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Will the anti-IS coalition succeed militarily?

Defeating IS militants in Iraq and Syria will not be easy as the regional crisis is multi-layered, analysts warn
US fighter plane at the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush at sea on 29 July, 2014 (AFP/US NAVY/JOSHUA CARD)

As representatives from around 30 countries pledged in Paris on Monday to take part in a coalition vowing to destroy militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS), who control large areas in Iraq and Syria, analysts warn the task will not be easy to achieve as the crisis in the region is multi-layered.

Ten Arab states have already announced joining the coalition, with some reportedly agreeing to take part in direct military action against the group. But their participation is seen as predominately symbolic, to counter the accusation of further western meddling in the Middle East.

Many of these states, as well as others that are not part of the anti-IS coalition, see IS as a mixture of a threat and an opportunity. A threat because the radical group enjoys support from some members of their own populations, which, when coupled with the brutal reputation of these militants, poses a serious security challenge.

However, it is also viewed as an opportunity as the region is predominately ruled by autocrats, whether US-backed or anti-western, who would welcome such a distraction.

"From the house of Saud to the house of Assad – passing through clerics in Iran and Sheikhs of the Gulf – rulers of the region  have leapt to present themselves as the 'civilised' alternative to IS 'barbarism'," notes Kal Abraham, a London-based analyst.

"Public opinion has become less interested in government human rights abuses, which in some cases are no less brutal than that of IS, as people are more focused on the frightening militants," he added.

The question remains if these strange bed-fellows will be able militarily to inflict a crushing defeat against IS, whether they fought the militants as a part of a coalition or separately.  

"We are not building a military coalition for an invasion... but for a transformation as well as for the elimination of ISIL," US secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Monday, using an alternative name for IS. "We are fighting an ideology, not a regime."

Misleading focus on ideology

Muslim scholars across the sectarian divide have denounced its perverse teachings as un-Islamic. But highlighting the Islamicness or unIslamicness of the group is perhaps the most misleading factor in understanding the current crisis, which means finding a long-term solution is less likely.

The group's beliefs and methods cannot explain alone its military advances in a region where many of the other players are also brutal in war and are no less Machiavellian. But the group, which is composed of many foreigners to the region, has managed to set up camp in areas that are not hostile to it – to say the least.

"Many Iraqis [in Arab Sunni areas] who hate IS, and who are not even religious, still find it less oppressive than the post-2003 Iraqi governments," Dr Sabah al-Mokhtar, an Iraqi-born observer who heads the Arab Lawyers Association in London, told MEE.

His views are shared by Ghassan Ibrahim, a London-based Syrian commentator who is critical of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

"As long as there is a dictatorship that oppresses and carries out unimaginable injustices against people then these people will look towards any side that appears to be holding out its hand [for help], out of sheer desperation," he told MEE.

Both Mokhtar and Ibrahim see that there is a preoccupation with the "symptoms" rather than the causes of the crisis.

"The western focus has only been on IS, forgetting that there are 40 or so [mainly pro-government] militias killing civilians in Iraq and burning villages," Mokhtar said, citing "violations of human rights being committed" by the governments of Iraq and Syria, and not just the widely reported ones by IS.  

"The regime in Syria is bombing indiscriminately and the government in Baghdad is bombing purposefully, not IS [positions] but the civilian population, schools, hospitals and homes," he added.

'American and Iranian interferences'

Dr Burhan Al-Chalabi, former Chairman of the British Iraqi Foundation, agrees.

"Western officials are acting as if there is no problem in Iraq other than IS. But as long as there is American and Iranian interferences in Iraq, the crisis – in one form or another – will continue," he said, arguing that only a national non-sectarian Iraqi army can defeat extremists like IS.

While there is a consensus that the terror of IS must be stopped, disagreement is over the method.

"Principally some action must be taken to redress the terrorism of IS, but terrorism cannot be fought from the air, and bringing in foreign troops is a non-starter," said Mokhtar.

"The only people who can fight IS on the ground are the people who are living there [locally], but as long as you're going to bomb people indiscriminately and then say you have killed terrorists then you won't have any positive results," he added.

Ibrahim noted that position of the Syrian opposition in general is with a military strike against IS militants, but they want "a comprehensive strategy" that finds a solution to the whole crisis and not just IS.

"When there was talk of a possible US strike against the Assad regime [for allegedly crossing Barack Obama's red line on the use of chemical weapons], many who opposed the move said a disciplinary strike would be used by the regime to claim a moral victory," said Ibrahim.

Gone today, back tomorrow

"But now Obama is proposing a similar strike against IS, and the militants will use it as a propaganda tool to recruit more people. So the strikes will either strengthen IS or destroy it today, only for it to return under a different name tomorrow," he added.

Scepticism on the likelihood of military success remains high as any battle won today is seen as a battle deferred for another day.

"It is difficult to have decisive victory, because these people use 'hit and run' tactics," said Chalabi.

According to Mokhtar, the anti-IS meetings are high on rhetoric but involve little substance.

"Everybody is agreeing IS is a terrorist organisation. Everybody is agreeing it is killing people and everybody is agreeing that we should do something about it. The only problem is nobody knows what," concluded Mokhtar.

In a recent article, Lebanese commentator Rami G. Khouri wrote: "My confidence in the success of the coalition being assembled to fight IS drops sharply when I hear the American president cite Yemen and Somalia as examples of how this war will be waged."

"Yemen and Somalia are modern catastrophes of state-building and foreign intervention," he noted.