Friday, November 20, 2015

Olivier Roy on Why the Impulse to "Crush" ISIS Should be Resisted

A few days ago, Jim Schutze, directed us to a NYT op-ed by Olivier Roy. Roy is a Mid-East scholar and a professor at the European University Institute in Florence. "This is must reading for anybody who thinks there is any simple or obvious path forward on ISIS," said Jim.  So I did, and here is a summary of what Roy has to say:

Until now, says Roy, France has been in the lead in treating ISIS as a great strategic threat in the world. All of a sudden, in the wake of the Paris attacks, France has company.  There is a lot of noise from various quarters that we should consider ISIS a world strategic threat that merits a ground invasion. Obama, by contrast, has said that ISIS is being degraded and a ground invasion would be a mistake.

Roy says Obama is not alone in not seeing ISIS as a global strategic threat. In fact, ISIS's neighbors don't consider ISIS to be a strategic threat for the Middle East.

Assad: He views not ISIS, but the other opposition to the Assad regime as his main threat. Russia is now assisting Assad in his fight against that opposition (the opposition that the U.S. supports); so are Iran and Hezbollah. If this non-ISIS opposition can be eliminated, "That would allow [Assad] to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people." Assad doesn't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Turkish Government: They see not ISIS as their main strategic threat, but rather a greater Kurdistan that would occupy eastern portions of Turkey. "[A] victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey." Turkey doesn't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

The Kurds: Their priority is to defend their new found borders, not to crush ISIS. "They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands." The Kurds are opposed to a strong central government in Baghdad, which might curb their new found de facto independence. The existence of ISIS prevents the formation of a strong central government in Baghdad. The Kurds don't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Iraqi Shiites: Despite American pressure, they are not keen to die to re-take Fallujah (in the Sunni area northwest of Baghdad. "They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it." Iraqi Shiites don't necessarily need to have ISIS gone now.

Saudi Arabia: They support ISIS; they oppose Iran: "the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran." The Saudis don't necessarily want ISIS gone now.

Iran: Iran wants to "contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it." The existence of ISIS "prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein." Iran doesn't really want ISIS gone now.

Israel: They "can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause." Israel doesn't need to have ISIS gone now.

"In short," says Roy, "no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS."

ISIS: And ISIS has reached the limits of its ability to expand. They are not in fact a growing strategic threat. They are not a state in any regular sense. It claims no specific territory or boundaries. There are no more areas for them to expand into because they are bounded by the Alawite state, supported by Russian and Iran to the West, by the Kurds to the North, Shiite Iraq to the East. And to the south, "neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS."

ISIS is turning to terror (e.g. the Russian airliner in Sinai; Beirut; and Paris) precicesly because it is stalled. That's what Obama has said. But by turning to terror, it is causing the world, including Muslims in Europe, to be revulsed and turn away from it. In short, implies Roy, ISIS is not a world, strategic threat. Obama seems to be correct in his judgment.
The trouble is ISIS is not likely to disappear in the near future. A coordinated effort by regional forces seems unlikely, given the different interests outlined above. A NATO lead troop invasion is unlikely because such an effort would be "likely to get mired down in endless local conflicts." [Indeed, why should anyone expect the aftermath of such an invasion to be more successful than Iraq??]

It looks like Obama, and Hillary Clinton are on the right track. Obama has been saying, essentially what Roy says--i.e. that sending troops will mire us in endless local conflicts and not bring solution.
Here is the text to Clinton's speech, yesterday (November 19, 2015). She is more hawkish than Obama in supporting a no-fly zone over Northern Syria, but otherwise cautious. See THIS NYT editorial.

As usual, in this part of the world, Roger Cohen is beating the war drums. He gives no hint that he has thought about or understands the subtleties discussed by Roy. He gives no basis for assurance that a ground invasion to "crush ISIS" ("with overwhelming force" as Jeb Bush suggests) would not draw us into endless local conflict. He provides no reason for confidence that it would reduce the threat of terrorism in the U.S. or Europe.

Interestingly, David Brooks is on board with Hillary. 

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