the U.S. in Islam’s holy land, Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the Saudi government certainly lost some of its credibility among hardline Muslims who resented American presence within the country. In a recent CBS interview, President Obama reiterated that no American military, other than the already present “special advisors,” would land on Iraqi soil.
Another major component of Western military presence on the ground in the fight against ISIS has, in fact, nothing to do with ISIS. According to Western intelligence, the little-known al-Qaeda affiliates Khorasan Group and Nousra Front pose a significant threat, far greater than ISIS does, to the U.S. These two groups are mainly comprised of al-Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Khorasan Group was sent to Syria by Aymam Al Zahwari, where it could supposedly operate “under the radar” to plot attacks against the West.
As I explained in my first article on ISIS, the current crisis in the Middle East is based on one simple issue that is extraordinarily complex in its understanding: Islam. The rise of ISIS, while attributable to a number of factors, is first and foremost a product of the Sunni/Shia divide. A Western coalition entering into the fray would simply antagonize the schism or, in the case of the last decade, muscle the situation into temporary submission. House Speaker John Boehner recently remarked that the only way the U.S. can defeat ISIS is through American boots on the ground. While this is an astute suggestion, deployment simply cannot work.
The Islamic State is not al-Qaeda, nor is it the Iraq insurgency. In reality, ISIS and al-Qaeda are two halves of the same whole that were never destined to meet and require vastly different strategies. ISIS has the funding and capabilities al-Qaeda could only dream of; something that truly puts al-Qaeda under bin Laden, which was still extraordinarily wealthy, into perspective. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, has a record of violence against both Western militaries and civilians but has nonetheless disavowed the savagery of ISIS. It is absolutely imperative that the West goes on the defensive against ISIS. Any further antagonism would simply lead to a more impassioned fight against Western power.
That being said, a strategy of defense without appeasement must be adopted. ISIS already controls far more territory than it should, giving it access to a vast supply of resources. It is the responsibility of the Arab World to truly push ISIS back. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Gulf States and Jordan are certainly in the best position financially; they are also certainly the most invested in the security of their regional neighborhood. Similarly, a possible ally could be found in the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, who has far greater support from Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish communities than did his predecessor.
The card the West has to play is its financial might. While airstrikes are certainly an exceptional tool, this conflict will be won with boots and bullets that belong exclusively to the Arabs. That being said, what’s to say that the West cannot help fund the war? While the West has no position to directly engage ISIS, it certainly has the security card in its hand. The timeline of appropriately vetting, training and arming moderate Syrians to combat ISIS is not a short one, requiring the Arab world to truly step up the ground push against ISIS.
So, what have we learned in four weeks of commentary on the Islamic State? First, ISIS is a product of the Syrian Civil War. Second, no matter what lens you examine ISIS through, the only topic that permeates the entire issue is the Sunni/Shia conflict. That brings us to point number three: since this is a Sunni/Shia issue, it must be resolved by Sunnis and Shias. Finally, while the West has not always had exceptional luck with funding a conflict it was not directly involved in, the time seems right that the U.S. and her allies pull back and let this conflict tragically play out.