This Wednesday NATO headquarters in Brussels hosted the first high-level meeting of the 60-member coalition to counter the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and in Syria.
The meeting chaired by the US Secretary of State John Kerry has been described as ‘the end of the beginning of the formation of the coalition”. In fact, it took place almost a year after ISIS launched a major offensive and got hold of some of the key cities in western Iraq.
Up till now the main strategy to counter the spread of the so-called caliphate – the area controlled by Islamic State – consisted in airstrikes on ISIS targets. According to Mr. Kerry, around 1,000 US-led strikes both in Syria and Iraq were having a significant impact.
Yet there are many, both in the region and beyond, who believe the strategy has not been too efficient.
Says Charles Heyman, British expert in Security and Defense policies:
There is no doubt that things are moving forward and that the coalition, and it is a 60-nation coalition, has made some progress and that the air attacks on both the ISIS in Syria and in the northern Iraq have been successful, to a certain extent, in slowing down the advance of ISIS. They are reasonably effective at stopping ISIS moving around. They are able to target convoys, they are able to target the installations where they know that there are ISIS forces involved. But these are very-very early days and they are right to say that this is probably a battle that will take a generation, at least, because it is more than just a military struggle, this is really a battle of ideas. And the military element that you see at the beginning of this campaign is going to be probably reasonably minor in the overall scheme of things.
When they are saying they need to delegitimize the IS, what is your take on that? And how could the battle of ideologies go?
Charles Heyman: First of all, that is going to be difficult to delegitimize it in the eyes of everyone in the world, because there is no doubt that the IS has a considerable amount of support amongst the Sunni Muslim population of the world. Not 100% support by any means, but more support than anybody probably initially thought they had. And that’s one of the reasons that they survive. But this is going to have to be a struggle conducted by the coalition on many fronts, and in many places of the world as well, not just in Iraq and in Syria.
And it is going to have to be conducted at a number of levels. Not just the military level that you see at the moment, it is going to have to have a political dimension, an economic dimension, technological dimension, social dimension. The coalition is going to have to move forward on all of these fronts. And it is going to take a long time and it is going to be very difficult. And the end result is still in doubt. I mean, there is nothing that says that the coalition is going to win this battle. The coalition are going to have to send a lot of money, a lot of treasure, a lot of blood will be spilled and they are going to have to do an awful lot more, than they are doing at the moment, if they think they are going to win this battle.
The mere fact that the ISIS is based mostly in Iraq and in Syria, does it have any bearing to the international operation in Iraq which started back in 2003?
Charles Heyman: Almost every analyst in the world will say – of course, it has. The politicians will say – no. Especially the politicians in the West. But there is no doubt whatsoever that this is almost certainly a direct result of what happened in 2003. And the old saying is, when you start something like this, like what happened in 2003, – you have to reap the whirlwind that comes at you later, in the later years. And so, 2003 was the catalyst for what is going on now, there is no doubt about that.
And then there is also an issue of the corruption in the Iraqi military, which is also seen as another obstacle in the counter-ISIS effort…
Charles Heyman: Again, the corruption in the armed forces is the direct result of what happened in 2003. I mean, it is a tragedy. The reason that the Iraqi armed forces have turned and ran in many-many places in Iraq in the face of the ISIS forces is because of the appalling leadership at all levels. I mean, if you want the soldiers to fight…and everybody in the Russian army will tell you this, everybody in the American army will tell you this – if you want them to fight and you want them to fight well, they have to have leaders who they respect and the leaders have to get out in front, and the leaders have to say – follow me. And that is not happening in Iraq. It almost certainly is going to take a very long time before it does happen. And until that happens, the Iraqi army is not going to be in a position where it can actually take on and defeat ISIS on the ground.
What kind of role do politicians play? Some of their statements, and actions, are quite upsetting…
Charles Heyman: The vast majority of those politicians have no military experience whatsoever. And they have this feeling that you can dress the people up in a uniform and just send them out with the weapon, and they will behave superbly. And it doesn’t happen like that. They don’t understand. Those politicians don’t understand the nature of conflict, they don’t understand the nature of warfare. And until they understand what they are dealing with… and they really don’t understand that, until they understand what they are dealing with, they won’t be able to come up with effective solutions.
And they are driven, in the main, by their chances of being elected at their next election. And that of course is their number one priority, for most of them. Not all, there are some very good ones there, but for most of them the priority is – being elected. And they don’t understand for one second just how fearsome and how dedicated, and how well-led the fighters of the IS are. And you can’t deny their success on the ground. They are brave and they are motivated. And until our politicians understand that to defeat them on the ground they first of all need to defeat them militarily on the ground, to winkle them, dig them out of the cities in Iraq that they’ve captured. And that takes an awful lot of firepower and awful lot of well-trained soldiers, and almost certainly from the coalition nations, because if they don’t do that, all that will happen is that ISIS will find another way of getting around the air attacks that are actually punishing them at the moment.
Several weeks ago the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan said that they were supporting the ISIS. And this is only a tip of the iceberg, which means that the whole of the Central Asia could be set on fire.
Charles Heyman: You are right to say that this is only the tip of the iceberg. And one of the things that the Islamic state has for their advantage is that anyone can claim to be part of the IS. And whatever attack they mount, if that attack takes place in London or in Chechnya, or in Moscow, or in Washington, or anywhere at all, they can say – yes, we are the ISIS, we support the ISIS. So, it becomes a franchise, just like McDonalds, a franchise that can go worldwide.
