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Need to build a good coalition to combat ISIS

Rohit Pattnaik was a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 09, 2014

    ISIS currently is the most potent and undoubtedly the most media savvy terrorist organisation globally. It clearly seems to have a method to the madness in the usage of acts of brazen and inhuman violence as a psychological tool against its opponents.

    It is indulging in ‘megaphone terrorism’. It’s usage of media as recruitment and propaganda tool is ensuring that it is able to sustain the momentum that the group has generated as it is currently battling on three fronts. The group clearly is emerging as a sponge for angry Sunni youth across the region and from European countries and even America.

    While some of these radical elements at the local level could be joining out of coercion, there are many from outside are also joining in due to their shared fanaticism and apocalyptic ideology. The Syrian civil war and the situation in Iraq where sectarian fissures have deepened during the last one decade have provided fertile recruiting ground for many of the Sunni’s across the region, no doubt a formidable support base. This has helped ISIS make stunning territorial gains.

    Reports indicate that ISIS now comprises of over 10,000 fighters. The capture of Mosul helped it build up its financial war chest and it is reportedly earning a million dollars per day through illicit oil sales, smuggling and ransom.

    The West has finally started acting against ISIS with American air strikes bringing to a halt the rapid territorial gains by ISIS. The strikes have emboldened the Kurdish and Iraqi forces to fight back. The air strikes underlined the fact that ISIS could be repulsed through coordinated military action; it is also clear that it will require a coalition to stabilise the area, a herculean task across a deeply divided region.

    The tactical nous displayed by the ISIS forces has been attributed to many of Saddam’s military leaders, many who hopped onto the ISIS bandwagon due to the deep fissures in Iraqi society. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the ISIS leader who was imprisoned in Iraq after the American invasion clearly understands that to challenge the ISIS, the US will need local backers on the ground to defeat the Sunni support base. It would also need boots on the ground and a groundswell of bipartisan support in a deeply divided society in Iraq/Syria.

    There is a greater traction building up amongst western countries on building up a coalition to tackle ISIS, but the big question is which countries in the Middle East would be able to synchronise western goals with theirs? While the US and its NATO allies, along with France and Australia have been assisting the Kurdish peshmerga, the list of Arab countries willing to work with the West-led coalition is unclear.

    Amongst the Middle Eastern countries, Iran is already in the fight as it supports the Syrian and Iraqi regimes. The Hezbollah, which is seen as Iran’s proxy in the region is heavily involved. Turkey, which opposes the Syrian regime, but is wary of ISIS, could support the coalition.

    However, military action by Arab states is unlikely. Although most Arab states supported Islamist groups fighting the Basher al-Assad regime, they have cracked down on the movement of men and money— notably the Saudi’s— after it became apparent that ISIS challenged the legitimacy of the al-Saud rule in Saudi Arabia.

    The biggest stumbling block on the way to generating wholehearted support against ISIS would be the fear that a total defeat of ISIS would benefit their old sectarian rival-Iran.

    It is very likely that the Saudi’s, Qatari’s, Emirati’s and Turks will rather demand support for their efforts aimed at Assad’s overthrow, as they have been doing so far, to stop Iranians from dominating the region as they appear to control Baghdad. It is also very likely that initial action by the US-led coalition against ISIS will primarily target ISIS in Iraq, to assuage fears of Arab countries about the region becoming a Shia crescent with preventive action emanating from Tehran and its affiliates.

    However, episodic reactive action alone by the US and its allies may not be able to stem the ISIS tide. Having troops on the ground with clear-cut objectives is critical to beating back ISIS. America would do well not to have sectarian Shia militia and Kurdish peshmerga play a key role in Sunni-dominated areas as it would destroy the local support for action from the Sunni communities currently under ISIS domination.

    While it is clear that we are unlikely to see any western countries have troops on the ground, a more poignant question that NATO and the US should be evaluating is whether their withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to turn out to be a rerun of events in Iraq.

    It is apparent now that with the current crisis in Iraq, NATO and the US should continue to invest in Afghanistan’s long-term stability; or else, it would mean combating a more potent Taliban or some other terrorist organisation— may be allied to ISIS or imitating its methods— at a later stage. How astutely the US and NATO remain engaged with Afghanistan will indicate whether they are serious about stabilising the war-torn country or allow it to develop into a safe haven for terrorists compelling armed intervention at a future date.

    Apart from this, one deeply worrying issue for many Western countries would be how to handle many of their citizens fighting for ISIS who may eventually come home to roost, in case they are allowed to succeed in Iraq because of acts of omission by the larger international community.

    If such a scenario materialises, it is inevitable that many of the ISIS veterans would pass on their ideology to the next generation of disgruntled members of their community. From an Indian perspective, we have already had the first reported death of an Indian fighting for ISIS. Reports about many youth fighting for ISIS from different countries including India is troubling and many of the youth that manage to slip under the security radar and return home could ferment trouble given their exposure to the radical, extremist and apocalyptic ideologies.

    Rohit Pattnaik worked as a visiting scholar at IDSA and is currently a freelance commentator on strategic issues.

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