Leaving the Middle East now is no option

March 26, 2015

US foreign policy after learned lessons in Iraq

by Lea-Maria Warlich

Last Airmen Flying Out of IraqAll eyes on IS. This is Obama’s mantra for the U.S. foreign policy in Syria. Unfortunately, a recently published Brookings report reveals that only one-fifth of Americans think that the U.S. can defeat IS. In American Public Attitudes Toward ISIS and Syria the renowned think tank found out that even if the U.S. were to defeat IS, the majority of U.S. citizens believes in a return of the IS or a similar group. This distrust in the ability of U.S. foreign policy has been built up over the past 14 years of American involvement in the Middle East. The U.S. confusing role in Syria adds to this frustration. In between fighting the Assad-regime, supporting non-Islamist Rebels and launching airstrikes against IS, the U.S. population seems to have lost faith in Obama’s strategy in Syria. Or at least lost track of it.


The actions by the Obama administration currently focus on using U.S. air power to support local forces. So far the U.S. and its allies have launched more than 700 attacks on IS in Syria since September, according to the BBC. Estimates state that IS is controlling one third of Syria. In Iraq the territory is estimated to be the same. Here, the U.S. placed over 900 airstrikes so far but only managed to reclaim one percent of Iraq’s territory.


If continuing airstrikes fail to defeat IS, 41% of Americans favour the sending of ground troops to Syria, shows the Brookings report. While Obama continues to emphasize that military ground involvement in Syria is not an option, U.S. citizens seem to have already shaken off the Iraq-war disaster and are ready to get their hands dirty again. The number one justification Americans named when asked for a reason to send group forces to Syria is that IS is seen as an extension of Al Qaeda. Public opinion is that America is still at war with Al-Qaeda, therefore, every group affiliated with them must be eliminated.


In 2011, the CIA and U.S. allies started delivering weapons, financial aid, and military training to Syria in an attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad. But since September the war against Assad is paused and the war against IS was made first priority.


Territory, finances, fighters

In the summer of 2014, ISIS successfully overtook Mosul, renamed itself IS (Islamic State) and declared the worldwide Islamic caliphate. This strategically step secured their power over the northern territory of Syria. It also realized the worst-case scenario for the U.S.: a Syria divided between the Assad regime in Damascus and a terrorist dominance in parts of the north and east. Shortly after this development U.S. airstrikes started.


The expansion of the Islamic State to Syria marked a turning point in U.S. policies. It was also a turning point in the relationship between IS and its former mother-organisation Al Qaeda. Through its successes in Iraq and Syria IS became a serious competitor for Al Qaeda. The conflict between the two groups escalated when IS asked for sole power in Syria and fought all other rebellious groups.


Both movements, Al Qaeda and IS share the goal to fight the U.S. in the Middle East. Yet, the strategies they apply to pursue that goal differ. Conflict arose foremost from IS anti-Shiite strategy. Al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri believes that Jihadists should look for allies and work pragmatically together against the regime of Assad in Syria. The brutality and violence with which the IS fights against other rebellious groups is not acceptable for him.


Today, Al Qaeda and IS are competing with each other for territory, finances and fighters. Especially the high numbers of foreign fighters that are joining IS are a threat to Al Qaeda. For a new generation of Jihadists, the hatred of IS leader Baghdadi towards Shiites, his brutality and the fixation on the liberation of Jerusalem is appealing. In contrast, Zawahiri’s political pragmatism seems to be less attractive.


The ruthlessness of the Islamic State movement in eliminating everyone standing in their way is incomparable. Even more so is the public demonstration of this violence. Beheadings, shootings, stoning, and most recently throwing people off towers. All these cruelties are documented on visual material and strategically placed on the groups’ social media channels. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; the movement that fights Western domination of the Middle East knows how to spread its message. And it’s a bloody one: Join the Caliphate or die.


War propaganda

The core of IS elaborate public relations strategy is the Al-Hayat Media centre. It rapidly and easily spreads the ideology across the world. The audience is a global one. The contents are translated in various languages. This proves IS understanding of using global networks to assemble fighters from all over the world. Including the West: all videos are subtitled in English.


In one of the documentary-style videos, fighters from Britain, the U.S. and other parts of the world are talking about the joy they found in Syria, fighting for IS. In the background bombs are exploding and machine guns fired, people are murdered. The clip is titled ‘Flames of War’. It ends with a dangerous promise. The screen turns black and the viewer can read the line ‘coming soon’. In addition to the propaganda character, these videos have strikingly high production quality. They are shot in HD and include graphics and logos. They remind of western-style war movies. Except that the horror’s depicted are not a Hollywood production, but real. Or at least claimed to be real.


The incredible violence of IS is their first attraction, the sense of community the second. One of the most recent videos titled ‘Our state Is Victorious’ shows different images from Syria. People smiling and lying in each other arms happily and war scenes are following each other. Children playing with machine guns and men firing them are presenting the glory of the Islamic State. The images are accompanied by a melodic song. Sung by a soft male voice. In German. With English subtitles.


