The affair of the Islamic State is a threat against world peace and security. But now it will have a multilateral military response. Pope Francis’s grieving call to action seems to have finally been heard.
A coalition of nations lead by the United States has decided to face it. The coalition understands that it cannot remain unmoved in the face of the violation of Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity, nor in the face of the aforementioned group’s inhuman brutality, which believes that it speaks on behalf of a God that supposedly preaches violence; and that, additionally, acts with a mix of dogmatism, ancestral hates, intolerance and terror as its tool. Because of all this, the Islamic State has generated repulsion.
Ten countries make up the core body of the new coalition: the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark, Poland, Turkey, Australia and Canada. All of them, except for Australia, are members of NATO. Each will act within its own capabilities, fulfilling the role assigned to it —with an aggressive approach, but without having to deploy massive amounts of troops.
However, the United States has decided to send 475 more military personnel to Iraq, where they will join with the 1000 men and women operating in that country. Australia, accompanying the U.S., will contribute 200 commandos. The members of the coalition will not just act on the military level. They will also coordinate the efforts of their intelligence institutions.
The coalition will act by coordinating its action with that of other nations. For the time being, it will act with the Kurdish forces—the “peshmerga,” troops from the government and the Iraqi militias and the “Syrian Sunnis”—the moderate insurgents. The efforts of another 10 nations from the region, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan, among others, will be added to them. France is already carrying out reconnaissance flights. Various countries have offered to cooperate with the military planes in bombardments against Islamic State targets in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates could be the first to act in those missions.
The members of the coalition will not just act on the military level. They will also coordinate the efforts of their intelligence institutions. They will identify and cut off the flow of funding which supports the Islamic State and strive to detain those who, additionally, are trying to join the “jihadi” militias.
This means that the United States is, once again, “at war” against Islamic radicalism, against important allies. Yesterday the enemy was al-Qaida. Today it is the Islamic State. This was confirmed by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, leaving no room for doubt. Secretary of State John Kerry is rather less dramatic when referring to the conflict, which he describes as a “major counterterrorism operation.” Beyond whether the difference of definitions is or isn’t trivial, what is certain is that U.S. airplanes and “drones” have been acting against the Islamic State forces for a number of weeks, having carried out more than 150 different missions in Iraq, and are becoming available to operate against the same enemy in Syria.
In some way, other foreseen actions have also begun—concerning stopping the flow of volunteers which aims to swell the Islamic State’s forces, for instance. It is estimated that they include citizens originating from 74 different countries. Within that true kaleidoscope of humanity, the vast majority of volunteers hail from Muslim countries, particularly Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The Tunisian contingent, specifically, has around 2,400 guerrillas. But there are also young radicals with them, originally from other locations: British, Belgians, Chinese, Russians and even Americans. The main way into Syria is through Turkey, a country which supports a part of the insurgency, and that has a long—and porous—border with that nation. But it has already stopped some 92,000 people at those border passes who, it was suspected, were trying to join the Islamic State. The Saudis, for their part, have made it a crime for their citizens to be in an armed militia that operates abroad.
On the financial front, all eyes are fixed on Qatar, a country which, until now, has been lax. Apparently, Qatar has toughened its stance, as is evident from its recent request that the seven leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood leave Qatar’s territory, among them Mahmoud Hussein himself, their secretary general. The United Nations Security Council, let us recall, has prohibited financial aid to organizations on a list of those considered “terrorists,” including al-Qaida and the al-Nusra Front—part of the Islamic State.
Different states exchange lists of people with other states which claim to not allow travel, at least on commercial flights, to a network of suspects.
Iran’s situation facing the conflict is a reason for particular concern. For the moment, the United States considers it “inappropriate” to include that country in the action coordinated by the coalition. France, on the other hand, has left the possibility open. The truth is, in the face of a common enemy, a way of coordinating with Iran in some circumstances will have to be found — including the forces of Assad, who could have found a new political “lifejacket.”
