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Hope is not a strategy to bring down the ISIS

By Gurmeet Kanwal
November 17, 2014 12:50 IST
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The US and its allies must evolve a more comprehensive long-term plan to defeat the new danger that the caliphate poses to the world order. And India too must do its bit for course correction, says strategic expert Gurmeet Kanwal.

Islamic State fighters gesture as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province. Photograph: Reuters.

Spending a week in Istanbul, not far from the West Asian war zone, has been truly instructive.

The major players in the latest manifestation of instability in the perpetually strife-torn West Asian region -- Iraq, Syria and Turkey -- are finally getting their act together.

After vacillating for several months and admitting that he had no strategy, United States President Barack Obama decided to join the fight by launching air strikes against forces of the Islamic State or ISIS/ISIL.

The US has been joined in this endeavour by Australia, Britain, Canada and France and five Arab countries (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates).

Significant help is being provided to the Shia-dominated government of Iraq by Iran and Russia.

And, in a move that might be a game-changer in the long run, the Peshmerga, forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government that had captured oil-rich Kirkuk, regarded as the Kurd capital, are fighting against the ISIS in the Syrian border town of Kobani.

Consequently, the triumphant march of the virulently radical Sunni militants of the recently proclaimed 'Islamic Caliphate' headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been halted virtually on the gates of Baghdad.

The ISIS militia, numbering between 20,000 and 30,000, have seized key border crossings with Syria and Jordan and now control a large area straddling the Syria-Iraq border.

After capturing Fallujah in January 2014, ISIS fighters made rapid progress in advancing along the Euphrates River in Anbar province of Iraq.

Between 500,000 to one million refugees have been added to the large number of displaced persons already struggling to stay alive in the steaming hot cauldron that is West Asia today.

Islamic State fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade. Photograph: Reuters.

The ISIS ideology is so primitive and barbaric that slain Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is reported to have declined to have anything to do with them when they had approached him.

Al-Baghdadi has openly proclaimed the ISIS's intention to expand eastwards to establish the Islamic state of Khorasan that will include Afghanistan, the central Asian republics, eastern Iran and Pakistan.

The final battle, Ghazwa-e-Hind -- a term from Islamic mythology -- will be fought to extend the caliphate to India.

An ISIS branch has already been established in the Indian subcontinent. It is led by Muhsin al Fadhli and is based somewhere in Pakistan. Some factions of the TTP have already declared their allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

Afghanistan's new national security adviser, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, has said that the growing presence of Daesh or the ISIS poses a threat to Afghan security.

And, close to home, some ISIS flags have been appearing sporadically in Srinagar.

So far, the air strikes have been only partially effective in military terms but have succeeded in buying time for the disorganised Iraqi forces to regroup to offer a more cohesive fight.

Though their operations have certainly been impacted, the ISIS militia has absorbed the air strikes fairly well, much like the Vietnamese did half a century ago.

A major lesson that has emerged from the recent conflicts, particularly those in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that a guerrilla force that operates from safe havens among the rural population cannot be defeated from the air alone.

The US and its allies are unlikely to prevail over the ISIS militia without committing troops on the ground to fight a long-drawn counter-insurgency war against them.

Alternatively, the Iraqis, the Kurds and the Turks must fight and defeat them.

The ISIS militia faces no serious opposition on the ground except from the Kurdish Peshmerga.

These fighters -- described by Roula Khalaf, a journalist, as the ‘nicest men with guns’ that she had encountered -- are ill-equipped to fight the ISIS combatants who are far better armed, but are expecting to get new machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars from friendly powers.

However, the Kurds are unlikely to be willing to fight beyond the land for which they seek autonomy, but part of which is in Iraq.

The coalition’s endeavour is to keep Iraq together, so there is an element of tension inbuilt into supporting and strengthening the Peshmerga.

It may be more pragmatic to support a militarily-strong Kurdistan as a bulwark against further ISIS expansion, but Turkey will have to be convinced that such a course of action is necessary.

The US has been arming the Syrian opposition led by the Free Syrian Army for several years to fight President Bashar al Assad.

It now hopes that the Syrian opposition will join the fight against ISIS. Jordan needs to be given the support necessary to thwart the growth of ISIS to the west.

US troops are not welcome in Iraq and even less so in Syria, besides the lack of support at home for involvement in yet another unwinnable war in West Asia.

The Obama administration is banking on hope and the passage of time to prevail over the ISIS militia.

Obama is hopeful that in due course the air campaign will begin to become effective, the Iraqi forces will become a more cohesive fighting force, and the Kurds will exert meaningful pressure on the ISIS militia from the north.

The probability of any of this happening is low and hope is not a strategy.

The US and its allies must evolve a more comprehensive long-term plan to defeat the new danger that the caliphate poses to the world order.

US President Barack Obama speaks at a meeting with more than 20 foreign defence chiefs to discuss the coalition efforts in the ongoing campaign against ISIL. Photograph: Reuters.

US officials have been dropping broad hints to the effect that India should join the US and its allies in fighting ISIS as it poses a long-term threat to India as well.

India has a large Diaspora in West Asia, which includes female workers.

Some Indian nurses had been taken hostage by ISIS fighters, but were released unharmed.

India also has a large Muslim population that has so far remained detached from and unaffected by the ultra-radical ISIS and its aims and objectives, except for a handful of misguided youth who are reported to have signed up to fight.

This may change if India joins the US-led coalition to fight ISIS. However, India should cooperate closely by way of sharing information and intelligence, and helping with efforts towards refugee relief.

Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, has written: ‘The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism -- the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition -- than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman empire a century ago.”

The conflicts in Gaza, Iraq, Israel, Libya and Syria -- a number of seemingly unrelated crises -- have the potential to blend together to unleash a regional nightmare with much wider repercussions.

The Arab world must collectively accept responsibility for the failures that have led the sorry state prevailing at present.

A concerted international effort is needed to first contain and then comprehensively defeat the ISIS, failing which the consequences will be disastrous not only for the region, but also for most of the rest of Asia and Europe.

However, it is for the Arabs to put together the military effort and resources necessary to seek and destroy ISIS fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, regional politics and attempts to take advantage of the situation to redraw maps must wait if disastrous consequences are to be avoided.

Gurmeet Kanwal is a Delhi-based strategic analyst.

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