For the past half century, the Middle East has been a major concern for U.S. foreign policy. With unstable governments and shifting alliances, the region has proven itself an epicenter of turmoil and a threat to the current world order. Most recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an unrecognized terrorist state and extremist jihadist group, has conquered large stretches of territory in those war-torn countries, leaving a path of destruction and terror in its wake.
Springing up from the cinders of the Syrian civil war, ISIS, which was previously associated with al-Qaida, consolidated its forces in that country’s northern region. In 2012, leadership of the Islamic State founded the al-Nusra Front as an extremist opposition force to the Assad regime. In 2013, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of ISIS, but the group’s enigmatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, refused to relinquish his authority. In February 2014, al-Qaida divorced itself from ISIS, stating that the Islamic State’s methods did not comport with their interpretation of Islam.
Purporting to liberate the Sunni Muslims of Iraq, ISIS forces began spilling over the fluid border between Iraq and Syria in the early months of 2014. Brutality began at the get-go as ISIS forces attacked several northern Iraqi cities, offering non-believers the ancient Hobson’s choice of “convert or die.”
This past summer, we heard quite a bit about the war crimes ISIS leveed on Iraqi civilians, including mass murders of so-called infidels (Christians, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, and Muslims who don’t accept ISIS’s vicious hermeneutics), beheadings of Westerners, en masse rape, and the chattel enslavement of women and children. Academics and clerics from the Roman Catholic Church, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and numerous universities have labeled the conflict in Iraq and Syria a genocide.
In June, al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State a new caliphate, and created himself ruler of the world Muslim population – a declaration which the ummah (worldwide Muslim community) can either accept or be killed, the terrorists threaten.
[pullquote] The question we all were left with was: What are we going to do about this?[/pullquote]
The initial answer was that we would do nothing. Following U.S. total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which capped off eight years of war and insurgency, the White House was not inclined to redeploy American soldiers.
Indeed, President Obama, in January, aloofly compared ISIS with a jayvee basketball team, saying if they “[put] on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
However, as local violence became more and more extreme (and more and more reported on), pressure began to build on the administration to do something. Thus, airstrikes.
Several hundred American bombs have been dropped on areas controlled by ISIS including oil refineries and military infrastructure. Furthermore, several U.S. allies – including the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – have joined the fight. However, I am unconvinced that this give-them-hell strategy will do anything more than blast sand and rubble into the atmosphere. I think it is entirely unsustainable.
As Dr. Kelly McHugh of the political science department points out, “bombing is a way to disrupt [ISIS], but it doesn’t stabilize the government [of Iraq], or address the underlying power vacuum.”
“The American public likes bombing,” Dr. McHugh says, “it seems decisive. But here, we need forces reclaiming territory.”
What, pray tell, is the strategy for winning the peace?
ISIS came to power because it grew out of the failed states of Syria and Iraq. The established governments of those countries are at best ineffective and corrupt, at worst genuinely evil (remember when Assad massacred his own people last year?).
I think the administration is opting for what seems a quick and easy fix for the ISIS problem. However, I believe that ISIS is more than just a problem: it is an existential threat to global security and stability. Moreover, it is only the most recent and most visible consequence of the immense failures and wrongdoings of the undemocratic, authoritarian pecking orders that populate the region. I believe the only real solution to the phenomenon of extremist jihad, of which ISIS is only one part, is directed and dedicated long-term investment of time and resources in rebuilding the Middle East.
This may sound disdainful and politically awkward, but I don’t think there is any time left for wishing for the best. It’s clearly time for the world to do something, and do it well.