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IS: illusion versus reality

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Monday, 22 September 2014


Much has been said about President Obama's strategy to degrade and eventually "destroy" the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Regardless of the soundness of the President's strategy, to ensure greater success in defeating ISIS, three distinct interlinked aspects must be factored in: careful consideration of the root causes behind the rise of ISIS, simultaneous inclusion of socio-political and economic development along with the military campaign, and the real, not illusionary, role and capability of the coalition members President Obama has assembled. Bearing this in mind and acting accordingly will permanently degrade ISIS and prevent it from rising again to pose a serious threat to our allies in the Middle East and Western security in the future.

The rise of many jihadist groups can be traced several decades back to the reigns of corrupt and ruthless Arab dictators who grossly violated human rights, deprived their citizens of social justice, and violently suppressed any opposition with impunity.

Adding to this mix is President Bush's misguided Iraq war, which has ignited the long-dormant Sunni-Shiite conflict, and the violent upheaval in the wake of the Arab Spring that swept several Arab states, culminating with the still-raging civil war in Syria.

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ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda (disavowed by them because of their savagery) who converged, among other jihadist groups, into a disintegrated Syria, unleashing the dark-ages forces of Islam in pursuit of their twisted religious historic and cultural agenda that sanctifies Islamic reign.

At the same time, both secular and religious authoritarian regimes in the region have been adding fuel to the fire by supporting one jihadist group or the other financially and with military equipment, while engaging in hate narratives against one another and against the West.

Millions of dispossessed, despairing, and despondent Arab youth are left with no place to go, no hope, and no future. They are consumed with anger and hatred of their corrupt and unresponsive leaders and the West, who acted only when the conditions served its interest.

For these reasons, the military campaign must simultaneously be accompanied by sustainable economic development programs to create jobs and opportunities to give the young hope for the future.

The US, European countries, and the oil-rich Arab states must raise billions of dollars strictly dedicated to that end and give young men and women the incentive to reject extremism and embrace moderation.

Sustainable development projects will not only galvanize local resources, but allow for the development of ownership and a sense of empowerment that builds a social and economic structure from the bottom up. This would allow the people to become increasingly less dependent on government handouts that come with chains and subservience.

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We must carefully assess the role and responsibility of each member of the coalition (many of whom remain a mystery) and have no illusions about their importance and efficacy.

Iraq: We should have no delusions about the makeup and effectiveness of the new Iraqi government. Whereas the Kurds will join the military campaign willingly to safeguard their territory and autonomy, the full support of the Sunni tribes is not assured given their long, violent conflict with the Shiite Maliki government over the past eight years.

Before they throw their weight behind the Shiites, they want to know what is in store for them. I maintain that nothing short of autonomous Sunni rule with equitable revenue-sharing from oil with a loose federalism will suffice.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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