Summit meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government, opening in Wales on the 4th of September is likely to be the platform to shape an international response to Islamic State (ISIS). Over the next three days, leading NATO powers, including Turkey will be discussing options for dealing with the threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria as well as on their home soil.
The United States and Britain will be leading the efforts to come up with a viable and coordinated action plan. With two American citizens already beheaded, and a British aid-worker threatened with the same fate by ISIS, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are under increasing pressure to come up with a coherent strategy.
President’s Obama’s reluctance to get involved in Iraq and Syria inevitably limits the range of military options. Last year, the British Parliament voted against an intervention in Syria. This, too, makes Mr Cameron’s options limited. Nato also has formally ruled out an involvement in Iraq and Syria.
There is now a growing consensus that the most effective approach will be to create a coalition of the countries from the region to tackle ISIS. The most obvious members of such an alliance would be Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the Kurdish forces both in Iraq and Syria.
Some commentators believe that in order to defeat ISIS, it is necessary to encourage Sunnis to revolt against the jihadis.
Ambassador Dennis Ross who served as a special assistant to President Obama from 2009 to 2011 wrote for the Washington Institute that the region’s leading Sunni powers, the Saudis, Emiratis, Jordanians and Turks must all play a role.
Others think that the coalition must not be confined to Sunni powers but the alliance must include Iran and Syria, too.
With a UN commission of inquiry report on Syria this week making clear that both the Syrian government and ISIS have been committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, it is not easy to swallow the option of building bridges with the Assad regime even if ISIS is perceived to be greater threat.
In a well-argued article published this week in the New York Times, Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) reject what they call a binary choice of either jumping into bed with Mr Assad to defeat ISIS or double down on the half-hearted policy of building a strong Sunni opposition. Arguing that any successful containment of ISIS will require the support of Assad’s military and the Syrian Kurds, Barnes-Dacey and Levy call for the creation of an anti-ISIS front which may also open the way for a power-sharing agreement in Syria. They also invite western leaders to adopt a more nuanced Syria policy “including working with Iran and encouraging the nascent Saudi-Iranian opening”.
The US has already made its intention clear to try to persuade some of the regional powers to become actively involved against ISIS. Mr Obama is sending his three top officials, the Secretary of State John Kerry, the US secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and his counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco to the Middle East “to build a stronger regional partnership” against ISIS.
One of the first countries to be pulled back into line would be Turkey. Coming under strong criticism for turning a blind eye to ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist across its borders, Turkey has already become one of the first victims of the radical Islamist violence in Iraq and Syria. With 49 of its citizens kept hostage by the militants, Turkey is reluctant to come out publicly against ISIS. However, in recent weeks, it has taken steps to control its borders better and clamp-down on jihadists moving freely inside Turkey.
Turkey will be one of the first stops in Chuck Hagel’s trip to the Middle East to discuss a coordinated effort against ISIS. Whether President Erdogan and his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu could also be persuaded to adopt a more nuanced stand and to reconsider their policy of aiming to topple Assad regime in Syria is altogether another matter.
The US and the UK also need to find an effective way of getting chief financiers of Islamic extremism, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to toe the line.
It is difficult to see Saudi Arabia at the forefront of the fight against head-chopping militants of ISIS. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia has beheaded at least 19 people this month alone.
Saudi Arabia has been sponsoring Sunni extremism not only in Iraq and Syria but all around the world for decades. Besides, ISIS is not the only violent Islamist movement the civilized world should be worried about. Boko Haram in Nigeria and The Shabab in Somalia will need to be tackled, too.
The US Vice President Joe Biden says that they will follow ISIS militants to the gates of hell. He may well find some of the gate-keepers along the way will look disturbingly familiar.
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