Air Strikes Won’t Defeat Islamic State

No foreign force, even a well-equipped one, will be able to replace a strong, determined local power.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, about the ongoing situation in Iraq.Credit: AFP

President Barack Obama intends to begin a long campaign of aerial attacks in Iraq over the next three years. The purpose is to stop the territorial spread of Islamic State, then reduce the area it controls, and finally overthrow its “infrastructure” in Syria. If we were not allies, we could sue the American administration for harming Israeli intellectual property, or at least for stealing the idea at the basis of Operation Protective Edge: First attack from the air, then smash from the air, and finally declare victory.

Like his Israeli counterpart, Obama is making no explicit promise that he will eliminate Islamic State’s leadership. After all, he has already learned from the assassination of Osama bin Laden that a head nodding above an ammunition belt is just a head. Organizations and movements, political or military, have already proven that while killing their leaders may at times resolve their internal power struggles, it does not really threaten the organization’s existence.

There is no sense even in arguing about the plan’s military benefit, since Obama is not suggesting a solution for the ideological threat that Islamic State poses. Obama is selling tickets to a long, expensive show that has no plot, a show he will be producing only because he received permission from the theater owners. Unlike Syria, where one U.S. aircraft entering its airspace by mistake could cause a world war, even Iran is willing to have America attack Iraq, the Arab League has already given the nod, Russia will ignore it, and China will not bat an eyelash. So the fight will take place in an authorized location, where the political conditions are amenable.

What exactly is so frightening about Islamic State? Al-Qaida operatives uploaded horrific videos of beheadings in the past. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed confessed that he had put Daniel Pearl to death with his own hands. We should bear in mind that amputations are an accepted act in Syria, and people are hanged in the streets in Iran. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people, as did Syrian President Bashar Assad. The horror show that Islamic State’s operatives are putting on features nothing we haven’t seen before.

Could it be the extreme religious way of life that they impose in the areas under their control that the world finds so disturbing? If that is so, why did the behavior and customs imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which are just as rigid, fail to disturb the West for some seven years, until Al-Qaida attacked the United States (tomorrow being the 13th anniversary of the attacks)? What about the religious regimes in Sudan and Somalia, or the “moderate” one in Saudi Arabia? If there is such an urgent need to stop Islamic State in Iraq, why not act against it also in Syria, where its main sources of funding are located?

It seems the threat of Islamic State is mainly the disruption of the known order, according to which even failed states controlled by bloodthirsty regimes – such as Syria and Chechnya – or ones that fall very far from the definition of democracy, such as Belarus, are compelled to adapt to the rules of the game that apply worldwide. Islamic State, unlike Syria, Chechnya and Belarus, is not a state. It is a group that developed into a movement. It is not yet subject to the rules of the world that determine the hierarchy of control, and it does not fear sanctions. It takes advantage of a governmental void, goes in and fills it. That is what Hezbollah did in Lebanon, what Hamas did in Palestine and what isolationist groups, including Al-Qaida, did in Yemen.

When that is the arena, no foreign force, even a well-equipped one, will be able to replace a strong, determined local power. Saudi Arabia proved that, as did Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf states. The West’s resources need to be directed toward this challenge. For example, it should recognize the Palestinian state, bring Iran into the coalition of countries that will fight Islamic State, stop the reward-and-punishment games with Egypt and reexamine its policy toward Syria. But sending in fighter jets is so much simpler.

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