|A public execution in the town of Keferghan, Syria|
Last week, President Barack Obama commended the United States’ role in “stopping ISIL’s advance” in his State of the Union address. Obama’s remarks were praised for taking a tough stand on terror — but the ground situation is not reassuring. Only a week earlier 13 teenage boys were executed by a firing squad of ISIS or Islamic State. Their crime — they watched an Asia Cup football match between Iraq and Jordan.
Since it captured Mosul in June the terror group has been rolling out its ‘caliphate’ in parts of Iraq and Syria and in the process is recreating macabre medieval punishments that include beheadings, mutilations, throwing people off rooftops, lashing, stoning to death, etc. A coalition of nations, under the US, is engaged in a limited offensive against ISIS, but the Sunni terror group is advancing — and more and more minorities, like the Shias and Yazidis, are fleeing or being persecuted.
ISIS is meanwhile attracting people from Indonesia to Australia and from Malaysia to Europe. Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, recently warned the EU that there were more than 5,000 Europeans fighting in Syria and the threat of them returning was growing. ISIS operatives have been caught even in India.
The question Obama and his coalition against ISIS need to answer is: How long will it take to check ISIS? British foreign secretary Philip Hammond feels that it’ll take at least two years to prepare and equip the Iraqi forces to fight back against ISIS. Two years is a lot of time, especially considering the brutality the group has unleashed in the past six months. The longer it takes to “degrade and ultimately destroy” (in Obama’s words) ISIS, the more horror we will witness. The delay will also force more countries to be pulled into the war against ISIS — the latest being Japan.
An equally, if not more, important question is: What’s the plan once ISIS is defeated? The US went into Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein in the hope of ‘democratising’ Iraq. That was hardly a real plan and in many ways it led to the present crisis in Iraq.
The post-ISIS challenge will be to keep Iraq united. The Nouri al-Maliki government came to power after Hussein did little to address the concerns of the minority Kurds and Sunni tribes. The current Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has promised to be inclusive, but the minorities have not taken his word for it. The West must not lose sight of the Iraqi integration agenda while it combats ISIS militarily.
Turkey plays a key role in all of this. The US has to convince Ankara that arming the Kurds will not be detrimental to its interests; reassure the Sunnis that a government headed by a Shia will not be Tehran’s puppet; and bring back the other minorities who have fled the country.
The coalition of nations under Obama, which met on Thursday in London, will have to prepare for the long haul — this is essential for Iraq’s long-term stability.
(This appeared in Hindustan Times on January 26)