For the West, wishing that ISIS would just go away
How to confront the Islamic State (ISIS) and what the fight against it has achieved are questions that have prompted almost as many answers as there are experts.
In the year and more since the movement’s fighters burst from its strongholds in Syria to seize much of north-western Iraq, analysts from the region and elsewhere have been trying to explain a phenomenon few of them foresaw.
Twelve months on from the height of the ISIS offensive, US blogger Joel Wing, who has been monitoring developments in Iraq since 2008, brought together ten analysts to attempt to answer the question: “How is the war against the Islamic State going?”
The exercise offers a range of views, from those who say ISIS is on the defensive to others who say the counter-attack against the jihadists has had minimal effect. Aron Lund, who edits the Syria in Crisis website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, acknowledges: “The short answer to questions like these should, of course, always be, ‘I have no idea.’”
He nevertheless offers the tentative view that, despite the challenges facing ISIS in areas it controls, “unless challenged decisively on their own turf and by Sunni rivals, they can probably remain indefinitely in many Sunni parts of Iraq”.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum think-tank in Washington is among those who discern a stalemate in the conflict. “Until one sees the willpower and consensus for what it would actually take to ‘defeat/ destroy’ the Islamic State, the coalition should drop pretenses to realising such objectives,” he concludes.
Alex Mello, an Iraq security analyst, says Iraq’s military simply does not have the strength to undertake simultaneous, coordinated operations in several areas, so they end up “squeezing the balloon”. “Insurgents are cleared from one area only to pop up in another,” according to Mello.
Even the more optimistic analysts point to a lack of coordination and conflicting interests among ISIS’s enemies as barriers to a speedy victory and most agree that the process will be a long one.
In a separate analysis of the current state of play, John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Iraq, refers in a New Statesman article to an impressive international debate about the nature of ISIS and the formula for defeating it. “Yet none of this flood of commentary… has had any impact on real-world policy responses — either regionally, from China, Russia or India, or from the West,” he laments.
Jenkins acknowledges that ISIS may not represent the same threat at the moment to the security of Western states as al-Qaeda did. “But doing nothing to stop it in its heartlands of Iraq and Syria corrodes the very notion of international order,” he said.
Significantly, few analysts spell out a role for international institutions such as the United Nations in the struggle against ISIS. Jenkins suggests somewhat wistfully that a new, unified and more committed anti-ISIS coalition would probably require a reshaped NATO and UN. “One can dream,” he adds.
The UN and its agencies have been at the forefront of tackling a crisis that has created millions of refugees. Its negotiators have worked overtime to find political settlements to conflicts throughout the region. But the UN Security Council, mandated with the task of confronting threats to international peace and security — and that surely includes ISIS — has been characteristically ineffective.
A closed council meeting in August, involving mainly second-ranking diplomats, expressed alarm at the continuing Syrian crisis and support for the UN envoy’s efforts to resolve it peacefully. The gathering lasted barely 20 minutes.
Security Council ineffectiveness in the crisis is symbolic of the opposing interests that are blocking the international response. All five permanent members of the council are publicly committed to the collapse of ISIS but that commitment has been trumped by divergent national interests.
The key split is over the future of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, which the United States and its European partners want to see unseated but which Russia continues to support, including — according to recent reports — with military reinforcements in the form of fighter jets.
That means that progress at the United Nations proceeds, at best, by two steps forward and one back. In August, all members backed a resolution to appoint a panel to establish responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in the Syrian conflict.
In September, however, the Russians held up the process by asking for “clarifications”, effectively shielding their Syrian allies from condemnation for the time being.
Given the impasse at the United Nations, most analysts might find it difficult to accept the recent assessment of Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, chairman of a UN Human Rights Council investigative panel on Syria, that ISIS “are desperate, because they’re losing ground”.