25 August 2014
ISIS delenda est
The self-described "Islamic State" simultaneously waging war against Iraq and Syria is everyone's Islamophobic nightmare of a militarized "caliphate" come to life. These guys are the real deal and aren't playing, we're told. They've imposed convert-or-die (or pay jizya) terms on non-Muslims and reportedly place Shiites virtually in the same category. They stand accused of war crimes for which they've provided the evidence in propaganda videos designed to impress sympathizers with their strength while intimidating everyone else. No limit is imagined to the scope of their ambitions, given their appeal to the global Sunni umma and threats to attack the U.S. and other past oppressors. ISIS (or ISIL, or just plain IS) has evolved rapidly into a classic existential threat to the free world, so naturally the usual suspects in the U.S. deem its existence a threat to national security. The President is urged to escalate his air war against IS positions in Iraq and to expand it into Syria if necessary, while he is inevitably blamed for ignoring their rise to threatening power. The Syrians themselves invite cooperation against a genuinely existential threat to the Assad dictatorship, but demand to be treated as strategic partners in any operations, warning that they will treat unilateral U.S. action as aggression, for all the good doing so may do them. Nevertheless you can understand Syrian distrust since it was an American desire for regime change against a perceived impediment to Middle East peace that created the vacuum the IS seeks to fill. At this point, however, it ill becomes Assad to begrudge the manner in which his onetime enemy becomes his possible savior. It would also ill become the U.S. not to accept at least some of Syria's conditions, since if you believe the hype about the IS than Assad becomes the Stalin you team up with against Hitler, the way his father was Stalin to GHW Bush's FDR against the last generation's "Hitler," Saddam Hussein. By now it should be apparent that there'll be no liberal democracy in Syria for the time being, which will still suck for those Syrians critical of Assad, but it may also be apparent to the decision makers that for now there's no better option than Assad. That doesn't mean he's a good option for his own people, but the proof of that one way or the other will come in the long term, not in the annual human-rights reports. Still, compared to what the IS presumably has in mind, Syria, whose ruler belongs to a religious minority but doesn't proselytize, by the sword or otherwise, is a relatively free society by the worsening standards of the Arab Muslim world. All of this depends on how seriously you take the IS and its aspirations. They seem like a global gang for whom militant (or takfiri) Sunnism rationalizes a lust for power as the only way to a decent life. "Freedom" isn't working as a battle cry in that part of the world because most people there, I suspect, realize that power, rather than freedom, is the key to their survival. If it's power they really want, however, would they be satisfied with local power, or are they Muslim Trotskyites whose identity depends on a perpetual revolution? You can't know, so do you take a chance now, either to tolerate their rise to power and their possible stabilization into responsible statesmen, or to do everything within the world's power to destroy them, while they have friends nowhere else, at least among the governments? Who would veto the destruction of the IS? Not Russia, presumably, if it helps their Syrian friends? Not China, presumably, if it would discourage their Uighurs from their own jihad? Yet would destroying ISIS be the right thing to do, either for immediate benefit or as a precedent? Is it as necessary as many make it seem now? We should look beyond immediate fears of terrorist attacks to imagine all the possible consequences of the IS war to unify Sunni Islam, weighing other possibilities against the atrocities that are admittedly inevitable, before we and the world make up our minds.