The recent attacks on Turkey, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are just the most recent examples of the horrific terrorist acts taking place around the world. The Islamic State’s recent bombing in Baghdad killed 250 people and wounded hundreds. The uptick of ISIS murderous attacks is likely due to the would-be caliphate’s loss of territories in Iraq and Syria.
The carnage and suffering of Iraqis have continued non-stop since the U.S. and its coalition forces invaded in 2003. Iraq has suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths, over a million injured, and millions of refugees. The country has endured a setback of a dozen years or more. As a result of the devastation in Iraq and the dissolution of the Iraqi army, ISIS was born.
But the roots of ISIS go deeper. The Islamic world has been under siege for nearly a century from Western countries, including the United States. The West has stolen natural resources (especially oil), installed and supported compliant (but corrupt) regimes to serve their interests, and at each major turn, ignored the interests of the people. The majority of the people have experienced a continued assault on their dignity. Their countries are plagued by injustice in many forms and a large economic gap both within their countries and between them and the developed world.
The recruitment of fighters to achieve rights, freedom, and a rightful place in the world order is fueled by a roiling stew of dissatisfaction. These conditions make even the larger part of the population, which is unwilling or unable to fight, partially sympathetic to the radical ideologies voiced by groups such as ISIS. When clothed in the guise of a religious struggle, this philosophy can be irresistible for many of the most desperate.
President Obama’s initial foray into Middle Eastern policy, his 2009 speech in Cairo, gave much hope that a new chapter in Western policy would begin. But right-wing Republicans and special interest groups managed to transform his policies toward the Muslim world into merely a modern twist on the old colonialism of the past.
ISIS came into existence with grandiose propaganda that attracted tens of thousands of followers to the promise of a new Islamic State. They have murdered, raped, and pillaged across a swath of the Middle East left vulnerable by the power vacuum created in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and the attempted Syrian revolution.
The current wisdom of experts on how to deal with the terrorists such as ISIS is increased U.S. military involvement in the region. Moreover, the alliance to defeat ISIS must recover the second largest city in Iraq where ISIS, two years ago, took control. Accordingly, Iraqi forces with U.S. help should quickly retake Mosul and rebel forces, again with U.S. assistance, should recapture the capital city of the Islamic State, al-Raqqa. The Iraqi secretaries of defense and foreign affairs communicated this confidence to a meeting of expatriates in Washington that I attended.
There is some merit to the above-suggested steps to defeat ISIS. However, three conditions are required for it to succeed.
First, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and many other Syrian nationalist forces have to come into agreement over goals. YPG is known to be the largest and fiercest fighting group against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. At present, YPG is collaborating with U.S. forces to defeat Assad.
Second, Turkey must become fully involved in the battle to defeat ISIS. This is not an easy task since Turkey has been reluctant to fight ISIS. And the recent coup attempt further complicates matters.
Third, and the most important, the United States and its allies fighting ISIS must recognize that the first and second conditions are short-range goals. The long-range goal is for the United States and its allies to understand that the Muslim world suffers in part from the misdeeds of the West: the colonization of Muslims for decades and the robbing of Muslim people of their dignity and freedom through foreign occupation.
The latest Pew Research Center data on poverty reveals that Muslim countries “are among the poorest in the world.” The median gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $4,000 compared to $33,000 per capita for more developed nations. However, the economic situation of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is much worse when considering per capita income country by country.
From such miserable conditions, it only takes a minute percentage of the world’s Muslims to form various terrorist factions and paramilitaries. Such economic conditions – compounded by geopolitical events such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Qaddafi in Libya – create fertile ground for radical extremists groups to recruit followers..
Military solutions cannot defeat ISIS. The West must garner the support of the local population in the Middle East by treating the people there with respect, providing fair recompense for the extraction of raw materials from the region, and refraining from interfering in local affairs and promoting democratic principles.
President Obama began his administration with a presentation of laudable goals. He abandoned this honorable position to gain influence among Republicans. The Republicans never gave an inch to him. Let us hope that the next president learns from the past and follows the path that Obama never took. These are very slim hopes indeed.