It’s Time to Be Proactive Against ISIS

Israel's 'plague on both your houses' strategy prevents the building of alliances with partners such as the Kurds and the non-jihadist Syrian opposition.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, January 2014. Credit: AP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

Following the blitz by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham) and the threat to Baghdad we have seen a tendency in the West, from President Obama down, to minimize the threat and justify further inaction. In addition to the exercise in futility argument since we are presumably dealing with the Muslim version of the Thirty Years War, we get other whistles in the graveyard.

ISIS is the beneficiary of Sunni discontent (that part of the argument is definitely true) over Shi’ite payback, and therefore Sunni tribesmen and remnants of Saddam’s Ba’ath party have joined in the assault, thus distorting ISIS’ real power. This inherently unstable coalition holds together while the fighting continues, but will unravel soon afterwards. Then the non-Islamists will bolt or take power because ISIS, with its ungentlemanly beheadings and crucifixions and harsh Sharia law, will provoke a backlash.

Another variant is that in Sunni territory ISIS is the home team, but once we hit over 80% Shi’ite Baghdad and even more predominantly Shi’ite areas, the momentum will stall and ISIS will be overextended. Additionally Iran, the Shi’ites’ patron, will not stand idly by.

While these scenarios could yet materialize they are not a lock. History has provided contrary examples. The French and Russian revolutions, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Nazi rise to power all featured movements that were either a minority within the opposition or were considered too extreme to stay in power.

Revolutionary eras have a logic of their own, and movements shunned during normal times for their extremism become attractive precisely for the same reason as their extremism, ruthlessness and cruelty award them greater street credibility over their rivals. Those who thought that they could ride to power on the coattails of extreme movements and then take power when the dirty work was over were frequently disabused. Under the best circumstances they became fig leafs, and in the worst case they were liquidated by the victors.

While fighting amidst a hostile population is harder than fighting among a sympathetic one, this hardly assures military success or failure. The Bolsheviks relying on the Red Army were able to restore substantial parts of the former Czarist Empire, despite those areas’ desire for national independence from the Soviet Union. We would be dealing with a Confederate States of America if the Union Army blanched at invading the South.

Talking heads in the West can remain sanguine, and the inimitable Thomas Friedman knows that Sisi and ISIS are doomed to failure. In Israel we are not playing scrabble but are engaged in protecting our survival – and al-Sham means us. The term can be loosely translated as Greater Syria and encompasses Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.

With ISIS poised on the border with Jordan and a quick drive to the Saudi border, the threat is tangible. As Professor Efraim Karsh demonstrated in a recent article, Palestinian leaders, from the Great Mufti Haj-amin Al-Husseini to Azmi Bishara, have accepted the formulation that Palestine is South Syria.

After Iraq, the already preposterous idea of an American-trained Palestinian force guarding the Jordan can be seen as another example of the “stupid s---” done by the Obama administration. Does anybody expect an American-trained Palestinian force to perform better than the Iraqi army, the recipient of billions of American dollars in training and equipment? More importantly, can they be expected to perform at all given the enthusiasm over ISIS’ successes?

The first Israeli response should be a declaration that the Jordan River is Israel’s eastern boundary. Additionally, Israel must consider a more proactive role in the region, which poses a problem. Just as America was badly scarred by its interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s intervention in Lebanon when it sought to empower the Maronites evokes similar bad memories.

This should not make us oblivious to Israel’s previous successes. We could start with Israel’s role in preventing Syria from intervening in Jordan’s 1970 civil war, also known as Black September. Israel provided a deterrent against Syrian participation, and the unofficial deterrent posture can be retrieved in case ISIS attempts to penetrate Jordan via Iraq or Syria. Another success was Israel’s aid to the Kurds against Iraq in the 1960s. Both Israel and the Kurds have a common interest against ISIS, and also against Iran that wants to thwart any Kurdish attempt to declare independence. Hopefully, the shipment of oil from the Kurds to Israel marks the beginning of closer commercial and strategic ties.

In a more radical step, Israel should go beyond the humanitarian assistance that it has provided the non-Islamist Syrian insurgents. The Free Syrian Army is strongest in southern Syria near the Golan Heights. Israel has so far followed the “plague on both your houses” strategy in Syria, but this has produced a Hobson’s choice between ISIS and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Given the Lebanese trauma, one can understand the hesitancy on Israel’s side, just as Syrian progressives will be fearful that an alliance with Israel could discredit them, but the option deserves further exploration for Israel’s and Syria’s sake.

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