The West and its flawed anti-IS strategy

If the West genuinely wants to fight terror and promote a peaceful future in the troubled West Asia region, it will have to confront its selective silence and dual standard on the serious challenges that threaten the region today.

April 01, 2015 02:54 am | Updated April 02, 2016 06:17 pm IST

If there are any doubts about a global double standard when it comes to West Asia, then the reaction to the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its partners will put them to rest. Here is a >situation , where fighter jets of a Saudi-led coalition are pounding the capital of another country, Sana'a, without seeking any international mandate, and there is absolute silence from those who should object.

Leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin have not appealed to the United Nations nor have they asked for an end to the bombing of civilians in an effort to stop the advance of rebels. Despite the question of sovereignty — of more than 100 air raids in which dozens of civilians have died in the capital, human rights violations and even the basic worry of these raids helping al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Yemen — there has been not one word of censure from them. In fact, Washington is backing the strikes, France and the United Kingdom are giving them “all possible” technical help, and Egypt, Turkey and even Pakistan plan to help with the “ground offensive” to back the Yemeni President, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, against Houthi rebels.

For Western introspection For those who say this is a justified attack to support a legitimate ruler, stop, think and rewind to 2012-2013, when the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, faced the most difficult pressure from armed Free Syrian Army fighters and Jabhat Al-Nasrah rebels (IS took control later). What would have been the Western reaction had Iran sent jets into Aleppo, Homs and Hama to back its ally, Mr. Assad? Wouldn’t these countries have set up a counter-attack within 24 hours, or at least convened the UN Security Council for a Right to Protect (R2P) mandate to do so?

The rank duality in dealing with the situation in Yemen is not just the subject of some hand-wringing; it is the single largest reason why the war against IS and even its successor organisations will be unwinnable for these countries. Despite 3,000 air strikes by a United States-led coalition of 62 countries that began operations last August to counter IS, IS continues to control more than an estimated 55,000 square kilometres of area in Iraq and Syria. That IS is an evil terror group displaying unprecedented brutality is undoubtable. That it is a threat to every country in the world should be obvious from the way the group has targeted every nationality: beheading American, British, Japanese and Egyptian citizens alike, burning alive a Jordanian national, and broadcasting its terror worldwide in the most bestial way. It poses the biggest threat to the next generation as well, recruiting a record number of child soldiers, and training children as young as five to kill. If the coalition, which represents nearly a third of the world, which has the resolve, the firepower, and the experience of fighting terror groups in every part of the world, is unable to counter such a group, deep and searching questions must be asked about why that is.

Down to logistics To begin with, there is a basic problem of logistics. Despite the most sophisticated drones and surveillance of the region, an air strike on an IS target is ineffective without an accompanying ground force in place. Even if the U.S. and its coalition are able to strengthen Iraqi armed forces to conduct ground operations, it is meaningless until they are also able to enlist Syrian armed forces to launch a pincer-like action on the group that straddles both countries. Without the ground forces, all victories over IS territory are, essentially, pyrrhic. This was evident in the Syrian town of Kobane along the Turkish border where the U.S. Alliance >drove IS out in September 2014 after two weeks of sustained bombing and 600 strikes. As journalists were allowed into the city, their cameras bore out the tragic truth: all that was left of IS-controlled areas was a vast wasteland. The reason that the U.S. coalition has been unable to engage the Syrian regime for help on the ground is of course the reason why it ignored the rise of IS in the first place. The West’s preoccupation with the removal of Mr. Assad and the funding and arming of the groups that opposed him since 2011 led to complete surprise at the rapidity with which IS fighters have taken over Syrian and Iraqi towns. In October last year, U.S. President Barack Obama finally conceded that underestimating IS’s rise had been a major “intelligence failure.” But it was more than that. It was the determined effort to ensure that “Assad must go” that led the Western and West Asian countries ranged against Mr. Assad to ignore his warnings about the nature of the fighters his army was battling. As a result, and in another example of the double standard, the 62-member coalition now routinely bombs areas that it wanted to stop Mr. Assad’s forces from bombing.

