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Islamic State not invincible: Need to take Russia, China on board

Sandhya Jain is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. The current Essay is part of her ongoing research on Balochistan province of Pakistan. The views expressed are personal.
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  • September 15, 2014

    As Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham (Daesh or Islamic State) beheaded British aid worker David Haines [probably on Sept 13] and threatened to kill another British hostage, the West realises it cannot defer confronting this menace. Amidst its countless victims, the Daesh has beheaded two American and one Syrian journalist in just the past month. Euphoric over easy victories in large swathes of Iraq and Syria (it now controls 11 oil wells), it has threatened some Western capitals, the latest being Portugal, being part of the Iberian Peninsula covering Spain (Andalus). Yet, some complex political issues could stymie an effective Western response led by the United States.

    First is Muslim hostility. Islamic scholar Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman, International Union of Muslim Scholars, has opposed the coalition of 40-odd nations cobbled together by the US. In a comment in Arabic on his Twitter account, he said, “I have completely different ideas and methods from IS. On the other hand, I do not accept the United States action to fight against them because the US follows its own interests, not Islamic values”.

    Equally pertinent is the composition of the US coalition - while Washington is keen to include Beijing, it ignores Moscow, Iran, and the Syrian government of Bashir al-Assad. In the circumstances, it is difficult to envisage success. Within the West, there is growing support for a political settlement that ends the West-backed Syrian civil war and accepts President Assad provided he accommodates Sunnis in his government.

    It bears mention that Sunnis fear the new (Sunni) Islamic caliphate on account of its extreme interpretation of Islamic law; they have suffered many beheadings and atrocities at its hands. They are wary of US intervention because US action against Saddam Hussein ended Sunni dominance of Iraq and plunged the country into severe sectarian strife which enhanced the influence of Shiite Iran. In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah became dominant after Sunni leader Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. And in Egypt and Syria, Sunni Islamists were disillusioned when the revolts against the regimes failed.

    Moscow, meanwhile, has warned against air strikes against Syria without a UN mandate, as any military action without the “consent of the legitimate government” would be tantamount to aggression, “a gross violation of international law.” Russia is a friend of al-Assad and has vetoed sanctions against his regime. France supports the Russian position that any action in Syria requires the sanction of international law; in contrast, the Iraqi government has sought international help.

    Beijing has refused to commit to the call to destroy Daesh/IS, despite a visit from US National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Obama now plans to chair a UN Security Council meeting to discuss how to combat the Islamic State; he will need China and Russia to get any meaningful resolution passed. But Beijing may not like to upset its cordial relations with Moscow.

    China, like Russia, suffers from domestic terrorism (the Uyghur East Turkestan Islamic Movement). Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has put China on a list of countries accused of persecuting Muslims, thus making it a target for jihad. Beijing fears its citizens may join the Islamic State and return to China to carry out attacks. Recently, the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed to have captured a Chinese national fighting for the IS, though the report is still unconfirmed. Beijing is also wary of US military action that may infringe another nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, especially since America is unwilling to work with the Syrian regime, fuelling fears that it may funnel more aid to the rebels.

    The London-based Conflict Armament Research has observed that a significant number of arms captured from IS fighters belong to the US government. These include M79 90 mm anti-tank rockets and M16 assault rifles which were given to the Syrian rebels. This supports the view that the rebels were absorbed by the Islamic State.

    Even before the third murder of a Western hostage, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region to rustle up support against the Daesh. President Obama plans air strikes against the Islamic State on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border without committing American troops on the ground to avoid inciting more extremism in the region. Instead, the US may support Kurdish forces, the Iraqi army and the moderate opposition (read rebels) in Syria. The US is also keen to garner support from Sunni Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey.

    Meanwhile, Daesh is moving towards the Turkish border to secure an access route for foreigners wishing to join its caliphate. Daesh is also trying to cut Syria in two, from east to west, to gain access to the Alawite heartland of Bashar al-Assad and the Mediterranean coast. President Obama’s dilemma is how to stop Daesh from overrunning the region without a collateral victory for al-Assad and his Iranian ally.

    That the going will not be smooth was underlined at the NATO summit in Wales (Sept 4-5), where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointedly told UK Prime Minister Cameron that the Islamic State is more popular in Western countries; “These people were educated and raised in your country”. Turkey may play only a behind-the-scenes role in the coalition as 49 of its citizens are being held hostage by Daesh for the past three months. President Erdogan also criticized the NATO countries for not taking effective steps to stop their citizens from leaving home to join the Islamic State which has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Iraq, both of which border Turkey. He said Turkey had blocked all foreign citizens whose names were given by countries whose passports they held from entering Syria and Iraq.

    The Arab response, too, is reportedly half-hearted. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered his air force to stop strikes in civilian areas, even in towns controlled by Daesh, so as to win the support of Sunni Muslim tribal leaders. In Cairo, experts fear the Islamic State is teaching the lethal Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis how to create secret cells. In Jordan, King Abdullah II reportedly had told Secretary of State John Kerry “that the Palestinian cause remains the core of the conflict in the region” and Jordan is busy with the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. Others are equally skeptical.

    The author is a senior journalist

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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