(photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama came away from last week’s NATO summit in Wales with some progress in his attempt to build an international coalition against Islamic State. He won general expressions of support and some specific pledges of help and even received NATO’s agreement to provide military assistance to Iraq upon request. But the 28 countries that make up NATO stopped short of making a firm commitment to join a combat mission against Islamic State in Iraq or Syria.
The defeat of Islamic State – also known as ISIS – is impossible, however, unless NATO is willing to deploy ground forces large enough to seize the group’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq. But mustering the requisite boots on the ground entails a willingness to fight that is lacking among NATO forces, and for good reason.
NATO is already orchestrating its retreat from Afghanistan, where a large contingent is still committed. And now there is also a NATO rapid-response force being organized that would be capable of confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionism in the Baltic States and elsewhere. From their traumatic and ultimately failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, NATO nations have learned that military victory must be followed up by the installment of a stable governing body capable of keeping law and order.
Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other Western leaders are rightly insistent that regional actors such as Turkey, the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan send their troops, if and when a ground incursion is launched against Islamic State. US Secretary of State John Kerry has met with Arab League nations to advance this goal. Will we be witnessing the creation of a grand new order in the region in which “moderate” Muslim nations join forces to combat extremists? Don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, Islamic State continues to draw its support from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus led by President Bashar Assad.
In Israel, some Arab citizens have voiced support for Islamic State against the Jewish state, though the importance of this support must not be exaggerated. Ynet reported that Nazareth police took down signs with Islamic State symbols declaring “Infidels that do not accept Islam will have their limbs severed from their bodies.” The imam of a mosque in an unnamed Arab town in northern Israel praised the group during a Friday sermon. Sheikh Hamad Abu Daa’bas, head of the southern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, reportedly stated that Islamic State “raises reasonable demands like the establishment of the Islamic state,” though he tempered his enthusiasm by adding that its methods “raise concerns in many nations across the world.” Islamic State forces are reportedly operating in the Sinai Peninsula and the group’s allies have staked out strongholds in the north on the border with the Golan Heights.
Perhaps Islamic State’s rise has to do with humanity’s inexplicable but undeniable attraction to totalitarianism, the allure of the certainty of purpose shared by zealots and hard-core ideologues. But whatever the reason, Islamic State is a movement with relatively broad Sunni support, which makes its defeat all the more difficult. Control over lucrative oil fields, support from wealthy Sunni donors, the ransoming of hostages, protection money and the confiscation of assets in Iraq provide the group with a steady flow of cash, which means it can keep fighting indefinitely. Still, Islamic State’s strength mustn’t be overestimated.
Its armed forces are decidedly low-tech. How an army with little more than a fleet of Toyota 4X4 pick-up trucks has managed to strike terror in the hearts of the world’s superpowers remains something of a mystery.
Troops fighting in the group’s ranks number a few tens of thousands.
Islamic State must and will be destroyed. The group has massacred religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. It threatens the Kurdistan Regional Government, one of the few positive long-term developments to arise from the invasion of Iraq. It is also a direct threat to Western societies: hundreds of its terrorists hail from Britain, the US and other Western countries to which they eventually plan to return to continue the jihad.
Obama took an important first step toward eradicating Islamic State at the NATO summit. Now the momentum must be maintained.