A fight that only the Arab world can win

WHAT NEXT? A US warship launching a missile against extremists in Syria on Tuesday. The US can hit ISIS from the air, but only Arabs can destroy it on the ground.


    Sep 25, 2014

    A fight that only the Arab world can win

    THERE is a tension at the heart of United States President Barack Obama's campaign to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and it explains a lot about why he has so much trouble articulating and implementing his strategy.

    Quite simply, it is the tension between two vital goals: promoting the "soul-searching" that ISIS' emergence has triggered in the Arab-Muslim world and "searching (for) and destroying" ISIS in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

    Get used to it. This tension is not going away. Mr Obama will have to lead through it.

    The good news? The rise of ISIS is triggering some long-overdue, brutally honest soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst. Look at a few samples, starting with The Barbarians Within Our Gates, written in Politico last week by Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Arabic satellite channel.

    "With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama...is stepping once again - and with understandably great reluctance - into the chaos of an entire civilisation that has broken down," he wrote.

    "Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone. 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.

    "Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays - all have given way to civil wars; ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions; and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms.

    "The (extremists) of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk - what was left of a broken-down civilisation."

    The liberal Saudi analyst Turki Al-Hamad responded in the London-based Al-Arab newspaper to King Abdullah's call for Saudi religious leaders to confront ISIS ideology.

    How can they? Mr Al-Hamad asked. They all embrace the same anti-pluralistic, puritanical Wahhabi Sunni ideology that Saudi Arabia diffused, at home and abroad, to the mosques that nurtured ISIS.

    "They are unable to face the groups of violence, extremism and beheadings, not out of laziness or procrastination, but because all of them share that same ideology," Mr Al-Hamad wrote. "How can they confront an ideology that they themselves carry within them and within their mindset?"

    In an essay last month on Lebanon's Now website, the Lebanese Shi'ite writer Hanin Ghaddar wrote: "To fight (ISIS) and other radical groups, and to prevent the rise of new autocratic rulers, we need to assume responsibility for the collective failures that have produced all of these awful tyrants and fanatics. Our media and education systems are liable for the monster we helped create.

    "We need to teach our children how to learn from our mistakes instead of how to master the art of denial. When our educators and journalists start to understand the significance of individual rights, and admit that we have failed to be citizens, then we can start hoping for freedom, even if it is achieved slowly."

    Nurturing this soul-searching is a vital - and smart - part of the Obama strategy. In committing America to only an air campaign against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, the President has declared that the ground war will have to be fought by Arabs and Muslims, not just because this is their war and they should take the brunt of the casualties, but also because the very act of their organising themselves across Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish lines - the very act of overcoming their debilitating sectarian and political differences that would be required to defeat ISIS on the ground - is the necessary ingredient for creating any kind of decent, consensual government that could replace ISIS in any self-sustaining way.

    The tension arises because ISIS is a killing machine, and it will take another killing machine to search it out and destroy it on the ground. There is no way the "moderate" Syrians we're training can alone fight ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time. Iraqis, Turkey and the nearby Arab states will also have to field troops.

    After all, this is a civil war for the future of both Sunni Islam and the Arab world. We can degrade ISIS from the air - I'm glad we have hit these ISIS psychopaths in Syria - but only Arabs and Turks can destroy ISIS on the ground.

    Right now, Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stands for authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS.

    What's in his soul? What's in the soul of the Arab regimes which are ready to join us in bombing ISIS in Syria, but rule out ground troops?

    This is a civilisation in distress, and unless it faces the pathologies that have given birth to an ISIS monster, any victory we achieve from the air or ground will be temporary.