Mainstream, VOL LIII No 31 New Delhi July 25, 2015
Sunday 26 July 2015, by
The Islamic State (IS) has created a support base in Iraq and Syria. When its fighters get bombed and ousted from one place, they appear in another, as happened in April when their fighters were driven out of the city of Tikrit in Iraq, to appear in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the putskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus, and again when they were ousted from the city of Ramadi in Iraq, on May 15, they appeared five days later to seize Palmyra, in Syria.
The total strength of IS fighters is still a matter of speculation. The gerenal estimate is that they number about 50,000, among whom foreign fighters would be about 15,000, including some 500 Indonesains, 100 Filipinos, 50 Malay-sians, a few Singaporeans, besides European Moslems and Chinese Uighurs from Xinjiang province. One does not know if there are any Indians among them. Malaysia in April adopted an anti-terrorism legislation with provision for detention, which has angered the Islamists. In the Phailippines, peace between the government and Moslem rebels in Mindanao is threatened by extremist groups that have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.
The IS has captured large quantities of American arms and ammunition from Mosul in June last year when the Iraqi Army was routed. It obtained a huge stockpile of American-supplied weapons: armoured vehicles, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, fleets of Humvee vehicles and a vast quantity of ammunition. Thus strengthened, it drove out the last Syrian forces from the neighbouring Raqqa province of Syria. A little over a month ago it captured the al-Tabqa airfield, which was the most significant defeat suffered by the Syrian regime since the start of the uprising three years ago.
The IS uses a combination of strategic patience, designs and directs complex military operations simultaneously in Syria and Iraq, and hybrid warfare that uses terrorist and insurgent techniques with conventional fighting. Among the tactics it has developed is to soften targets with artillery, or open a breach with suicide bombings and then attack with swarms of armoured Humvees mounted with anti-aircraft guns coming from what seems like all directions at once. Its aggression, speed, firepower and readiness to take casualties combined with the well-publicised savagery that awaits anyone taken captive, terrorises defenders into flight.
With its ideological ferocity, organisational skill, platoons of Western fighters, hatred of America and determination to become the leader of global Jihadism, the Islamic State fighters act as a magnet for foreigners, particularly radicalised young Moslems from Europe. They come through Turkey and enter Syria from there. They deepen Western fears that some hardened fighters will want to return home to plot self-directed attacks. The danger was apparent in the killing of four persons at the Jewish museum in Brussels in May last year.
US President Barak Obama stated recently that he would no longer commit American troops abroad, except some for training and some technical work. He would form a broad Western and Arab coalition to oust the IS from Mesopotamia. In 1991, President George Bush, the elder, had organised a coalition to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. In 2003, as part of his global war on terror, the younger President Bush waged a war on Iraq on the pretext that it was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, and invaded to oust Saddam Hussein from power. After years of occupation and search the mass desruction weapon-making charge could not be proved. Since then and even earlier, the US has been controlling the order in the Middle East, which has now collapsed. Caliphate and civil wars are now devasting Syria, Iraq and Libya. Black uniformed Jihadists have carved out a Caliphate. Saudi jets are strafing Shia rebels in Yemen. The military Govern-ment in Egypt has not been able to stabilise the country. There are fears that peace may not return to the region in a generation. The lesson is that outsiders cannot impose order in the region.
The US Democratic Party accuses George W. Bush for invading Iraq in 2003, which created a bloodthirsty Sunni innsurgency and a hunger for rebellion in the region. The 2003 invasion did bring down Saddam Hussein, but also succeeded in creating a major turmoil in the region. The Arab Spring of 2011 toppld more strongmen and brought many changes, some to American dislike. Egypt under Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi reverted to a harsher authoritarianism than that of the ousted Hosni Mubarak. Next-door Libya is going through a civil war, with a brutal war going on in Iraq and Syria, where the Islamic State is holding territory. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a bitter conflict with Yemen. Countries that have withstood the turmoil, like Lebanon and Jordan, are awash with refugees. President Obama stands accused at home and abroad of having no strategy to deal with the mess. The stability in the region was shattered at a great cost by President Bush. America’s Army presence in Afghanistan, which once stood at more than 100,000 troops, has dwindled to a tenth of that number. It has even fewer troops in Iraq, providing training and air support, not fighting.
The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments. He also covered the 1962 Yemen war.