Apathy and Denial Won’t Make ISIS Go Away

Caliphate

The Caliphate that ISIS envisions. (Photo: Flickr)

In the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn writes:

As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by Isis on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people, a population larger than that of Denmark, Finland or Ireland.

“The birth of the new state,” he continues, “is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War.”

Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. … Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed.

Meanwhile

… the opponents of Isis [are] becoming weaker and less capable of resistance: in Iraq the army shows no signs of recovering from its earlier defeats and has failed to launch a single successful counter-attack; in Syria the other opposition groups, including the battle-hardened fighters of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are demoralised and disintegrating as they are squeezed between Isis and the Assad government.

At Lebanon’s Now, Hussein Ibish writes:

… As Arab state disintegration and systemic failure continues to metastasize, ISIS and similar groups are a mortal peril. They not only bring death and destruction, mayhem and chaos, and the worst kind of vicious obscurantist rule imaginable, they threaten to replace the existing state system with substate actors that are autonomous criminal gangs ruling over little fiefdoms – the Hezbollah and Hamas model writ large and spreading fast, but in a much more savage and extreme form. The Arab world has entered into a growing phase of terrorist warlordism. It’s a calamity hitherto unimaginable.

If there’s a sliver of a silver lining, it’s that

ISIS shows no interest at present in international terrorism. Instead, they have decided to seize and control territory and create their own de facto state.

Then, asks Ibish

… why isn’t anybody doing anything serious about this mind-boggling peril? At present only Kurdish fighters, with some Iraqi government support, are really taking on ISIS on the ground. They don’t appear to be receiving much international or regional support. The Arab states purport to be alarmed, but in practice their response to the creation of the ISIS mini-, petro- and terrorist-state in their midst has been a shrug of the shoulders. If that’s unfair, it is at least undeniable they haven’t mobilized quickly to take action.

As for the international community, he writes that it

… appears equally inexplicably sanguine. The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they’re crossing Iraqi airspace. That’ll learn ‘em! ISIS’s successes are completely disproportionate to their size: an estimated 8,000-20,000 fighters in Iraq, as opposed to at least 30,000 other Iraqi Sunni insurgents, not to mention the Iraqi army (such as it is) or Kurdish guerrillas. This is simply not an overwhelming force. … if it were confronted by a serious armed response it could certainly be broken.

“The biggest question now,” according to Ibish is

… why is no one, either regionally or internationally, moving to do that? Is everyone – or anyone, for that matter – content with the growing power of ISIS? …  Will a small but determined and well-organized band of crazed terrorists really be allowed to reshape the Arab world largely unopposed? Because that’s exactly what’s happening now.

The United States, which mobilized swiftly after 9/11 against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, doesn’t seem to be treating the threat of ISIS with the urgency it deserves. Presumably because ISIS has yet to threaten U.S. soil. But, writes Ibish

… in time and if they can consolidate their rule in those areas, international terrorism is potentially a logical move for them. Even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent their protégés from turning to it.

Then we’ll be sorry we didn’t do more to stop it when we had the chance. Returning to Cockburn:

Some Shia leaders may calculate that the US or Iran will always intervene to save Baghdad, but both powers are showing reluctance to plunge into the Iraqi quagmire in support of a dysfunctional government.

… Like the Shia leaders in Baghdad, the US and its allies have responded to the rise of Isis by descending into fantasy. They pretend they are fostering a ‘third force’ of moderate Syrian rebels to fight both Assad and Isis, though in private Western diplomats admit this group doesn’t really exist outside a few beleaguered pockets.

Cockburn then succinctly explains the implications of the rise of ISIS.

For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.