The French political scientist Olivier Roy describes in his 2002 book Globalized Islam how the process of globalization is the cause for a growing importance of sub- and supranational identities. These are the reason why young people from all over the world join the radical movement. Those new forms of identities are challenging the legitimacy of the modern state: A transition from the feeling of belonging to a nation state to the feeling of belonging to a community without frontiers. A community of believers. In the case of IS: the Ummah, the ancient Muslim community they fight to reinstall. Roy believes that people becoming attracted to IS feel the need for inspiration and hope. Muslims in the Middle-East feeling invaded by the West and threatened by the situation of crisis, therefore, find their purpose in joining the movement. Muslims in the West feeling rootless and left aside in their own societies form IS second target group for recruits.


Recently, the Islamic State movement’s public executions reached a new high: including stoning a woman accused of adultery, throwing men accused of being homosexual off towers, and crucifying at least 17 young men within two days. The violence against non-believers in the eyes of IS and their methods remind of the Christian Crusades. These associations spark one of modern human’s biggest fear: regression.


IS as modern movement

IS is a neo-fundamentalist movement, Olivier Roy states. A very strict and literalist vision of the Qur’an’s message builds its ideological core. All acts of life and human behaviours are submitted to the Islamic norm. Neo-fundamentalism opposes modernization. Only in its rejection a return to an authentic religious practice can be achieved. The law of the Sharia is the only one to be followed.


Other experts believe that it is not the rejection of modernity that characterises Islamist religious fundamentalism. “The Romantic belief that the world can be reshaped by an act of will is as much a part of the modern world as the Enlightenment ideal of a universal civilisation based on reason”, states political philosopher John Gray. In a recent BBC broadcast he argued that considering religious fundamentalism from groups like IS as backwards and anti-modern is wrong. IS wants the West to believe their anti-modern, pre-enlightenment character because it represents the Wests’ biggest fear. Gray argues that in accepting IS self-image the West is empowering the movement. According to him, violent Jihadists movements like Al Qaeda and IS owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West. Gray argues: “Radical Islam is a symptom of the disease of which it pretends to cure”.

IS sees itself as an alternative to the modern world, but the ideas on which it draws are quintessentially modern, Gray believes. For him, IS shares more with modern revolutionary traditions than with any ancient form of Islamic rule. The good news is that in his opinion IS may have already over-reached itself. By facing determined opposition from many sides – not just from Shia militias but also rival Sunni Jihadists, IS might have already passed the peak of its power.


But even if that is the case, the realities of the Muslim world in the Middle East will remain a fertile ground for Jihadists John L. Esposito, American Professor for Islamic Studies, argues. In The Future of Islam (2010) he argues, as long as too many countries in the Middle East remain security states in the fear of Islamic violence, as long as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of thought are limited and as long as independent-minded intellectuals are silenced on the one side by fear of state security and on the other side by radical Islamic Groups, Islamic radicalization will stay reality in the Middle East.


These suppressive conditions create a continuing supply of new recruits willing to fight against what they regard as un-Islamic and oppressive regimes and their foreign allies. So when we think of radical Islamic movements as a threat, we should be aware of the threat continued authoritarian regimes pose, Esposito warns. He argues that regimes like Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia have used the war against Islamic terrorism to limit democracy in their countries and through these measures only spurred the conflicts that let people follow movements like IS.


The U.S. must make sure not to lose sight of their former goal. The oppressive Assad regime must be overthrown while fighting IS. Curing the disease is only the beginning; the source must be eliminated as well. Even though some argue that the Assad Regime has been a stabilizing factor in the Middle East since 1970, it was the same regime that drove people into the arms of radical Islamic. Sending ground forces to Syria, though, will bring new violence and the demonstration of this violence to Syria. This violence threats to animate even more people from the Middle Eastern world and from outside to join IS against the West: Regime change must be a political, not a military objective.

The U.S. has to find reliable partners in Syria able to fight the Islamic State and the Assad regime. The Center for American Progress released a report explaining how an intensified effort to support Syria’s opposition can be a part of the regional strategy in the fight against IS. In the past the U.S. has shied away from deeper engagement to support forces opposing the Assad regime, and this helped create a void that allowed forces such as IS to emerge.


This summer’s wake-up call has drawn U.S. policy on Syria into a new phase. Washington now has to step up and move forward with a more focused effort to support Syria’s opposition. Now, it is crucial that Obama is very cautious to identify Syria’s heterogeneous opposition correctly. The mistakes his predecessor Bush made in Iraq cannot be repeated in Syria. Obama needs to be able to identify potential allies and differentiate between the rebel groups in Syria.


Fighting the IS might be on top of Obama’s list at the moment for a reason but the long-term goal needs to be to disempower Assad. Even more, Obama needs to develop a strategy to reinstall political peace in Syria after the civil war. Mistakes that were made in Iraq need not to be repeated. Therefore, leaving the Middle East now is not an option. Neither is a military involvement on the ground in Syria.


The Brookings report on American Public Attitudes Toward IS and Syria also revealed that the majority of Republicans support military involvement in Syria. In the light of the next U.S. elections it must be Obama’s pressing goal to not only stick to his word and stay out of Syria, but also to convince America’s right wing that military involvement will only heighten the conflict and not solve it. Otherwise, in the event of a change of government, we might watch history repeat itself.