The global anti-ISIS Coalition needs to be repaired

There are ideas and calls in U.S. arena for stronger, firmer, and more decisive measures to implement the policy declared by Obama to eliminate ISIS

Raghida Dergham

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There are ideas and calls in the U.S. arena for stronger, firmer, and more decisive measures to implement the policy declared by President Barack Obama to eliminate ISIS, as part of a comprehensive and calculated strategy away from arbitrariness and hesitation.

Many high-level military officials who previously served in senior posts have started talking publicly about the “failure” of the United States to defeat Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other radical Islamists because of the policies and decisions of the executive branch, particularly under Obama. Some are talking about the need for an Arab version of NATO, stressing the crucial importance of an actual U.S. partnership with such an alliance, as this would serve the U.S. interest.

Otherwise – as one such military voice cautioned – the threat of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and radical Islamists is coming to the U.S. homeland. John McCain, Republican senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate, says eliminating ISIS is contingent upon the Obama administration adopting a clear position against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies. He says that in the short term, there is no other option but to create no-fly zones in Syria while significantly stepping up air strikes with the participation of Special Forces on the ground, which would bolster those fighting ISIS and the regime in Damascus. In the long run, McCain believes it is necessary to create an Arab force in Syria and Iraq with broad U.S. participation in the air and limited participation on the ground, with the goal of supporting the Arab force. He explains that any Iranian participation in the war on ISIS in Syria is unacceptable because of what he calls the unholy alliance between Iran and Syria, saying that any U.S. consent of this would be immoral.

Quasi-preemptive strategy

But what is absent from the U.S. discourse on how to defeat ISIS is the need for a quasi-preemptive strategy in Yemen and Libya, which are becoming a fertile ground for the growth of Islamic radicalism in all forms. What is present so far is the continued reluctance to lead in earnest, not only because of the attitudes, personality, and thinking of President Obama, but also because of the inherent inconsistency in the U.S. public opinion and character.

The Arab public opinion is no less inconsistent or lazy than the U.S. and European public opinion, albeit it is sharper. The whole world has now seen the appalling yet calculated barbarism in the high quality, high definition video footage of ISIS’ immolation of the captured young Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Jordan and the Arab and Muslim countries are riding a wave of anger and outrage at the horrific crime and the baseness of ISIS, which poses an existential threat to the Arab nations.

But it is not enough to be angry. The Arab and Muslim worlds must rise up against ISIS. Those who consider the group a natural response to Iranian encroachment in the Arab region and those who see ISIS as an instrument of responding to Shiite exclusion of Sunnis in Iraq must desist. Otherwise, this will only be an investment in burning the Arab spirit and Islamic principles.

But it is not enough to be angry. The Arab and Muslim worlds must rise up against ISIS.

Raghida Dergham

The above requires regional and international policies that would accompany it in order for it to succeed or even happen. In this context, it is vital to repair the U.S.-led international anti-ISIS coalition, where Obama must stop avoiding international decisions, gaffes, hesitation, and shirking what the circumstances require him to do.

President Obama said the barbaric execution would “redouble the vigilance and determination on the part of global coalition to make sure that they [ISIS] are degraded and ultimately defeated.” But one question is this: How will the U.S. president translate this pledge into action as the leader of the coalition? The poles of the coalition are reproachful of Obama because of his political attitudes that are averse to clarity and devoid of strategy, such as by insisting on the need for Bashar al-Assad to step down without having a roadmap or practical preparations for implementing this. They are also reproachful because of the lack of U.S. military preparations in the framework of the coalition.

Jordan will need more and more after King Abdullah II ordered the death sentences against Sajida Rishawi to be implemented. ISIS had demanded Rishawi’s release in return for the pilot Kasasbeh, at a time when it had already burned him alive a month ago.

In the beginning, some Jordanian tribes, when Jordan declared its intention to do a prisoner swap, called publicly for Jordan to withdraw from the international anti-ISIS coalition saying this was not Jordan’s war. After the video was posted, the Jordanian tribes including that of Kasasbeh’s father began calling for revenge and supported the decision of King Abdullah to expedite the death sentences involving convicted jihadists and to remain in the coalition.

It is likely that ISIS would step up its revenge and escalate against Jordan. For its part, Jordan will likely resume its air sorties as part of the coalition’s air campaign against ISIS, after reportedly having suspended its operations following the capture of the Jordanian pilot. This will require the members of the coalition, especially the United States, to implement practical and advances measures to protect Jordan. Here, Japan may be the first country to step up support for Jordan, after ISIS executed a Japanese journalist. ISIS had linked his release to the release of Sajida Rishawi, a demand Jordan agreed to but in return for the release of both the Japanese and Jordanian hostage and demanded proof of life. The deal was unsuccessful.

