By Chayanika Saxena*
A matter of international deliberation (or rather, contention), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has managed to capture the imagination of the entire globe, with the many speeches at the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) session and a dedicated sideline summit bearing testimony to it. From the corridors of Kremlin to the alleys of the Senate, it can be said with staunch conviction that no country in the world today is unaware of the grotesque phenomenon that the ISIS is.
Its graphic brutality, pillaging of historic towns, running of slave camps are some of the many blows that it has dealt to the moral fabric of humanity but which have hardly had any impact on its growing expanse. Rather than chipping at its might, these very acts and the feeling of power and virulence that these come to provide have managed to frisk away a lot of disaffected youth from across the globe onto its side. Added to it are the promises of a lavish lifestyle this ‘regime’ is coming to offer to those who offer their allegiance to it.
An expanding ISIS is also sustained by the constant turmoil in the Middle Eastern region and the continuous international interferences in it. Sitting atop a vast wealth of resources and offering a strategically significant geographical space, the ever-so edgy region of the Middle East was made so by the international manipulations that were subjected on it from before the beginning of the World War I. Thus, part ISIS’ graphic brutality, part its effective propaganda, a portion of endemic volatility in the Middle East, and a great bit of international ineffectiveness has thrown a Molotov cocktail at an inflammable world order.
Ousting tens of thousands of people from their homes, the increasing geographical expanse of the ISIS has created another set of challenges for the world to deal with: the massive refugee crisis. Escaping by any means and routes possible, people from the areas that have fallen to the ISIS’ control are increasing by the day, demanding refuge and another shot at leading a dignified life. As many reach the shores of Europe and some end up dead on their way to this ‘haven’, the leaders of the world have been made to sit up and pay attention to what they had neglected for long. But, while they are in agreement on the need to address the rising menace of ISIS, they do not know just how that would be possible.
Given that the ISIS is developing on its ideological appeal more than its actual occupation of territories, it is recognized that it would take nothing short of a coherent, collective and comprehensive international effort to weed out this menace. The world seems to have learnt from its history that the fissures from which the ISIS has grown have to be sealed, and that it would require a concerted international effort. But, where the history of ISIS and its present growing status is not lost on the world leaders, they still seem to be at a loss for words, and perhaps intent, to translate their tacit recognition into explicit actions. The 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly was an embodiment of this very crisis.
A gathering of the world leaders, this international melee was expected to initiate a collective verbal stir against the stings of the ISIS, if not real, on-the-ground actions. But, as one wise man had rightly said, there is nothing but interests that are permanent in the anarchic world – and the leaders of the major powers lived up to this very adage. Speaking from the pedestal of a forum that is the most comprehensive international body, the leaders of the major powers, including the United States and Russia, not only spoke of divergent policies, but couched in rhetoric as these speeches usually are, their respective leaders launched a tirade against the other.
With the Iranian nuclear victory having salvaged its sinking identity as the world superpower, the Barack Obama-led United States certainly feels confident once again to lead the world out of this crisis — but on its own terms. The economic and strategic debacles that its “democratic experiments” in Iraq and Afghanistan were, the United States is just not yet ready to get foot-on-ground to fight the ISIS. Urging the world to unite, the US president spoke at the UNGA of his country’s wholehearted intention to “join hands with just about anyone, including Iran and Russia”.
As Obama addressed the gathering at the United Nations, the Russians marked their attendance with representatives who are way too junior in the hierarchy. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen dashing to New York at that very time when the president of the host country was addressing the UNGA, showing a clear snub-thy-rival policy in full force. The US reciprocated by letting some juniors sit for the address by Putin.
Cornered for its ongoing Crimean misadventure, the Russians who were initially reluctant to take part in the battle against the ISIS have recently being seen assuming forts, particularly in Syria. On September 30, the Russians began launching airstrikes in Syria on terrorist positions, including the ISIS. Backing the Assad regime which the United States is clearly disposed against, the Russians and their American counterparts find each other at opposing ends once again. Propelled by their respective geopolitical interests, the Assad regime has become the feuding point in this seemingly passed-down-the-generation rivalry between them.
With the Afghan debacle still fresh in its memory, the Russian Federation shied away from involving itself in the ‘domestic affairs’ in what has always constituted as its backyard. But, as the ISIS close-in on Damascus from where Assad continues to ‘rule’ what remains of Syria, it became pressing for Russia to assist this dictator to stay in power for the outcomes otherwise would certainly not be in favor of its own national interest. The involvement in Syria is thus more of an attempt for Russia to keep its national outposts intact, with the ISIS figuring only concomitantly in the process. But, fighting the ISIS is surely on its agenda and particularly as it sees its only naval base outside of the Soviet Union, Tartus in Syria, facing a potential threat. To avert this possibility from taking concrete shape, it is becoming vital for Russians to not only continue their support to the Assad government, but also integrate it in the fight against the ISIS.
A dictator, and that too an ally of Russia, is the last thing that the ‘democratic’ US would be keen on supporting (perhaps, more because of the latter aspect than former), and it is precisely this that is happening at the moment: the US and Russia are talking through each other than to one another. The summit organized by the US to discuss the ISIS threat is being held sans the Russian presence.
What appears to be unlike the US, given the many antecedents from its modern political history, is its reluctance to ‘intervene in the interest of democracy’, based not only on its reluctance to ‘risk more American lives’ but also because it lacks clear strategy. There is no clarity on the approach that the US would follow, perhaps also because it knows what it did to create conditions for the eventual rise of the ISIS. In refusing to address those causes, it is but trying to keep the traces that will link back to it buried. Equally, the US is befuddled by the concrete approach that Kremlin has all drawn; if not panicking, the US is certainly aware of the possible ceding of credit to Russia for initiating a clearer plan to tackle the ISIS.
Iran is another factor that figures prominently in this battle for the embattled Syria, and with it the efforts to stunt the growth of ISIS. As Iran is finally pulling itself out of the recesses of pariah-ness into which it was forced, it is emerging as an active player in the Middle Eastern dynamics. Not that it was not there on the scene before this, but with it no longer being held back by sanctions, countries across the world are not shying away from saying that Iran’s way could be the right way too.
Not forgetting the past, but not clinging onto it too, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani addressed the gathering at the UNGA with an élan that can be attributed to the major breakthrough negotiation on its nuclear facilities. Calling it ‘a new chapter in Iran’s relations with the world’, the post-deal atmosphere has lent Iran with the kind of international credibility which was kept from it for long. Urging the world to unite in countering the threat from a terrorist organization, Rouhani referring to the ISIS called on the leaders of the world to prevent its transformation into a terrorist state.
An ally of the Assad regime, Iran too sees its interest secured in keeping the al-Assad dynastic politics intact, for an alternative is bound to tilt the balance in favor of its arch-rival, Saudi Arabia. And, Iran certainly wants it the least.
Coming closer home, the threat perception of the ISIS does not speak of urgency. While the Indian government does recognize this organization to be a threat, but the moderate Islamist ideology that prevails in the country is seen to be an effective barrier against the spread of this organization. Calling for an immediate and effective de-linking of religion from terrorism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the gathered audience at the UNGA that the ISIS poses one of the biggest challenges to the world today.
Pushed by their vested national interests, it is undeniable that conceiving and executing a coherent strategy against the ISIS will be the tallest order for the leaders of the world to meet. But, they will have to eventually do so to avoid letting this group from having the last laugh.
*Chayanika Saxena is a Research Associate at the Society for Policy Studies. She can be reached at [email protected]