The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become a living nightmare for much of the Muslim and non-Muslim world. For the Muslim world at large, it has declared war on all and sundry who do not subscribe to their version of Islam, whatever that might be. This is why there is now growing panic among Arab kingdoms, like Saudi Arabia, that otherwise were supporting these and other militants of varying descriptions. The Shias, of course, are ISIS’s mortal enemies. The rest of the world would also, at some point, need to be subdued to the writ of the new caliphate. Of course, this will not happen soon; even the diehard among ISIS must recognise this. However, it is important to set a long-term goal of re-establishing the envisioned Islamic glory of the past. And, for that, it was important to declare an Islamic State with its own territory that would become the magnet for many Sunni Muslims from all over the world who feel disempowered and humiliated with western domination. This is already clear from the fact that a good number of ISIS’ hardened fighters are Muslims from foreign countries, feeling empowered with this new Mecca of the Islamic world.
In other words, even though IS is not as powerful as its leaders would make it out to be and is highly vulnerable, the act of its proclamation with its own territorial space stretched over large parts of Iraq and Syria, has created the image of a nest for all Muslims with a deep-rooted hatred of the west and their lackeys in the Arab world. Viewed against this backdrop, there is logic of sorts behind the declaration of the Islamic State. That would explain why it has, in a sense, supplanted al Qaeda as a driving force for disempowered Muslims. Interestingly, this has led al Qaeda to re-energise itself by retooling jihad in the subcontinent to include India, Bangladesh and Burma, while Pakistan and Afghanistan are already in different stages of that struggle. While al Qaeda created enough havoc, largely with its ideological inspiration, it lacked its own territorial space to draw many adherents. As a result, al Qaeda largely became an ideological brand name for local/regional jihadis in different parts of the world. ISIS wants to be a global phenomenon in its own right with its own territorial space, and take it from there.
Whether or not ISIS will make much headway regionally or globally is another matter. But it certainly has created alarm, particularly in the US, among some NATO countries, in Australia and among its Arab neighbours. The US is leading the charge against ISIS. The strategy to deal with it is three-fold. The first is to create an inclusive Iraqi government with the fair and effective representation of Sunni and Kurd communities. The removal of Nouri al Maliki as prime minister and his replacement by Haider al Abidi, who now heads the new government, is an attempt to create national consensus and mobilisation against the Islamic State militants. The US considers this as an important step. However, the two most important cabinet positions of internal affairs and defence have been left vacant to be filled at a later stage, suggesting serious differences. Therefore, as long as there is such persistent distrust, the idea of national consensus is a bit premature.
At the regional level, countries like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms that have been funnelling aid of all sorts, and through different channels, to Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria will have to seriously reconsider their options. The US is organising an Arab coalition for effective action against ISIS. This coalition of Arab countries will take appropriate action against ISIS, though the specifics of what that action might be are still not clear. These countries are coming to realise that the Islamic State is a serious danger to their political stability because, first, their espousal of the so-called caliphate would suggest a dominant political and religious centre with Baghdadi as the new caliph and, two, if Saudi Arabia were, for instance, to go on the offensive against ISIS in some form of collaboration with the US, it might create a serious domestic/regional backlash from the sort of extremist constituency that ISIS represents and Saudi Arabia has been nurturing. Saudi Arabia has generally encouraged Sunni militant orthodoxy and suddenly to turn against that when these militants of the ISIS brand feel empowered is not likely to go well with its sympathisers and adherents in the birthplace of orthodox Islam.
While the US is seeking to represent ISIS as an enemy of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and rally international and regional forces for a common cause, this has the potential at some point in time of appearing as an anti-Muslim crusade. By rallying Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, the US seeks the legitimacy of the Muslim world against this particular brand of Islamic militancy, learning lessons from former president Bush’s disastrous Iraq war that, at times, appeared like a global crusade against Islam. This time, the US is keen that any expanded military action should have a specific and narrow focus on ISIS and the authorisation of Iraq’s new, supposedly inclusive government. The whole idea is to make it legitimate at the national, regional and international levels to the extent possible. At home in the US, opinion polls suggest overwhelming support for action, short of, it would seem, combat troops. At the national level in Iraq, Sunnis and Kurds are not satisfied with the composition of the new Shia-dominated government that looks more like old wine in new bottles. The inclusivity argument is, therefore, a bit of a stretch. As for broad regional support, it is likely to vary with the success or otherwise of the US-led project against IS.
One might ask: what exactly is the objective of the US-led coalition? President Obama has said, “Our objective is clear, and that is to destroy ISIS so it is no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also the region and to the US.” Apparently, this is the optimum goal that has no time limit. A more modest goal, as Obama said at another time, is that a coalition force led by the US might “continue to shrink ISIS’ sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities, where it is a manageable problem.” And that seems to be the guiding principle behind the international and regional coalition that was broadly laid out in his recent speech to the nation. There is, of course, a lot of confusion about dealing with IS. While Obama has ruled out putting combat troops on the ground, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is of the view that air strikes alone will not do the job.