Misreading the Arab Spring The other flaw with the West’s strategy is the pursuance of regime change, focussed on one leader as the single purpose of its wars in West Asia. Recent history should have taught the U.S., the U.K. and others that the removal of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi haven’t been the end of the conflict; they have merely marked the beginning of a more diabolical and deadly version of the conflict. Hanging Saddam and lynching Qadhafi hasn’t led to peace in Iraq and Libya, nor would the possible ouster of Mr. Assad do that. Instead, it has led to an erosion of what were once “secular” regimes, where minorities and women enjoyed a higher position than they do in other countries of the Arab world.

Another blunder has been the misreading of the “Arab Spring” by the West. While many of the crowds that poured into Arab capitals, from Tunis to Damascus and Sana'a, demanded democracy and positive change, many just wanted regime change. Democracy is better effected through the ballot box than it is through the crowding of main squares, which is a powerful image, but a misleading representation of the “people’s will”. “We no longer refer to it as the Arab Spring,” admitted a senior NATO military official at the “Brussels Forum” conference last week, where trans-Atlantic discussions on IS were held. “It is now seen as the Arab uprising instead,” he concluded. Interestingly, the countries in the West that rejoiced at the thought of democracy in the countries of the so-called Spring missed the most significant point: all the countries that saw their leadership change — Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen — were republics, whereas none of the eight monarchies — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, the Emirates, Jordan and Morocco — were destabilised.

This skew, particularly towards the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, who are more focussed on fighting the “Shi’a crescent” of Iranian influence in the region, has led to another problem. The West has turned a blind eye, and even assisted these countries in the funding, training and arming of Sunni extremist groups to carry out attacks in Syria. They have been doing this by trying to draw a fine line between the groups they support — including the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat Al-Nasrah — and with IS. Anyone who sees the distinctions between the groups has to only read the account of the American journalist, Theo Padnos (now Peter Theo Curtis), who was taken hostage in Syria in 2012 and finally released by al-Qaeda in August 2014 in a deal brokered by Qatar. Padnos was handed over from one group to another in Syria, and found few differences between them. When he asked why his well-armed captors trained in Jordan by U.S. marines were holding an American hostage despite promises they would only target Assad’s regime, they answered: “Yes, we lied.” If it is naivety that allows the U.S., France, and the U.K. to continue to enlist their Arab allies in the war on terror and hope they will cut off finances and oil revenues to al-Qaeda and IS, despite evidence that they play both sides of the war, it is a very costly innocence that the world has paid for.

Joining IS Finally, there is a need for introspection inside Europe, the U.S., and even Australia, which have seen growing numbers of their citizens get through Turkey to join IS. While the brutality of the Assad regime and economic distress in the region have been blamed for the thousands of Arab youth taking up arms for IS, what explains the hundreds of citizens joining it from the U.K., France and the U.S.? According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, 3,400 of the 20,000 IS foreign fighters are from Western countries. Why are British and French girls becoming jihadi brides, schoolboys and young doctors learning to kill, and teenage Americans travelling all the way just to join IS ranks? Could it be that in the early years of a push for regime change and sanctions against Syria, Western governments themselves promoted the propaganda against Mr. Assad’s government, allowing many of their Muslim citizens to think they had not just religious but national sanction to join the war?

Significantly, some of the West’s actions are now being rethought. While concluding another round of P5+1 talks with Iran in the Swiss town of Lausanne last week, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, >suggested that the U.S. is now open to talks with Mr. Assad if need be. “If he is ready to have a serious negotiation about the implementation of Geneva I (2012 agreement), of course,” he said. “What we’re pushing for is to get him to come and do that,” he added, in an interview to CBS.

But talks will only solve part of the problem in West Asia. If the West genuinely wants to fight terror and promote a peaceful future for the region, it will also have to confront its selective silence and dual standard on the serious challenges that threaten the region today.

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