FT : US needs precision politics if bombs are to defeat Isis

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SHAFAQNA – The US-led missile and air strikes that started on early Tuesday on jihadi targets in Syria have spread the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, across the battlefield these extremists have created from Iraq to the Mediterranean.

This is now a regional war, with many moving parts that will be difficult to synchronise into a winning strategy. Isis may overreach and self-destruct but the damage already done in terms of dismembered states and their disaffected peoples will be hard to repair.

President Barack Obama insisted earlier this month that the fight against Isis was essentially a counter-terrorism operation, similar to US actions in Somalia and Yemen. If that sort of free-for-all between rival militias and warlords is what success looks like, then failure must be awesome to contemplate. In this instance, moreover, the stakes are much higher, and defeating Isis will require a delicately crafted political strategy for military action to have a prayer.

The starting point looks superficially promising. Every country around Syria and Iraq feels threatened by Isis. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, as well as Jordan, have come in behind the US and its western partners, providing Sunni Arab legitimacy to the war. Iran, which has built a Shia axis from Tehran to Baghdad, and Damascus to Beirut, is fighting on the same side, although marching to its own drum.

Yet the hard facts on the ground still look intractable. The Sunni majority in Syria, their 2011 rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s minority despotism pulverised as the west looked on, feels betrayed. The Sunni minority in Iraq, toppled from power with Saddam Hussein by the 2003 invasion and then marginalised by US and Iran-backed Shia Islamist governments in Baghdad, feel dispossessed.

The viciously distilled and savagely exercised Sunni supremacism of Isis has fed on this despair. Washington and its emerging coalition – widely written off as agents of positive change in the Middle East – has somehow to convince the Sunni that jihadism is not a lesser evil.

It is, unhappily, common to hear that the US is acting now because Isis murdered two American journalists – in obscene, videoed beheadings – rather than in response to about 200,000 deaths in Syria’s civil war or the sudden jihadi surge in Iraq.

Until now, Mr Obama has had a clear strategy in trying to extricate the US from the region’s wars, and in seeking rapprochement with Iran, bringing it back into the international fold, and thereby creating a sort of self-regulating balance of power in the Middle East.

Whether that is possible is moot. But to work it would require detente between the two over-arching regional powers, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. And that would require both powers to turn the swelling tide of sectarian poison coursing across the region – for which they are both partly responsible.

Washington is plainly aware of the bear-traps. Mr Obama stayed his military hand in Iraq until the ruinously sectarian Nouri al-Maliki was replaced by a more inclusive premier – endorsed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose foreign ministers have just met on the margins of the UN General Assembly.

There has been no repeat of the Amerli incident earlier this month, when Shia militia under Iranian command lifted the siege of that Iraqi town only after US air strikes against jihadi positions – a gift for Isis propagandists. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has told the US Senate the plan is to split the Sunni tribes from Isis.

But there will be no reordering of the Middle East unless its main actors want it. The US idea, for instance, appears to be to marshal Iraq’s Sunni tribes and Syria’s mainstream rebels into national guards, under local command inside a national network.

This is a mirror image of the Shia militia networks Iran constructed in Syria and is trying to replicate in Iraq – one reason Tehran is hostile to the idea.

While Iran is pursuing its own strategic interests, Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni Arab power, offers no counter-narrative of inclusion and citizenship, its fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam indistinguishable in essentials such as anti-Shia animus to the sectarianism of Isis.

It is hard to see how any coalition can eradicate Isis without a broad regional consensus that tears out the roots that feed it.

david.gardner@ft.com

SOURCE : http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/0128c592-4328-11e4-9a58-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3EDHXAX4P

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