Saturday, August 30, 2014

ISIS erases the sidelines



AS IT’S done since 2005, in the headier days of the post-Saddam era, Iraq has taken baby steps toward the political pluralism and tolerance that define a modern nation. In Saddam Hussein’s old stomping ground, once the playground of his fellow Sunni Muslims, the Iraqi parliament has elected Fouad Massoum, a Kurd, as the country’s president (a largely ceremonial post). He picked Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite Muslim, as prime minister, and the parliament elected Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni, as its new speaker.

The nation, riven by centuries of sectarian violence and victimized by an unnecessary American invasion, thus keeps inching toward power-sharing, trying to put distance between itself and the frictions of the past.

Enter ISIS. The highly mobile, financially liquid, breathtakingly ruthless Sunni terrorist gang, is  running roughshod over Iraq and neighboring Syria, threatening both countries and others — a fact that requires not just cooperation within Iraq but also among other nations as well. And doing that may be more complicated than anything else.

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President Obama’s accidentally frank admission of the United States’ strategy for dealing with the situation — “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said on Thursday — speaks to just how swiftly ISIS (aka ISIL or the Islamic State) has altered the already precarious equation in the Middle East. The Daily Beast reported on Aug. 21 that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “acknowledged that ISIS had effectively erased the frontier between Iraq and Syria.”

Dempsey said ISIS “will have to be addressed on both sides of what is at this point a nonexistent border.”

ISIS’ advances in recent weeks would seem to concentrate the Iraqi government’s mind wonderfully. Controlling or contesting territory from Aleppo in Syria to just outside Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, ISIS is on the march.

The sudden impact of these terrorist cartographers may force a change in the old conflicting Sunni-Shiite dynamics within Iraq. If there was ever a time for unity, this is it. “It has never been more in the interest of Iraq’s political leaders to set aside their sectarian differences and to focus on the common enemy that is posed by ISIL,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told MSNBC on Thursday. “There is a clear motivation for them that may not have existed before.”

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FOR ALL the heavy lifting involved in finding consensus inside Iraq, the bigger challenge may be in getting other Gulf states to find common ground in opposing ISIS. This is Secretary of State John Kerry’s mission: rally the support of those states in a common objective to resist the ISIS threat.

In a Friday op-ed piece in The New York Times, Kerry said ISIS “presents a unifying threat to a broad array of countries, including the United States. What’s needed to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda is a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and intelligence tools to support military force.”

Kerry continues: “ISIS has its origins in what was once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has over a decade of experience in extremist violence. The group has amassed a hardened fighting force of committed jihadists with global ambitions, exploiting the conflict in Syria and sectarian tensions in Iraq. ... There is evidence that these extremists, if left unchecked, will not be satisfied at stopping with Syria and Iraq. ...


“With a united response led by the United States and the broadest possible coalition of nations, the cancer of ISIS will not be allowed to spread to other countries. The world can confront this scourge, and ultimately defeat it. ISIS is odious, but not omnipotent.”

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For Steven Cook, the current situation reflects the wrong kind of collective thinking, a unified field theory of geopolitical suspicion.

Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, laid it out on Thursday: “Let’s be clear, our regional allies — the Qataris, the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Egyptians — they have helped create this region-wide mess,” he said on MSNBC. “Corralling them to help clean up the mess is going to be extraordinarily difficult because they have all of their rivalries.”

Cook said ISIS “poses a threat to each and every one of these states in the region. So it would appear that Kerry can cajole these states to join a coalition of the willing, to use a phrase from a previous era. But the fact of the matter is, there’s regional politics.

“Will the Saudis and the Qataris put aside their pathological rivalry ...? What about the rivalry between the Turks and the Gulf states that is primarily over Egyptian politics? What is it about the United Arab Emirates [that] is actually driving a lot of the developments in the region? ...

“We don’t have the answers to these questions. What they are doing is playing out their regional rivalries in Syria, in Iraq and now in Libya. That is creating mayhem everywhere.”

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THE DANGER’S even more clear and present when you consider the sophistication of ISIS. These ain’t cave dwellers. The video that documented the death of James W. Foley, the American journalist butchered by an ISIS partisan, proved these are terrorists with a firm hand on the tools of modern communication. On Aug. 23, Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for The Daily Beast, told CNN the video was “partly a recruiting video ... it’s very slick, high-definition,” and evidence of “a huge, 21st-century, very much of-this-moment propaganda machine, and that may be their most important asset.”

Add to all of that the more recent news that ISIS may be contemplating attacks with biological weapons like weaponized bubonic plague, and you have the makings of a whole new criminal animal, the ne plus ultra of terrorism.

And as surely as ISIS has (at least temporarily) erased the border of two countries, this new terrorist virus has also wiped out the comfortable idea of “the sidelines,” some safe vantage point from which to observe the conflict now under way, and the one to come. And ISIS has done it at the speed of a tweet or a video that shocks the world.

It’s obvious Kerry understands what’s at stake. In his Times op-ed he said he’d huddle with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and European officials, at the NATO summit at Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales, the better to “enlist the broadest possible assistance” in combating ISIS. And more: “Following the meeting [which starts on Thursday], Mr. Hagel and I plan to travel to the Middle East to develop more support for the coalition among the countries that are most directly threatened.”

Translation: All hands on deck. Now.

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By way of a recent chilling ISIS declaration.
Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, told Reuters on June 29 that no periphery exists — not even for al-Qaeda, whose brand and pattern of terrorism are comfortably predictable by comparison: “Whatever judgments are made in terms of its legitimacy, [the] announcement that it has restored the Caliphate is likely the most significant development in international jihadism since 9/11.



"The impact of this announcement will be global, as al-Qaeda affiliates and independent jihadist groups must now definitively choose to support and join the Islamic State or to oppose it.”

Because of ISIS, the sidelines will soon disappear for terrorists. The nations of the Middle East — and the rest of an enlightened world — can no longer cling to the fiction that the sidelines exist for them.

Image credits: ISIS fighter: via The Week. Kerry: State Department. Foley: From ISIS video.

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