The Islamic State (IS), which has morphed from ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which in turn morphed from al-Qaeda, is a dangerous and worrisome phenomenon, with the potential of changing the political and geographical map of West Asia. The entire international community, not just America and the West, ought to be concerned and join forces to combat this menace.
Much of the world, including many in India, ascribes most of the ills afflicting the region of West Asia today to the United States. There is justification for this belief to some extent. In particular, it can be asserted, with reasonable objectivity, that the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration on the most egregious excuse of non-existent weapons of mass destruction is largely responsible for the chaotic and explosive situation in West Asia. That single misadventure cost America more than 4,500 lives and $1 trillion, but the cost being borne by the region and its people, as well as by people beyond the region, is incalculable in terms of instability, growth of terrorism and the sectarian strife that it ignited.
The motivation of the Bush administration was a mix of oil and Israeli pressure. It deflected attention and resources from what was then a winnable war on al-Qaeda. But that is all history. There is also the gross mishandling of the Syrian situation by the West, which has made possible the emergence of phenomena such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the IS. However, now is not the time to apportion blame or responsibility; there will be time enough for that. Hillary Clinton, who has already launched her presidential campaign in anticipation of the Democratic Party’s nomination, has openly criticised her former boss, President Barack Obama, for lack of firmness in dealing with the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The priority ought to be to collectively deliberate on how to confront the present and clear danger posed by the IS.
The IS is a bigger threat than its progenitor, al-Qaeda. It has by far more funds than al-Qaeda; indeed, it is the richest terrorist organisation in the world. It has modern weaponry, including tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, looted from the Iraqi army that was equipped by the Americans, as well as from the Assad regime. It has a force of more than 10,000 fighters capable of waging set-piece battles.
It is tech savvy and uses social media most effectively, not only in Arabic but also in several European and Asian languages. It collects taxes and imposes its brand of law and order. It calls itself a Khilafat or caliphate, and its CEO calls himself the Amir; he is both the secular and religious leader. The IS has the ideology that appeals to Muslim youth across the world. All in all, the IS is a deadly entity and should be treated as such. The geographical map of the region has already changed and will change further. The boundary between Iraq and Syria has been obliterated for all practical purposes, with IS fighters operating freely on both sides. Indeed, the capital of this Islamic state is in Raqqa in Syria. It has also captured at least one village in Lebanon. It will no doubt manage to add to the instability in Jordan. If Jordan gets infected, can Saudi Arabia remain immune for long? The Kurds, who have been denied their own independent state since the end of World War I, might be a big beneficiary and may finally get an internationally recognised country of their own. Iraq will remain fragmented in three distinct regions. This is a new kind of domino, except that it is more likely to succeed than the domino theory touted by the US in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was trying to justify its war in Vietnam.
It is possible and even probable, that the IS will be weakened and eventually destroyed by its internal contradictions, rivalries and intrigues, but we should not count on it and it will in any case take a while. In the meantime, it would be worthwhile for the global community to help the IS along that route. At the moment, it is only America, with token help from some of its Western allies, which is leading the campaign against the IS. Its motives for doing so are not relevant for the main goal. It is true that Washington became concerned when the Christian minority of Iraq and its personnel were threatened. Another reason could be oil. Yet another factor is protection of the Kurds and Kurdistan, which America regards as a trusted ally. The US itself claims to be motivated by humanitarian considerations. It would be uncharitable to be utterly cynical about this claim, but it is probably only one of the reasons for the military strikes against the IS. The US regards the threat posed by the IS serious enough to implicitly welcome assistance from Iran — the country regarded by Israel as its enemy — in the common struggle against these terrorists, and is actively considering collaborating, albeit indirectly, with another unsavoury character, President Assad of Syria.
It would not be prudent for us in India to assume that the IS is far removed from India and that we need not be concerned. In this globalised world, terrorists are the most connected force. Already there are reports that the IS websites carry exhortative material in Urdu, Tamil and other Indian languages.
The impact of such propaganda must not be underestimated. Though the Muslim community is well integrated into the mainstream, we are still communally a fragile society, as evidenced by some recent events. There will certainly not be a largescale participation by our Muslim youth, but even half a dozen converts to the IS ideology will be dangerous. The government in Delhi must be alive to this danger, but society as a whole needs to be alerted and encouraged to recognise and help in combating the menace. The Hindutva camp has a point when it says that “secularism” has been used or misused in the past for electoral purposes. Nevertheless, it is in the country’s vital interest not to let politics make us deviate from issues of national security and to ensure that nothing be done to sow further divisions among communities.
At the global level, there is nothing that India can do to fight the IS terrorists. We cannot and must not join the armed battle. But we can and should condemn the phenomenon. We can offer political support to the campaign waged by the Americans against the IS. If there is an opportunity, we should support a resolution at the UN Security Council, which might condemn the atrocities committed by the IS and call upon member states to do whatever is in their power to contain the threat. This is one of those occasions when national interest and moral and humanitarian principles converge.
The writer, India’s former permanent representative at the UN, is adjunct senior fellow, Delhi Policy Group.
Views are personal