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Jeremy Salt: Fighting Islamic State requires leader, yet nobody ready to take lead

13:14 | 13.03.2015 | Analytic

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13 March 2015. PenzaNews. The growing popularity of the Islamic State movement (IS) requires coordinated actions of several countries, but there is currently no leader ready to head the anti-terrorist operation and begin solving the urgent issues, concludes Jeremy Salt, associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Turkey, in his article “A Vacuum Waiting For A Leader” published in the foreign media.

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In his opinion, the Islamic State led by Aby Bakr al-Baghdadi owes its rise to the United States and Washington’s allies.

“They destroyed Iraq and Libya and they have gone a long way to destroying Syria, and they must be held responsible for the consequences of their actions, which include the rise of the Islamic State,” the author stresses.

Presently, he points out, the Islamic State controls a large part of Syria and Iraq almost to the limits of Baghdad.

“In Libya it has taken over Derna, Benghazi and Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s model city on the shores of the Mediterranean, which NATO (the US, Britain and France) air forces bombed relentlessly for months. From the beginning Gaddafi warned that the destruction of his government – the destruction of his country as it turned out – would benefit only Al Qaeda, and so it has turned out,” the political analyst writes.

At the same time, he notes that a number of politicians who helped the extremists gain ground still have not been held responsible for their actions.

“The politicians behind the destruction of Iraq – [Tony] Blair, [George] Bush, Colin Powell, [Donald] Rumsfeld and others – are still running around as if it had nothing do with them. George Bush plays golf and rides horses on his ranch at Crawford and Blair collects money for himself and his ‘Faith Foundation.’ Now we have the generation responsible for the destruction of Libya: [Barack] Obama, [Francois] Hollande, [Nikolas] Sarkozy and the kings, sheikhs and amirs of the Gulf States. The International Criminal Court, quick to prosecute Slobodan Milosevic and avid in its pursuit of African dictators and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of Muammar, merely for speaking against NATO’s ‘rebel’ proxies, averts its eyes when it comes to European and American politicians who trample on international law and start wars which end in the death or dispossession of millions of people (naturally the exemptions include Israel). Syria has brought about a slight change of cast: [Francois] Hollande instead of Sarkozy, Hague out of the picture, with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a pivotal role in the attack on that country,” the author stresses.

In his opinion, it is important not only to find out who turned much of the Middle East into “a rubbish dump,” but also who will be the first to start cleaning up the mess.

“No one wants to take it on and one has to wonder why. What is the truth of government attitudes towards the IS? Does its usefulness in the campaign against [Iran, Syria and Hizbullah] explain their ambivalence, and does their ambivalence explain why none of them seem interested in really confronting it?” asks the political analyst.

According to him, currently there has been almost no response from the international community, especially the European and Eastern countries, to the actions of the IS extremists.

“Only Italy is calling for a full-scale campaign, not against the IS as such but only against its Libyan province, because of the fear that it is about to descend on southern Europe. The shocking events of recent weeks – the immolation of the Jordanian pilot and the decapitation of 21 Coptic workers in Libya – jolted Jordanian and Egypt into a bout of retaliation which has now subsided,” Jeremy Salt points out.

Based on his explanation, the king of Jordan Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein and the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi do not want to go further in the issue, and neither do their Western allies. Meanwhile, as the researcher notes, the US President Barack Obama has secured support of the US Congress to send in ground forces, but the support is still open-ended, and Britain is trying to look like it is doing something by discussing potential political solutions.

“Many IS fighters have been killed in aerial attacks but only the tiniest fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims is needed to keep it up and running indefinitely. It is clear that aerial bombing is not going to do the job,” states the Bilkent University researcher, also noting that certain politicians are considering talks with the Islamic State.

“Could the IS be talked out of rounding up Christians, Kurds and anyone else who gets in its way and machine-gunning them to death, cutting their heads off or burning them alive? What if the US sends [Secretary of State] John Kerry to Mosul to talk to the caliph, in much the same way as Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich to negotiate with the baddest bad boy of the 1930s [Adolf Hitler]?” the author writes

In his opinion, such hopes are fruitless.

