The Islamic State challenge

The challenge posed by the Islamic State, the violent Islamic movement that has swept across northeastern Syria and western Iraq, should be surmountable. Even if we accept the higher estimates of the number of Islamic State fighters at 30,000, this is an armed group without a navy or air force, relying mainly on captured Russian, Chinese and American arms.

In reality, however, the Islamic State benefits from an almost perfect storm of "contradictions and self-imposed restraints" among the countries arrayed against it. This web of conflicting interests may well result in the survival of Islamic State and its further validation in the eyes of militant jihadists worldwide.

First, America's strategy in Syria still lacks clarity. The U.S. has led a punishing campaign of coalition air strikes against the Islamic State. For now, it has saved the Kurdish town of Kobane from falling into the hands of Islamic State militants. While the U.S. wants Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gone, it is perplexed about who will benefit from any void left by an Islamic State retreat in northern Syria. Will it be the despised Assad regime or an unknown Syrian rebel faction?

These factions have spent as much time fighting each other as Assad. They fear that the Syrian regime will take advantage of U.S. military action against the Islamic State to reclaim lost territory. Further complicating things, the Syrian rebel al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has begun convincing "moderate" Syrian rebel factions of this very point, portraying the air-strike coalition as anti-Sunni allies of the Assad regime.

The Islamic State problem is a byproduct of the collapse of Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. Although the militant group began its summer blitz by seizing swaths of land in northern Syria, it was still more of a localized force, one of the many anti-Assad groups. It was only when it moved into Iraq that the Islamic State metamorphosed into the major challenge it now is.

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Second, because of bitter Sunni disaffection from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for denying them any share in power, Iraq has been ripe for the picking by the Islamic State. Maliki's policies deepened Iraq's Sunni/Shiite divide. The Sunnis' exclusion from power, in turn, made them fertile ground for the spread of the Islamic State in their tribal heartland of northern and western Iraq.

The U.S. has pressured the new Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to become more inclusive of Sunnis to deprive the Islamic State of allies in Iraq. Ironically, America's perceived collaboration with the Iraqi government has made al-Abadi's intentions suspect to the Sunni tribes. The Islamic State fighters' seizure of Abu Ghraib, within shelling range of Baghdad's international airport, demonstrates that the Sunni allegiance to Iraq has yet to take hold.

Third, Turkey has not been exempt from the pattern of conflicting internal interests. Although the Turkish parliament authorized its army to operate in Syria on Oct. 2 to counter the Islamic State threat on its doorstep, Ankara's actions are tempered by its historic enmity with the Kurds. The prolonged Islamic State siege of Kobane illustrated just this. Although Kobane lies a stone's throw from the Turkish border, Turkey has not stepped in to defend the town from the Islamic State.

The price Turkey demands for fuller engagement is twofold: American enforcement of a buffer cum no-fly zone on the Syrian side of the border, and making removal of the Assad regime a top priority. That would entangle the U.S. in an Arab civil war it wants desperately to avoid.

Fourth, while Turkish action, Iraqi reconciliation and American clarity on Syria are all critical elements of a strategy against the Islamic State, one essential component of a long-term solution is lacking: "a counter-narrative to tackle Islamic extremism." Although the Islamic State is the most brutal iteration, it is only the latest in line of Islamic extremist groups. The U.S. and the coalition need to develop a counter-narrative to the group's perverse ideology.

The U.S. and Western nations cannot develop such a narrative. It will only emerge organically from Arab Muslim societies. Until then, the Islamic State will continue to recruit and indoctrinate fighters and supporters. History has shown that the war against Islamic extremism cannot be won solely through military might.

Defeat of the Islamic State demands two things only Arab Muslims can provide: resolving the internal contradictions within each of the major coalition partners and developing a counter-narrative to expose the Islamic State's bankrupt claim to "Muslim" ideology. Without those decisive contributions, international intervention will be condemned to sputter on for years to come.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]


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