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Are we walking into a trap set by Islamic State?

United States
Middle East

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (IS). Thierry Ehrmann/Demeure du Chaos under a Creative Commons Licence

So, Barack Obama’s ‘new strategy’ on how to fight Islamic State (IS) has gone into action. On Monday night, a US air strike southwest of Baghdad destroyed an IS fighting position that had been firing on Iraqi forces.

Actually, US fighter planes have conducted more than 150 air strikes across Iraq since August – before the new strategy was hatched. But now it’s the official policy to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ IS (also known as ISIS and ISIL).

The ‘degrade’ bit may well happen and quite soon. The ‘ultimately destroy’ is the difficult part.

It does not take a doctorate in psychology to deduce from the hostage-killing videos that IS might be wanting to draw the US and Britain into renewed conflict in Iraq.

At the very least, Western reaction has shown the terrorists that this is a cruel and easy way to get international attention at the very highest levels.

Nor does it take a great deal of political analysis to see how outside intervention by a more powerful force (US, Britain, Australia, whoever) often serves as a recruiting agent for any insurgency.

IS’s fighters are no novices. They did not come out of the blue. Its militants have been around for some time, in various guises  – as al-Qaeda in Iraq since 2004 and the al-Nusra Front in Syria since at least 2012.

The West is walking into a trap. What happens within it is anyone’s guess.

For the moment, Obama’s strategy can be summarized as:
* A systematic campaign of air strikes against IS targets ‘wherever they are’, including in Syria;
* Increased support for allied ground forces fighting against IS – but not for Syria’s President Assad;
* More counter-terrorism efforts to cut off the group’s funding and help stem the flow of fighters into the Middle East;
* Continuing humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the IS advance.

So what’s the alternative?, critics of military intervention are invariably asked.

The answer is the usual one: find political solutions. To do that, you need to look at who is supporting IS and why. You need to undermine that support by seeking to redress the injustices that prompt such support. In this case the injustices have been known about, and ignored, for years.

In Iraq, it means properly including in the political life alienated Sunnis, who fear domination by an Iran-backed Shi’a government.

In Syria, it would involve a new push for peace. Chatham House academics Jane Kinninmont and Abdullah Ali write: ‘Perhaps there is a chance that the fear of Isis will finally push the two sides to reach some kind of compromise.’

They add: ‘Peace in Syria and a new political settlement in Iraq will require the support both of Iran, which wields unique influence over both governments, and Saudi Arabia, which influences the mainstream opposition in both countries. There may be at last a chance for the two rivals to work together as they now see a common enemy in Isis.’

Meanwhile, internationally, religious scholars, particularly in the Gulf and Egypt, could help combat IS’s ideas, they say.

Such attempts at non-military solutions are full of ‘maybes’. They do not promise a quick fix. They fail to deliver the adrenaline rush of ‘let’s bomb the bastards’. They give no satisfaction.
But they just might reflect the complex, knotty, reality of the situation.

Anyone who believes there can be swift resolution to the threat posed by IS is living in cloud cuckoo land. Unless its culture, ideology and raison d’être are tackled, it will simply recur in a different guise.

Professor Paul Rogers, of Bradford University, knows a thing or two about war and peace. Of President Obama’s new strategy, he writes: ‘This will be a long-term project that goes way beyond Obama’s own second term, and thus may be the most important speech of his presidency. Beyond that, it is likely to be the prelude to two more decades of war.’

Are any policymakers listening?

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