“By the time Chamberlain sat down to talk to Hitler it was much too late. Hitler could possibly have been stopped years before when he sent German troops into the Rhineland (just as the IS probably could have been stopped had there been an immediate response when it took over Al Raqqa or Mosul). He probably could have been stopped had Britain and France been willing to enter into a collective security pact with the Soviet Union. They were not, for the simple reason that they regarded Hitler as an asset in the struggle against communism and the growing power of the Soviet State. It was the respectful Herr Hitler then and not the mad carpet-chewing dictator of a few years later,” the historian recalls.

He also compares the Islamic State and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the leader of which rose to power after the Vietnam War and the American intervention. His rise was followed by a massive campaign to exterminate intellectuals and destruction of his own country.

“[Pol Pot’s] rise was not intended either but was the outcome of bungled policies. Now we have other wars and other apparently unintended or unforeseen consequences,” Jeremy Salt points out.

Continuing his search for reasons why a group of several countries are powerless before the Islamic State, he tries to once again see the situation through a different hypothesis, with numerous relevant questions to follow.

“Let’s assume for a moment – just for a moment – that the US and its western and regional Middle Eastern allies really are serious about dealing with the IS but simply can’t agree on a common course of action. For a moment let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. If force is not viable and negotiations are unpalatable in the first place and unlikely to succeed in the second, what other approaches might work? What about winning hearts and minds? Perhaps the IS can be undermined from below, by dealing with the impoverishment, unemployment and alienation that are assumed to be driving young people into its ranks,” Jeremy Salt asks.

In his opinion, such an approach is similar to the position of Samuel Huntington, influential political and social scientist and creator of the “clash of civilizations” theory.

“Huntington followed Bernard Lewis in arguing that nothing the West had done, not Palestine (the ‘licensed grievance’ according to Lewis) and not two centuries of invasion, occupation, death and destruction explained Muslim anger and resentment. Their emphasis is on good intentions and the delivery of good things, three-piece suits, Packard cars and democracy. According to this reading of history, Muslim and Arab anger and hatred is totally inexplicable outside some deeply rooted collective psychosis born of the inability of Arabs and Muslims to solve their own problems,” the researcher notes.

At the same time, Jeremy Salt points out, followers of this point of view are trying to avoid taking part in resolving the existing problems.

“In the Huntington-Lewis view, if Arabs and Muslims are angry because it is they have suffered defeat at the hands of a morally and materially superior civilization, or because they are unemployed or because they can’t adapt to modern ways of thinking. The list of reasons for explaining their inability to cope with ‘their’ problems is endless. This is a monstrous cop-out, of course, letting the collective West off the hook for the consequences of its own actions over the past two centuries,” he writes.

In the expert’s opinion, the West on the whole severely neglects the issue and subsequently underestimates the scale of the threat.

“It is true to say there is no point in simply dismissing them as a bunch of psychopaths. Many of them clearly are, unless people who cut the heads off other people are not to be described as psychopaths, but since when has being a psychopath been a barrier to success in business or politics, so why not in business and politics of a different kind?” questions the author.

In his opinion, the West and the media cannot realize that Islamic State’s popularity among the extremist youth is caused not by their poor social standing or unemployment, but rather their idealistic belief in the IS.

“In the Middle East, they look around and what do they see? Corrupt governments, bribed and suborned by the west; countries invaded and destroyed time after time by western armies; and tormented Palestine, the greatest blow to Muslim and Arab consciousness in history,” Jeremy Salt writes.

As he explains, this background serves as a justification for the extremists to use cruel means for the sake of the Islamic State’s mission – to purify the Middle East of all evils.

“At the hands of the West the region has experienced savagery packaged as ‘civilization’, and only a greater level of savagery can overcome it. This is the central idea that drives the IS. There can be no compassion, no forgiveness, no redemption outside the narrow confines of IS ideology and no acceptance of anything or anyone that cannot fit within the narrowest and most punitive interpretation of Islam,” the author explains.

At the same time, he thinks, it is exactly those reasons that will inevitably lead the Islamic State to its destruction.

“The Shia, Kurds and Christians will fight against this new order to the last drop of blood knowing that if they don’t their blood is going to be shed anyway. It will not work in the long run because while the Sunni mainstream can identify with the problem it cannot identify with the solution,” Jeremy Salt adds, also pointing out that enemies of the Islamic State currently have no definitive leader able to push the terrorists back.

