When I took my first management course, we called companies or businesses that have to keep moving to stay alive ‘bicycle’ organisations. They have to be in continual motion not just for the sake of growth, but for sheer survival. Stop pedalling and everyone will simply fall off. I believe that the so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, is like this. Without momentum it will lose its key attraction. Without movement it will, if not die, certainly shrink and, with luck, lose its appeal to our young men and women.
We were right to degrade IS’s capabilities from the air and to arm its natural enemies, such as the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Our efforts forced IS to lose towns in both Iraq and Syria, but the dangerous and clever men who run IS knew they had to keep moving and keep the images of their vehicles storming into new territory with their black flags flying. They capitalised on the Iraqi Army’s lack of leadership, balance and motivation and retook the Sunni heartland’s capital, Ramadi. They then saw the empty desert between them and Palmyra and crashed mercilessly into that ancient city, once again making a mockery of international borders.
Thus, we must deny IS their momentum, and ‘we’ means ‘us,’ for this is our war in a way in which Iraq never was. This matters to both the USA and to Europe, not only due to the overt threat of returning jihadists carrying violence back to their home countries, but now because of the flood of refugees risking the seas from Libya, Syria and elsewhere, however flimsy their boats might be. The high number of refugees raises the threat of not all of them wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families. Some, like the occupants of the Trojan Horse, want to wreak havoc wherever they land. The threat of dangerous militants posing as refugees in order to cross borders is a credible concern.
So, this matters to a curiously disengaged USA and a Europe, as ever, divided among itself as to what can, should, or will be done. This is our war, but still one we must not fight on the ground if we are not to repeat the lessons of the hubristic invasion of Iraq and the ill-conceived toppling of Colonel Qaddafi in Libya. The Middle East, as The Economist said on June 5th, is in turmoil, largely following our actions. Tunisia may be going well, but Egypt is going back to the future after the disastrous Mohammad Mursi government; Saudi Arabia’s new ailing king is more concerned about the succession and is embroiled in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, which, like Libya is in the throes of civil war. Lebanese and Jordanian societies are becoming overwhelmed by incredible, unabsorbable numbers of refugees and Iraq and Syria are breaking apart into their Ottoman Empire components. There is danger and uncertainty everywhere, and this goes without even mentioning the situation in Afghanistan.
President Obama seems disengaged, perhaps deliberately so, reflecting the mood of his fellow citizens against more overseas wars. Ever since he failed to respond to the Assad regime crossing his 2012 ‘red line’ with 1,000 deaths from nerve gas in August 2013, Obama has stood back and done little. I still believe he and we were right not to intervene in Syria after this appalling breach of humanity’s norms. It is easy now to look back and say we should have armed the ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels. It was harder to see them in 2013, and we would surely have ended up arming non-moderates – even those who became adherents of IS. No fly zones were the best and only option we had, but we chose not to do that.
The critics say that Obama has become fixated on the nuclear deal with Iran and does not want anything to jeopardise it. If it works, it will be an important achievement. However, it should have been combined with more forcefulness, or even just forceful rhetoric, about other regional issues. Iran thinks it has a free hand in Iraq, where the irony of the modern world places the US, Europe and Iran on the same side, in the short term at least. This is also true to a large extent in Yemen, where it is difficult to see any good outcome for the majority of the hapless Yemenis. Certainly in Iraq, the government of Al-Abadi seems as dependent on Iran from the military point of view as the previous government of Al-Maliki became from the political point of view. Yet another consequence of Obama’s putative inaction is the worsening relations with the United States’ closest regional ally, Israel.
But if it all does matter, the United States’ growing energy self-sufficiency notwithstanding, where should the United States go from here?
We must stop IS’s momentum with continued degradation of its capability through air strikes. We must continue to arm those we trust and train those we trust more. While it is hard to see the Sunni monarchies combining on the ground with Al Abadi’s Shia’a government and army, especially now that it is almost led by Iranian commanders, we must press for regional military action. IS’s brand of Sunni extremism threatens even the Sunni fundamentalist state of Saudi Arabia, as we have seen by the attacks on Shia’a targets in the oil rich Eastern Province. The reaction of the government in Riyadh has been unimpressive, as they are undoubtedly too concerned with Yemen. These states must be encouraged to aid Al-Abadi’s government in return for the greater inclusivity in Iraq which he promised, even if that aid does not extend to Gulf Sunni troops fighting alongside Iraq and Iranian Shia’a.
If we can find a moderate opposition in Syria, and I am not sure how we do that, then we should support it before another Iranian military support effort succeeds in stiffening the pro-Assad army. We should ease our distaste at the anti-democratic government in Cairo and begin to improve relations with it. Egypt is still the pivotal country in the region in terms of size, military capability, Islamic tradition and cultural influence.
Finally, Obama would do well to grit his teeth and improve relations with Israel, rather than leave this as the first Middle East policy initiative of whoever his successor will be. Israel, under Netanyahu, does itself no favours by sticking to its linear model of its ‘enemies’ and by refusing to see the difference between capability, threat, intention and effectiveness in the complex, nonlinear, mosaic that the Middle East has become. Despite all this, Israel is a strong, traditional ally and deserves to be defended, encouraged and cajoled.
These are not startling insights, and they echo the recommendations from the Washington Institute for Near East policy, but I do believe they represent the only viable way forward, a way to kill the momentum of IS and others. For if we do not, the lesson surely is that things will only get worse in terms of the threat to our well- being, security and prosperity. We had little time a year ago, and we have even less now.