And that’s why I say this is also a war of ideas. I mean, the coalition obviously has to have a huge amount of very effective military power, but it also has to have much better ideas. And it needs to take the moderate strand of Islam onboard to actually help with the campaign against the ISIS. And I have many-many friends who are Muslims and who are very-very worried about the rise of the IS, and how to actually counter it. One of the tragedies at the moment is that they find it very-very difficult, because the ISIS is really quite superb at its propaganda and its manipulation, its use of the media and its use of all the social media – the Twitter and the Internet and everything else that actually goes with it. So, the ISIS gets across to the youngsters in a way that it doesn’t get across to the old people.
And we go back to the fact that this is the war of ideas. The people with the better ideas will win. And you are right to point out that the people who are not well-educated find a lot of what the ISIS offers as appealing. And that’s okay in the short-term, but I suspect in the longer term the ISIS will not be able to produce the economic benefits that nearly everybody wants in this modern world. And that’s where they are going to have a big difficulty.
Says Taleb Ibrahim, political analyst from the Syrian capital city of Damascus:
First, this conference really reflects the confusion and the absence of strategy in respect of the US and its allies. The coalition does not have any certain strategy of how and why they will fight the ISIS. Second, I don’t think that this coalition is a real coalition. It is some countries being led by the US to do a military action in the ME. And this is to serve the interests of the US. So, the real goal of this coalition is not to fight the ISIS – the source of evil – because they made the ISIS. The real goal is the geopolitical and geostrategic goals for the US in the ME.
What kind of goals are we referring to?
Taleb Ibrahim: As we now see the US, after a very long war in Iraq waged without any basis, without any benefit to the US, now they are trying to come again into the ME under the headline of fighting the ISIS and terrorism. I think this is common for the American policy in the last century. They’ve spread hundreds of military air bases in the world. At that time they were talking about fighting communism and about fighting the Soviet Union etc. But the real target was the hegemony of the US in the whole world and the interests of the American companies, the American interests in the oil and gas and other natural resources.
Now the Americans are coming again, but the headline of their work has been changed now – they want to fight the ISIS. And they created the ISIS to give them an excuse to come again into the ME. They don’t want to leave this area, they want their hegemony, they want the military bases and they want – and this is very important – they want to make a build of military bases around Russia. The US is now very much afraid of the great Russian power which has emerged and is rising very heavily. So, their main goal is how to seize Russia, how to put an end to the Russian ambitions to be the superpower again. This is the most important thing in the US strategy, especially in the ME.
But that strategy certainly creates a threat not only for Russia, but also the regional countries and the neighboring countries. Is there any way to counter it?
Taleb Ibrahim: Let’s talk in a different way. If the ISIS is a headache, the US’s intervention in the Middle East is a cancer. This is the reality of what is going on in the ME. The US is able to create problems, but it is not able to bring any resolution to the problems. When the US is creating any problem, they are asking the others to resolve the problems which have been made by the US. This is very common. Another thing, in the last century and at the beginning of this century the US was able to launch the wars, but they didn’t win any war. And the consequences of these wars are a destabilized world. But the US does not care about that, it will say to the others – you must solve the problems which were created by the US. This is not constructive and this is not a policy indeed.
I think that now the US is not a superpower of stability in the world, it is working for devastating peace and stability in the whole world. This is very well-known especially in the ME. They destabilized Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt etc. If you ask them – what is the benefit behind that for the US – they will say they don’t know. But the destabilization of the ME is a benefit for Saudi Arabia, for Israel and now the American policy is not really an American policy.
As the political analysts and the leaders of our society in the ME we were always saying the following – our problem with the US in the ME is that the US itself hasn’t got any American policy, there is the Israeli policy which is being implemented by the US. And now in the Syrian case there is a Saudi policy which is being implemented by the US. This is the core of the problem of the American intervention in the ME.
But what do we do to counter it?
Taleb Ibrahim: First, we must work with Russia, we must reach a very high degree of coordination and cooperation, and even a strategic partnership with Russia. Russia is a great power and in the past and now it works for the stability and security of the world. All of us remember that Russia was the only power that put an end to Hitler and the Nazi, and to the Napoleon and etc. Now Russia is the only power in the world that can guarantee the stability and peace in the world. And they can say to the Americans – no, stop the war, you are devastating the world. This is one issue.
Regionally, we must work with Iran as an important regional power. And inside Syria we must work very much for the dialog between the different Syrian forces for the reconciliation, for bolstering and building a very strong army which will be a guarantee for the state to remain and to be good. And we are unable to build this army without the cooperation with Russia. Again and again I say to you that they key point for our strategy and for our stability is Russia and cooperation with Russia.
An unnamed source in the US Department of State told the AP that one of the key points in the counter-IS strategy was delegitimizing the ISIS.
Taleb Ibrahim: The ISIS is not legitimized, because it managed to seize a large area of land and put some cities and provinces in Syria and Iraq under control by terrorism and by force, and this is not legitimate anyway. And the most important thing is Islam. The Islamic world and Islam itself does not recognize such extremism and such extremist acts of slaughtering people, beheading people. This is not Islam and this is a very important part of delegitimizing – to remove the religious legitimacy from the IS. This is a very good thing and we must work for it.