Who will stop ISIS?
Sectarian conflicts will ensure that there will never be a collective offensive against the Islamic State
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The last few days have brought some interesting criticism of US President Barack Obama’s strategy (or the lack of one) in West Asia.
Qassem Suleimani, whom The New Yorker once called The Shadow Commander, the major general in the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, said the US has “no will” to stop ISIS and that “today, there is nobody in confrontation with (ISIS) except the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as nations who are next to Iran or supported by Iran”.
Before Suleimani, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist militant group based in Lebanon, accused the US in a similar vein, saying the US “can’t protect anyone from ISIS” and called on the people of Lebanon to “end their silence and confront the (infidel) threat” (basically fight ISIS).
It is a lesson in how perceptions of the might of the world’s lone superpower have waned that today Hezbollah and Iran are criticizing the US’s inability to counter a serious security threat. Even more interesting though is the admission that only they, and not the US, can rid West Asia of the menace of the Islamic State.
Two reasons make this a plausible conclusion to arrive at:
1) The dispirited offensive the US has mounted against the ISIS.
2) The fact that far from making a retreat, the terrorist group is gaining ground in both Syria and Iraq, increasing its influence in Yemen and Libya, and even claimed responsibility for a bomb blast at a Shia mosque in Saudi Arabia. According to news reports, both Israel and Hamas are worried that ISIS might set its sights on Gaza soon. Closer home, in Afghanistan, there have been clashes between IS and the Taliban, killing scores of fighters on both sides.
Given the web of sectarian conflicts that has come to define West Asia, it seems intuitive that countries in the region might be better able to understand and deal with regional rivalries. However, individual interests are sure to trump any attempt at collectively neutralizing the threat the Islamic State poses. Hence, we hear of Hezbollah wanting to expand its presence in Syria and Iran, and of Suleimani cutting deals across Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to ensure that Iran remains at the forefront of the fight against ISIS.
The contest in West Asia is not between countries but beliefs and that is why there might be no end to it.
When countries governed by democratically elected governments go to war with each other, there are political and economic costs which influence their decisions.
When militias wanting to establish the primacy of their beliefs go to war, it is a fight to conquer, no matter what the costs.
The Islamic State faces (or fears) nothing in terms of economic sanctions or international outcry that has a strong influence in case of countries involved in conflicts. The Islamic State’s supporters are drawn from across the world simply for the honour of fighting a battle, so it has no shortage of popular support. Oil and funding from sympathizers in the region have ensured economic sustenance. A potent mix of strong beliefs and oil money have plunged West Asia into a spiral of violence that no power is capable of stopping, at least for the moment.
The Islamic State will meet serious challenges only when it acquires the characteristics of a state, as states are commonly understood. Defence of a vast territory—currently held just on the basis of fear and armed strength—with many frontiers will become very difficult. That is when IS will begin to shrink. But that day is distant.
Global Roaming takes stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.