“We don’t have a strategy yet”. These were the shocking words of president Obama yesterday. Today (30 August) Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz responded by warning that the threat of terrorism will reach Europe and America if the world does not unite to confront it.
Sickened by the images coming in daily from the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, citizens from all over the world tend to believe the Saudi King. Differences in origin, conviction or faith vanish in the face of so much barbarism. These extremists much look like the thirteen-century Mongolian incursion in the Middle East and its attempt at wiping out civilisation itself. Much like a new Dzjengis Khan, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi instituted a reign of terror sparing nothing and no one.
The Islamic State is indeed not some distant newsworthy event. Extremist jihadists have already threatened violence in the West on multiple occasions. The murderous attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum demonstrated this is within the realm of the possible. There’s the issue of “our boys” joining IS. Moreover IS is rapidly approaching the borders of Turkey, a NATO ally. And these are most probably just a few rain drips compared to the thunderstorm that might follow.
But even regardless of any direct threat to Europe or the US, the question arises whether it is at all acceptable to have an area the size of the UK being terrorised by barbaric inhumanity. So what should be done? First of all, it is clear, there’s no talking to such fanatic warriors. Condemnations from Islamic and Christian origin bring no avail. IS followers are convinced they alone are right and that all others are infidels and must therefore be killed.
So, unfortunately just one option remains. We shall have to speak the only language these extremist fighters understand: armed intervention. For all intents and purposes Europe is already at war with IS. The European Council of Foreign Ministers authorized the UK and France to support the US in airstrikes on IS and to supply weapons to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish troops in Iraq. These attacks were of big importance as the jihadists were closing in on Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdish capital. Moreover, thousands of Yezidis were on the brink of starvation. Psychologically too, these attacks were important because they shattered the image of invincibility of IS warriors.
However, to stop IS madness we will have to go further. And we must avoid the mistakes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, it is crucial that neither NATO nor any other western alliance takes the lead in fighting IS. That would be a godsend for these jihadists, claiming the Christian West is again starting a new crusade, for which they could attract new recruits. Therefore it is crucial for a regional coalition to take the lead. Ideally neighbors Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey step up. Iran’s involvement is necessary too, to prevent Shia groups from profiting from IS’ loss as is regretfully often the case around Bagdad today.
Focussing only on Iraq would be another mistake. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey said a few days ago that it would be an illusion to think we can defeat IS in Iraq without dealing with them in Syria too. And just as Maliki in Iraq, Syria’s Assad is not the solution but the problem. Syria too needs an inclusive, democratic and therefore anti-sectarian government. During negotiations in Geneva, it became very clear that Bashar Al Assad is not interested whatsoever in such a solution. Meanwhile, more and more evidence of Assad’s complicity in the rise IS is surfacing. Without Bashar Al Assad ISIS would have never been what it is today.
Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, concluded we should empower and arm the moderate rebels. For the past nine months, they have been the only ones to systematically fight IS(IS). The fact that the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish troops in Syria now want to join forces to take on IS only increases their credibility as a partner. In the end, Ford claims, only a stronger rebel army will be capable of forcing the Syrian regime to negotiate and to come to an anti-sectarian unity government.
Nobody wants to live under a reign of terror. It would be a mistake to think Syrians or Iraqi live enthusiastically in the Islamic State. The population of the Northern Syrian city Azaaz was the first to oust the occupiers. Today resistance is emerging in Raqqa and Mosul. It is time to act and to come to the rescue of these people. Even more, a well thought through strategy against the barbaric Islamic State could well be the key to peace in Iraq and Syria.
Therefore the world indeed needs to unite against the Islamic State. A coalition must be built to support an alliance of Middle Eastern countries to fight IS, to empower and arm the Peshmerga, to reunite and arm the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebel groups. The goal of these efforts is clear: to get red of fanatic and sectarian forces in Iraq and Syria and form the only alternative: two democratic and inclusive unity governments that can make a new start.
by Koert Debeuf, 30/8/2014
With thanks to Kristof Debergh
Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor of a Belgian prime minister. Reporting from post-revolutionary Egypt, his columns are a window on events in the Arab world. Koert Debeuf is also author of ‘Inside the Arab Revolution’.
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