Furthermore, it so happens that Iran is one of the main global exporters of terrorism. Additionally, it is in the middle of talks with the international community regarding its dangerous nuclear program, having recently refused to supply information to the International Atomic Energy Agency considered essential for reaching an agreement before next November 24’s deadline.
Iran, it’s worth pointing out, also has had its own troops fighting for months on Syrian soil, shoulder to shoulder with those of President Bashar al-Assad. I’m referring to the so-called Quds forces, which, when added to those from Hezbollah, an armed Shiite-Lebanese branch which answers to Tehran, have been vital for the Assad regime’s survival. Syria’s Vice Chancellor Faisal Mekdad has said that Syria, “has no reserves of any kind” in regard to the American missions, and the airspace of its country, provided that it moves against targets of the Islamic State.
The turbulence brought about by the Islamic State’s appearance in the Middle East has created a sudden convergence of interests between nations which previously had been confronting one another, but which today share the priority of opposing a common enemy.
Because of this, there are dramatic shifts in position. For example, when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, among its bitterest enemies were the three Shiite militias coordinated by Iranian general Qassim Suleimani, who they drove mad with explosives attacks. Those same militias, however, just acted against the Islamic State with U.S. military air cover.
Even Saudi Arabia and Iran, irreconcilable enemies concerning religion, which compete—in factions and in the open—for regional leadership, have put their sectarian rivalries aside and begun to coordinate actions against their mutual current enemy.
Syria is probably the most potentially explosive country in the region, not just for its strategic alliance with the increasingly isolated Russian Federation, but because it is the birthplace of the Islamic State. Also because it still is not easy for the international community to support—and trust—any of the local insurgent movements, unlike in Iraq, where the “Peshmerga” are the first option, and the government’s regular forces from Baghdad the second.
Turkey, which has always been an essential actor, has, in turn, limitations that are difficult to ignore because they inform its actions. First is the fact that the Islamic State militia has taken 49 Turkish diplomatic officials hostage. It succeeded in occupying the city of Mosul, where the hostages carried out its orders. Second is the armed branch of the Workers Party, the Kurdish separatist movement designated PKK, which previously had operated clandestinely in Turkey, and now fights in Iraq, at the hand of the Peshmerga.
The danger that the Islamic State is generating has shaken the international scene, and has inspired a hiatus in previous conflicts and tensions. It so happens that the moderate “Sunnis” and “Shiites” today have before them a very dangerous enemy. For this reason, everything is being re-evaluated in light of that new reality.
The fight against radical Sunni fundamentalism—that of the Islamic State—began in Iraq and Syria. But the scenario that is unfolding, as the current Egyptian government maintains, is much more extensive, since the infection to be fought against also has roots in Libya, in Maghreb and in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram just announced the formation of another “Caliphate.”
To this must be added the fact that U.S. public opinion—wounded by the Islamic State’s decapitations—has suddenly changed and now supports President Barack Obama who, aware that the Islamic State is a threat not limited to the Middle East, has finally decided to act. This suggests, among other things, a return to Iraq, a nightmare that Americans had believed they had left behind.
It remains to be seen whether part of the international community has overcome its indifference regarding the Islamic State and has decided to transform into forward movement what now appears to have been a kind of paralysis.
To complete the analysis, it is worth stating that Russia is sidelined these days, outside of any dialogue and merely making threats, effectively isolated due to its intervention in Ukraine. But they have an internal problem, in Chechnya and Dagestan. China, for its part, is tepidly supporting the international community, while at the same time recalling the need to respect the sovereignty of each state. Latin America, for now, is absent. It is as if it were apart from what has been described — moreover, as if its corner of the world were not connected to the rest of the planet, despite the bloody terrorist attacks committed in Buenos Aires being a sad reminder of the threat that certainly has not disappeared. The international community’s war on terror has just begun its new phase, long and complex.