ISIS manipulates President Obama into military response

October 1, 2014Global Challengesby David Smith

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President Obama prompted to act by ISIS

Before he took office, President Barack Obama predicted that war in Iraq would recruit more terrorists to the jihadist cause. Now he is US leader, Obama has neglected to heed his own warnings. 

The Sunni jihadist group ISIS has cleverly manipulated the US Government’s actions using social media channels. The terrorists calculated that uploading videos of the beheadings of two US journalists and a British aid worker onto the internet would provoke a disproportionate military response from the West. Right on cue, President Barack Obama reacted by vowing to fight ISIS “by any means necessary”. Vice President Joe Biden went further, declaring the intent to chase the group to the “gates of hell”. What followed played out according to a well-worn script. The US intensified its aerial bombardments against ISIS in an area the size of Great Britain. And, naturally, the UK signed up as the major US ally on the bombing missions. 

Professor Stephen Zunes, an expert on Middle East politics and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the bombings played into the hands of the terrorists.

“Aerial bombardments could only be justified strategically and morally if there were armoured columns of ISIS fighters heading down a highway towards a town, but when you bomb buildings in urban areas you’ve got to weigh the limited strategic advantages the inevitable killing of innocent civilians. This plays into the terrorists’ hands by allowing ISIS to depict themselves as defenders of Islam against Western imperialism. The result is more recruitment to the jihadist cause,” he said.

The strategy of posting execution videos had worked perfectly, he said.

 “The whole purpose was to goad the West into a response. The same method was behind the madness of 9/11. It was to provoke the US into doing something stupid, which we did. Ironically our actions in Iraq ended up creating ISIS.”

An even greater irony was manifest in the decision of Obama to take military action. Back in 2002, Obama predicted at an anti-war rally that an Iraq invasion would act as a recruitment arm for extremist terrorist groups. He was right. Al-Qaida received a publicity boost from the invasion and now ISIS is destined to benefit in the same way. But Obama has not needed his own warning.

In the same speech, Obama also spoke out against handing out unconditional aid to corrupt and autocratic regimes.

 “He said it stirred up extremism, but since he became President, Obama has spent US$25 billion propping up the Nouri al-Maliki regime, which is the very definition of ‘corrupt and autocratic’,” said Professor Zunes. He added: “One might have expected more of Obama, but he has continually compromised his ideals as president - including on the Palestinian question. He has been more pragmatic than ideological and a number of his policies have definitely had me scratching my head.”

Obama’s support for al-Maliki was a continuation of the misguided policies of President George Bush. Shortly after the 2003 invasion, the US occupying force took the disastrous decision to effectively dismantle the two major bastions of secular nationalism in Iraq - the armed forces and the civil service. They were replaced by partisans of sectarian Shiite parties and factions, some of which were closely allied to Iran. 

The consequences of the US policy were far-reaching. Iraq’s growing sectarian divide led to conflict between rival groups. Sunni extremists, believing Iraqi Shias had betrayed their country to Persians and Westerners, began targeting Shia civilian neighbourhoods with terrorist attacks. The Iraqi regime and allied militia then began kidnapping and murdering thousands of Sunni men.  

Some of the more enlightened Sunni tribesmen and leaders, however, began to see al-Qaeda extremists as a bigger threat than the Shiite Government and the US invaders. In return for promises of a larger Sunni presence in both the Government and the armed forces, they agreed to switch sides.

“That led to a lull in the fighting which Republicans and various pundits falsely attributed to the US troop surge that followed,” said Professor Zunes. “But the real reason was the decision of the Sunni leaders to change sides and this is the great lesson of the Iraq conflict. We are already seeing that Sunnis in areas controlled by ISIS are unhappy with their extremism. ISIS regards anyone who does not blindly accept its dictates as an infidel, including local Sunnis.”  

One of the keys to solving the ISIS problem is, therefore, to mobilize the more moderate Sunni forces against the extremists.

“The US should do whatever it takes to empower the Sunnis to act. It’s less a matter of arming them and more about making sure that  Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s new Iraqi Government - which the US has cobbled together - is pluralistic and represents all the people in the country.”

The new Government, which was approved by the Iraq Parliament this September, will have to act in a completely different manner to the outgoing one. The Maliki regime reneged on all its promises to the Sunnis after they switched sides. Instead, discrimination and repression against Sunnis increased, and nonviolent protesters were gunned down. Dissident journalists were targeted for imprisonment and assassination and there was widespread torture. 

“Thousands of Iraqis were detained for years without trial. Sunnis and their communities faced rampant discrimination and the Maliki regime became recognized by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt governments in the world,” said Professor Zunes.

As a result, when ISIS emerged as the latest manifestation of al-Qaeda-style extremism, the Sunni population — despite their strong opposition to such extreme ideologies - found them to be the lesser evil, and various militias joined with their former rivals in expelling government forces. 

The rise of ISIS was also facilitated by the failure of the Iraqi Army to challenge them. “As the US learned in South Vietnam, no matter how well you train a foreign army and how many arms you provide them, they will only be successful if they believe their regime is worth fighting and dying for,” said Professor Zunes. 

ISIS is a formidable enemy. The list of their barbarisms is so long that even al-Qaeda considered them too extreme. The group controls valuable oil fields and, with the help of wealthy Sunni backers from the Gulf States, is estimated to have amassed a fortune of US$2 billion.  

Most of its advanced American weapons and armoured vehicles were seized recently from fleeing Iraqi troops. Many of its well-trained and ruthless commanders used to be officers in the Iraq army. The use of social media to provoke Western powers reveals a strategic approach.  

To defeat such an enemy, the best long-term solutions are political rather than militaristic. “Massive Western military intervention could create a backlash that strengthens political support for the extremists. The US has been bombing Iraq on and off for nearly a quarter century and things have only gotten worse,” said Professor Zunes.

The most effective move would be to create a regional political solution through alliances. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Jordan have made a military contribution, but what is needed is a political contribution from the major powers most affected by ISIS – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt. One of the political problems is that the US has alienated Iran whose presence at a Paris summit on the issue on September 15 was deemed “not appropriate” by US secretary of State John Kerry. It might be time for a temporary truce.

Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, the US needs to encourage the Iraqi government to develop a more inclusive approach, in contrast with the ruthless imposition of Shia hegemony by Nouri al-Maliki.

“The best way to defeat ISIS is to co-opt its many enemies against it,” said Professor Zunes. “They have already sown the seeds of their own destruction. Nothing that crazy and extreme will last. The question is will US and Western foreign policy and military action speed or delay that? “Ultimately, since they see anyone who doesn’t subscribe to its extremist ideology as an ‘infidel’, almost everyone under its rule is at risk. That includes most Sunnis. So, the prospect of the Iraqi and Syrian people eventually rising up against ISIS is high.”

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