Rutland Herald and Montpelier Times Argus

September 14th, 2004

And so, a reluctant President Barack Obama is taking a war-weary America much deeper into another Middle East conflict. He calls it military anti-insurgency. The president promises it will not be a war like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, involving tens of thousands of American combat troops, deployed over a decade or more. But nevertheless it’s a kind of war – which inevitably will cost money and the lives of some Americans directly involved in the fight, whether they are pilots, advisors or special forces gathering intelligence.

President Obama’s address to the nation this past week in which he outlined a plan to “degrade and destroy” the barbaric group that calls itself the Islamic State, has set off intense discussions in world capitals, in Congress and among the mainstream and social media.  There are of course critics of his plan, but support for deeper American involvement in the Middle East is stronger than it would have been just a few months ago. This evidently reflects new polling that shows strong support among the American people for taking action against these extremist militants. In the latest poll, sixty five percent of Americans said they wanted the current air -strikes against the insurgents increased, including going after them in Syria as well as in Iraq - which the president has now pledged to do. One has to assume that the public beheading of two American journalists was a major factor in what represents a significant shift in American public opinion.

 

Still, is such a war really necessary? Based on my own years of experience in the region- and on the analyses of those I have come to trust over the years – I too have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it is.

The Islamic State, usually called ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) but referred to by the White House as ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which includes Syria and Lebanon) is not an actual state although that’s what it aspires to be. In fact it claims to have established a Caliphate, meaning the state of the Caliph, who historically was Islam’s recognized successor to the prophet Mohammed. The would-be Caliph is the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, a shadowy figure who is said to have a PhD in Islamic studies who spent time in an American run prison during the Iraq War.

ISIS is no ordinary terrorist group. It is a military insurgency with plenty of both arms and money. Many of its weapons are American, captured after Iraqi forces capitulated when ISIS military convoys rolled into Iraq from Syria in June. Financial support originally came from rich conservatives in Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab states. Nowadays it comes from extortion, from large banks captured during recent fighting, and from selling the oil ISIS is effectively stealing from Syrian and Iraqi oil fields.  ISIS occupies a significant amount of territory in Northeastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq, an area about the size of Maryland. And it has under its occupation, roughly 8 million people, most of them Sunni Muslims, on which it is forcing its extremist version of Islam and brutally murdering those who resist.

Some Syrian Sunnis, turned off by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s despotism- and some Iraqi Sunnis, who have been ostracized by the Shiite dominated Iraqi Government of former Prime Minister Maliki - have joined ISIS out of conviction (among those are former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army who were banned from serving in Maliki’s Shiite Iraqi military.) But many Sunnis have inevitably joined ISIS out of fear.

There is no doubt that ISIS presents a serious threat to virtually every country in the Middle East. But in attracting a couple of thousand young Muslim thrill seekers from Europe and a hundred or more from the United States, ISIS is also a potential threat to Europe and America.  Indoctrinated and trained by ISIS, these young radicals who have European and American passports, are of justifiable concern.  When they return home to London, Paris, Berlin or New York they may very well be on a mission to do harm to the “non-believers” of the West. Homeland security will be on the lookout for such people, but as the Turkey –Syrian border has become so porous, identifying those with ISIS ties will not be so simple.

There is one school of thought that the president is taking these new steps principally because of his fear that ISIS may indeed be planning to hit Americans. As he said at the beginning of his Wednesday address:  "As commander in chief, my highest priority is the security of the American people."

In any event, President Obama and his diplomatic team must put together a credible coalition of committed partners. Some of these, in addition to Iraq, are going to have to be willing to provide combat troops, because this fight cannot be won by airpower alone.  Virtually all Muslim states in the region, especially the Turks and Saudis need to be directly involved. And Sunni Saudi Arabia has got to stop its proxy war against the Shiites of Iran and start worrying about the ISIS threat to its unique role as guardian of the Muslim Holy places of Mecca and Medina.

When President Obama said a couple of weeks ago that he didn’t yet have a strategy for dealing with this problem of ISIS, as per usual he was hammered by Republicans and the news media. In fact, Obama knew what he wanted his strategy to be, but there were elements of that strategy that were not yet in place – namely, the specific commitments of his Muslim partners to the anti-ISIS coalition. This remains a work in progress. And if there develops a perception that the Muslims are just window dressing for still another American war against Islam, then this operation will not succeed - and Americans will be less safe. Yet that would also be true, if Obama did nothing.




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