In his opinion, neither Washington nor Tehran can act as full-fledged leaders in the anti-terrorism campaign: the US almost expended its potential in the region and is “playing its own game,” pursuing America’s interests in the region, and Iran is a Shia non-Arab state.

“And [Tehran] would be blocked from playing such a role by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia anyway,” thinks the Bilkent University researcher.

From his point of view, the other obvious candidates for leadership are Turkey and Egypt, since they are the most threatened by the spread of the Islamic State. However, neither Cairo nor Ankara show any will to head the freedom movement at the moment it needs a leader the most, even though Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have been promoting their country as the future leader of the Middle East for many years.

“[The Turks have] shied away from confronting the IS, refusing to commit itself to the Western-led campaign (such as it is) unless and until its western allies commit themselves to the simultaneous destruction of the Syrian government. As the US, the UN and European governments, changing tack, are acknowledging that Bashar al-Assad must be part of the solution, Turkey has a reason for never committing itself to their campaign,” suggests the political analysts.

At the same time, he points out that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, also does not risk meeting IS with aggression.

“Egypt has a large army but beyond the raids it has carried out on Libya and the suppression of takfiri action in Sinai it is showing no interest in going any further,” clarifies the expert.

From his point of view, it is impossible to consider a military and political union between the two countries, because the Turkish PM has provided refuge to the “Muslim Brotherhood” party banned under el-Sisi’s reign and still considers Mohamed Morsi to be the legitimate leader of Egypt.

This extraordinary chaos in the region provides great comfort to the Islamic State, Jeremy Salt thinks.

“The US is talking of a plan to retake Mosul by summer with a combined force of 25,000 Iraqi and [Kurdish] Peshmerga soldiers. It won’t work because the Kurds are not committed to defending an Arab city and because a far greater force would be needed to overwhelm IS just in Mosul. It has dug in and is preparing to defend itself,” the political analyst notes, adding that an army set for decisive action usually does not show its intentions ahead of time.

He also suggests that a military action against the IS will require simultaneous strikes at Mosul and Al Raqqa.

“Al Raqqa, in Syria, where Turkey also wants the Syrian government destroyed, where the US talks of a political situation even while preparing to train thousands of armed men beyond Syria’s borders to pour into the campaign to destroy Bashar al-Assad and his government. What would be the real target of US ground intervention in Syria, anyway, the IS or the Syrian government?” questions the author.

In his opinion, Ankara showed its true face during the evacuation and subsequent relocation of Suleyman Shah’s tomb in late February 2015.

“Turkey’s evacuation of the Shah Suleyman tomb in Syria and the removal of relics to a new site close to the predominantly Kurdish enclave of Kobane highlights the ambivalence in the Turkish attitude to the IS. Turkish commentators are concluding that this operation could not have been carried out without the cooperation of the Syrian Kurds and the IS. Video showed Turkish military vehicles including tank transporters passing along a road under a fluttering IS flag. Syria was not asked for its permission, naturally, but only informed of what the Turkish government intended to do,” Jeremy Salt writes.

At the same time, he points out, there are very few questions about the legality 1921 Franko-Turkish treaty that transferred some of the Syrian lands under Turkey’s control, or Ankara’s right to de-facto occupy a part of the neighboring country with the plans to erect a new tomb.

“The Turkish flag has already been planted on this new plot of land. What role it might play in the campaign to bring down the Syrian government remains to be seen. The national Turkish interest in the perpetuation of this destructive war is a question that is not even being asked,” Jeremy Salt notes, adding that both Syria and Turkey took serious economical and political damage in the conflict.

He also expresses his doubts that the success in Mosul and Al Raqqa will be enough to bring down the Islamic State.

“Even if IS in Iraq and Syria can be neutralized that still leaves Libya and a metastasizing movement across the Middle East,” thinks the Bilkent University researcher.

From his point of view, right now there is no one in the region would be able to decisively and impartially look for a solution to the current problem.

“Is there someone who can step forward – who is prepared to step forward – and take the lead in sorting out this confusing, hopeless, immoral and sordid mess and putting the interests of the Syrian people and the region at large ahead of their own? Apparently not,” Jeremy Salt states.

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