It is therefore expected that a serious and comprehensive review of the work of the international coalition would take place, in the aftermath of the beheadings and immolation exhibited by ISIS this week. It is now clear that air strikes alone will not bring about the full defeat of ISIS, and that there is no alternative to a clearer and broader political and military strategy in the air and on the ground.

It is expected that a serious and comprehensive review of the work of the international coalition would take place, in the aftermath of the beheadings and immolation exhibited by ISIS this week.

Raghida Dergham

The Arab and international popular climate is now more open to more stringent measures to stop the horrendous crimes perpetrated by ISIS, which has moved from beheading to burning people alive. This is a deliberate escalation by ISIS meant to invite denunciation while attracting volunteers for its ranks, and to provoke the United States into broader participation in the war against it possibly. This would be especially the case if ISIS decides to kill the American woman it holds hostage, and indeed, the execution of a young American woman in her 20s would have a huge impact on U.S. decision makers and the nature of U.S. measures.

The Arab and international popular climate is now more open to more stringent measures to stop the horrendous crimes perpetrated by ISIS.

Raghida Dergham

The beheading of the Japanese journalist and immolation of the Jordanian pilot constitute the most blatant challenge for the members of the coalition and the American political and military diffidence. The talk being circulated about a response is not limited to escalating the military operations of the coalition, but also includes prospects for possible – or impossible – accords between the United States and Russia on the Syrian arena. It also includes the Iranian regional and nuclear dimension in the U.S. calculations, bearing in mind that Iran is playing a direct military role in Syria alongside the regime to keep Assad in power, while the regime in Damascus is marketing itself as a natural ally for the coalition in its bid to defeat ISIS.

From the Arab side, the members of the coalition, the Gulf countries and Jordan, in addition to Egypt, are in remarkable accord and have important joint positions. This could form a nucleus for that “Arab force” that has to be considered as a serious option sooner or later.

On the international level, the equation between the United States and Russia has returned to regional and international considerations. On the surface at least, fighting ISIS in Syria seems to be something both the United States and Russia agree on, as both countries consider the organization their enemy. As for the necessary measures in the broader strategy that requires abandoning Bashar al-Assad to mobilize an upsurge against ISIS, these are hitting the wall of the American-Russian relationship and the requirements of accord between them.

What does Russia want?

The question today is what does Russia, which is in a standoff with the West in Ukraine, want? Russia has accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of “starving” the Russian people by driving oil prices down. What are the demands of President Vladimir Putin, who is well aware of the risk ISIS poses to him on his home soil and immediate vicinity? Is he ready to adapt with what is needed in Syria in relation to Assad’s fate, to allow the international coalition to defeat ISIS? Or is he still insisting on clinging to the Syrian president under any circumstances and at any price?

What is the price Vladimir Putin wants? Accords and trade-offs? Or are his goals strictly confined to strategic and nationalistic calculations? Meanwhile, will oil prices and their damaging effect on Russia force it to reconsider and seek different kinds of negotiations and trade-offs?

This will depend on the extent of the existential threat felt by Russia. So far, the United States, Russia, and the European countries do not see ISIS as an existential threat. For this reason, they may drag their feet. If this happens, ISIS might respond in kind, considering this a signal for it to restrict its destructive and barbaric activities to the Arab region.

For this reason, the voices rising in the American arena to caution against repercussions for the U.S. homeland should the hesitant and reluctant policies continue are sounding the alarm about the threat that the popular majority wants to be dealt with, while the U.S. administration wants to mitigate until the nuclear negotiations with Iran are concluded.

For this reason as well, retired military figures and others in Congress consider the leniency with Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions as a threat to the stability of the Middle East and U.S. interests. This is a taste of what is to come should nuclear negotiations fail with Iran.

These voices are reminding people that the United States has the option of imposing an economic blockade on Iran, should the nuclear talks fail. It also has the ability to thwart Iranian intervention in Syria – whether direct or through groups like Hezbollah – and trim Iran regional ambitions.

The coming phase will be difficult for the Arab region. But it will not be a phase in which Islamic radicalism in its multiple sectarian flavors will triumph.

This article was first published in al-Hayat newspaper on Monday, Feb. 2, 2014, and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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