Sat, Jul 09, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Why IS persists despite having only tiny forces

By Jeffrey Sachs

Deadly terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad demonstrate the murderous reach of the Islamic State (IS) group in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. The longer the IS maintains its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the longer its terrorist network will create such carnage. Yet the IS is not especially difficult to defeat. The problem is that none of the states involved in Iraq and Syria, including the US and its allies, has so far treated the IS as its primary foe. It is time they do.

The IS has a small fighting force, which the US puts at 20,000 to 25,000 in Iraq and Syria, and another 5,000 or so in Libya. Compared with the number of active military personnel in Syria (125,000), Iraq (271,500), Saudi Arabia (233,500), Turkey (510,600) or Iran (523,000), the IS is minuscule.

Despite US President Barack Obama’s pledge in September 2014 to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel (behind the scenes), have been focusing instead on toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Consider a recent candid statement by Israeli Major General Herzi Halevy (quoted to me by a journalist who attended the speech where Halevy made it): “Israel does not want to see the situation in Syria end with [the IS] defeated, the superpowers gone from the region and [Israel] left with a Hezbollah and Iran that have greater capabilities.”

Israel opposes the IS, but Israel’s greater concern is al-Assad’s Iranian backing. Al-Assad enables Iran to support two paramilitary foes of Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel therefore prioritizes the removal of al-Assad over the defeat of the IS.

For the US, steered by neoconservatives, the war in Syria is a continuation of the plan for global US hegemony launched by former US secretary of defense Richard Cheney and former undersecretary of defense for policy Paul Wolfowitz at the Cold War’s end.

In 1991, Wolfowitz told US General Wesley Clark: “But one thing we did learn [from the Persian Gulf War] is that we can use our military in the region — in the Middle East — and the Soviets won’t stop us. And we’ve got about five or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet regimes — Syria, Iran, Iraq — before the next great superpower comes on to challenge us.”

The multiple US wars in the Middle East — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and others — have sought to remove the Soviet Union, and then Russia, from the scene and to give the US hegemonic sway. These efforts have failed miserably.

For Saudi Arabia, as for Israel, the main goal is to oust al-Assad to weaken Iran. Syria is part of the extensive proxy war between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia that plays out in the battlefields of Syria and Yemen and in bitter Shiite-Sunni confrontations in Bahrain and other divided countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia itself.

For Turkey, the overthrow of al-Assad would bolster its regional standing. Yet Turkey now faces three foes on its southern border: al-Assad, the IS and nationalist Kurds. The IS has so far taken a back seat to Turkey’s concerns about al-Assad and the Kurds. However, IS-directed terrorist attacks in Turkey might be changing that.

Russia and Iran, too, have pursued their own regional interests, including through proxy wars and support for paramilitary operations. Yet both have signaled their readiness to cooperate with the US to defeat the IS and perhaps to solve other problems as well. The US has so far spurned these offers, because of its focus on toppling al-Assad.

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