Prevailing over the Islamic State

What’s in a name?  That which we call ISIS by any other name would smell as foul.

It is puzzling that President Barack Obama has preferred the appellation "ISIL."  It does make a difference.  The variously named terrorist group began in 2003-4 as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), after the invasion of Iraq by the U.S.  Its original leader was killed in an air strike in 2006, and he was succeeded in 2010 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  A new name, ISIS, was adopted in April 2013, reflecting what was supposed to be the merger of AQI with the Syrian based al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front.  A break between the two groups took place a few months later.  

Translating Arab phrases into English has its pitfalls, but it is generally agreed that ISIS means the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Syria).  Most commentators used this definition.  However, President Obama on numerous occasions, especially his speech at West Point on June 19, 2014, has referred to the group as ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).  There is an obvious political reason why he prefers “the Levant” to “Syria.”

Obama’s use of the term “Levant” is surprising in view of its wide ramifications.  The word, used by English speakers to refer to the Eastern Mediterranean and nearby islands, is less used than it once was for referring to the politics and societies of Middle East systems.  Though precise definitions have varied, "Levant" usually implies an area from the border of south Turkey to Egypt, including Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian-controlled territories, and Cyprus.  The terrorists are concerned with this area.

Both ISIS and ISIL are less meaningful or irrelevant since in June 2014 the group’s name was changed to “the Islamic State” (IS).  This reflected its territorial conquests in Mosul, Tikrit, and other areas of northern Iraq.  At the moment, the Islamic State controls areas, about 12,000 square miles (the size of Belgium or the state of Maryland), in west Iraq and in north and east Syria.  About eight million Iraqis and Syrians live in areas it controls.  It is the richest terrorist organization in the world.  Its resources come from a variety of sources, including oil sales from the oil and gas fields it controls, criminal activities such as robbing banks, intimidating businesses or blackmail or racketeering, getting protection money from non-Muslim groups, genuine business transactions, and collecting ransoms for release of kidnapped or captured Westerners.  Its army numbers at least 10,000 militants.

All this and its belligerent formal statements make the Islamic State the greatest threat to peace in the world.  Its leader, al-Baghdadi, has made himself the Islamic caliph of the new entity.  There is no secret about the nature and intentions of the State.  It says that the sun of jihad has risen from Aleppo to Diyala.  Muslims must gather around the caliph so that they may return to what they once had been for ages, the kings of the earth and knights of war.

In ominous words, the world is informed that the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations will become null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops into their areas.  One can therefore expect that the caliphate will extend not only over the whole of the Middle East, but also to Spain.  With extravagant ambition, it may extend to the whole world.

Western countries and Middle East states have all now recognized that the Islamic State is a formidable, ruthless foe, with its universal ambitions and strong military force enhanced by its captured equipment such as U.S. Humvees and Russian T-55 tanks.  The Middle East states finally appreciate the problem.  For some time President Assad, wanting to defeat and eliminate the Free Syrian Army opposing him, did not challenge ISIS and even supported it to some extent.  Thus, Assad aided the growth and success of ISIS, which, in return, captured territory from the FSA and imposed its rule on the area.  Finally, the Assad regime is more willing to act against the major threat and has carried out a number of airstrikes against some of IS's headquarters.  Similarly, Arab states and wealthy Sunni individuals in the Gulf area have substantially reduced if not totally ended any funding to the IS.  That flow of money from the Arab states must be ended.  They know that their regimes are in danger from IS.

The Obama administration, if belatedly, understood the threat, and carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.  Yet Obama has been unwilling, so far, to carry out similar strikes against the ISIS positions in Syria.  Even if one does not see or admit that Iraq and Syria are failed states, no real border exists between them.  Politically, one can understand that for the United States, Syria is a more complex problem than is Iraq.  Nevertheless, the argument for striking Syria is as good as for striking Iraq.  Does Obama need congressional approval for action in Syria?  Though the legal position is not altogether clear, the U.S. Authorization Act of 2011, which authorizes funding for the defense of the U.S. and its interests abroad, would justify the decision of Obama and Congress to use military force there, as it has been used in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The United States perforce has to lead the fight against the Islamist threat.  It has to go beyond humanitarian relief operations and protecting the 1,200 U.S. personnel in Iraq.  It is almost certain to undertake more airstrikes against the IS command centers, supply lines, and bases, and strikes that will help the Iraqi forces.  One can envisage action by Special Operations Forces, training, intelligence, and giving military weapons to the Kurds, and to Syrians, both the Assad regime and some of his moderate opponents.

It appears that a coalition formed by the U.S. of at least nine countries is in formation to counter the IS threat.  It is disconcerting that no Arab state has yet joined that coalition.  Nor have the Sunni tribes in Iraq, some of which supported ISIS because of their resentment against the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, joined the coalition.

In all of his speeches, President Obama has made clear that U.S. action will not be unilateral.  Now, in spite of difficult political problems, the U.S. must help in forging alliances among improbable and sometimes formerly feuding associates, be they Arab Gulf States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kurds, and even Iran, and lead in the most urgent fight today – that of Islamist extremism.  It is not a simple task, but it is an essential one.

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