War-weary West Will Have to Fight ISIS Eventually, Says Israeli Report

First comprehensive study in Hebrew into Islamic State says Sunni group could wield more influence over Israeli Arabs and Palestinians if it takes land closer to Israel’s borders.

Two armed Belgian soldiers walking on patrol past a father and daughter, at a shopping center near Vervier, Belgium, on November 25, 2015.
AFP

Islamic State’s onslaught in Paris two weeks ago is emerging as a turning point in Europe’s stance on terror and the Syrian civil war. European leaders have begun seriously considering amending the Schengen Agreement – which was implemented following the fall of the Soviet bloc and guarantees open borders in Europe. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who visited Israel last week and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is interested in closing his country’s border with Turkey, in an attempt to stem the flow of Syrian refugees. It’s possible he’s seeking to learn from Israel’s experience in building a fence along the southern border with Egypt.

Even avowedly liberal nations like Sweden and Norway have announced that they’re reconsidering their refugee policies. In the meantime, it’s becoming clear that ISIS’ plans were even more ambitious than initially thought. French security personnel announced that they killed the mastermind of the Paris attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, during a police raid on November 18. And it seems his plans included additional attacks in Belgium and Germany, with one target being a soccer match in Hanover. Brussels, which is home to NATO and the European Union headquarters, has been on partial lockdown for nearly a week, with security forces still hunting for a terror cell of the group believed to be operating in Belgium.

Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) will publish new research on ISIS next week. This will be the first comprehensive analysis in Hebrew of this new terror phenomenon, which only garnered worldwide attention after its takeover of Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014.

The research files will include a long series of articles analyzing Islamic State from various angles – from its founding and background to its rift with Al-Qaida’s leadership, as well as its ideology and the legal and military challenges in successfully combating the organization. Research will also include information about ISIS’ effective use of social media for recruiting, as well the ways in which its rise has affected Israel and the occupied territories.

The editors, Yoram Schweitzer and Omer Einav, claim in their conclusion that the label “terrorist organization” does not cover the scope of ISIS’ operations, and that it is more accurate to call it by its self-declared name, Islamic State, as this more appropriately reflects the organization’s goals and visions – one of which was achieved by conquering a large swath of land in northern Iraq and Syria and declaring an Islamic caliphate. The organization, they write, employs a strategy of direct confrontation with all other forces operating in the area, including Shi’ites, Sunnis that do not accept Salafi Islam, and, of course, all other religions.

Islamic State completely ignores all international law on warfare or the treatment of prisoners, women and children. ISIS, they add, continues to try to take over territory in failing, unstable countries like Yemen and Libya, while sending groups to Africa and the Caucasus region. Meanwhile, ISIS continues cultivating an image “as a successful, even unstoppable force.”

Schweitzer and Einav believe that ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, will be assassinated sooner or later, as there have already been a number of attempts on his life. However, the organization’s decentralized command hierarchy – which places much authority in the hands of relatively junior commanders – would allow the organization to continue functioning even if its leader is killed. The international community, claim Schweitzer and Enav, will have to recognize that ISIS is a multidimensional phenomenon that is not limited to military conflict. (Their report was written before the November 13 Paris attacks.)

A comprehensive approach is therefore required, they write – one that will also need to include wide-ranging diplomatic and media efforts. A military conflict, they believe, is a historic inevitability, in light of the potential damage that exists in allowing ISIS to continue controlling large areas and the future attacks the organization could carry out. The West, they note, is weary of further conflict after the prolonged fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the thus-far ineffective attempts to intervene in Syria.

From an Israeli perspective, Schweitzer and Einav make an interesting point: Because ISIS is a Sunni organization (and not Shi’ite like Hezbollah), should it hold territory closer to Israel’s border, it is likely to wield more influence on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Mission: Impossible in Syria

The incident in which two Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian plane that encroached on Turkish airspace last Tuesday is similar to an incident on the Israel-Syria border that occurred in September 2014. Then, a Syrian Air Force plane entered Israeli airspace, apparently by mistake while carrying out airstrikes on Syrian rebels. After it had realized its mistake and turned around, the plane was hit by an Israeli anti-aircraft missile and crashed.

This time, the Russian plane strayed 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) into Turkish airspace (according to Turkish sources). The difference between the two incidents is that unlike Israel and Syria, Russia and Turkey coordinate on airspace and air traffic. Turkey claimed that the Russian flight crew ignored 10 warnings in five minutes before their plane was shot down.

Turkish protesters at an anti-Russia rally in Istanbul, November 27, 2015. One man holds a poster depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin that says "Putin, killer!"
AFP

Israeli experts question whether the downing of the Russian plane was necessary. It seems it stemmed primarily from an ongoing rivalry between two strong leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as longtime regional tension, which some claim goes back a thousand years.

The fact that Putin has the backing of his nation’s Orthodox Church, which likens Russian intervention on behalf of President Bashar Assad against the Islamic extremist rebels to a struggle between Christianity and fanatical Islam – almost a new Crusade – does not help to ease tension with Turkey. As a result, the downing of the Russian plane was a matter of national honor. When honor is on the line, it’s doubtful if Turkey’s F-16 pilots could let themselves return to base without downing their Russian counterparts.

Russia has already began sporadic use of the S-300 anti-aircraft system in Syria, based on Russian naval vessels anchored at the port of Tartus, northwestern Syria. Putin has previously declared his intention to deploy a more advanced version of the system on Syrian soil. Such a move could have ramifications for Israel as well, as any Israeli flight into Syrian or Lebanese airspace would be documented by the system. Earlier, it was doubtful if Israel could launch airstrikes on northern Syria in light of the Russian presence there. The last two airstrikes in Syria that were attributed to Israel by foreign media took place south of the Russian positions, near Damascus airport, and apparently targeted weapons caches destined for Hezbollah.

In the meantime, Russia and France are fiercely attacking ISIS throughout Syria, while the United States is ramping up its support of the Syrian rebels. A large shipment of U.S. weapons was recently sent to rebel groups who are deemed moderates by Washington. In reality, though, it seems that some of the Americans’ advanced anti-tank weapons have found their way into the hands of Kurdish militias, who have put them to good use in the fight against ISIS.

The Russian ground operation, meanwhile, continues to encounter difficulties. In recent days, a group of Jaish al-Fatah rebels recorded victories in northern Syria, and have returned to fight in the area between Idlib and Latakia, which was recaptured by Assad’s forces a few weeks ago.

All of these things are happening in parallel, in addition to the Russian plane affair. Even prior to that incident, it would have been difficult to build an international coalition to simultaneously bring down Assad and destroy ISIS. Now, after the clash between Russia and Turkey, that goal has become seemingly impossible.