GENEVA, September 3, 2014 — A withered President Obama, sporting his headline grabbing tan suit, sent ripples of shock and disbelief across the West when he nonchalantly admitted during an August 28 press conference that his administration doesn’t “have a strategy yet” for dealing with Islamic State militants in Syria.
Having scuttled the hopes for any imminent military action in the war-torn region, Obama left many wondering whether the U.S. still has what it takes to act as the “benign hegemon” in world affairs.
In the same conference, Obama also hinted that he would postpone any decisive action until Congress returns from its traditional August recess. Any parallels with last year’s red-line dithering over Syrian nerve gas are, of course, purely coincidental.
There is widespread consensus among policy experts that tackling the Islamic State entails a two-pronged strategy, one aimed at both Iraq and Syria. Brookings scholar Kenneth M. Pollock suggests in Foreign Affairs that the only way to fix the region is to build from scratch a new Syrian opposition army “capable of defeating both Assad and the more militant Islamists.” This would require vetting, training and arming the core of an initial contingent of several battalions to sweep across the country and root out warring factions before building a new polity.
As far-fetched as Pollock’s plan may be, creating a new opposition capable of both stabilizing and ruling the region does seem like the only feasible alternative to the Islamic State. Indeed, the idea that no divisions in the ongoing Syria-Iraq debacle can be trusted with leading the two countries out of the rut carries weight. With civilian casualties mounting every day, it is time for the West to come together to hash out a strategy that does not include deploying boots on the ground — nobody would stand for it — but works instead towards empowering a local group. With the U.S. power to lead this initiative withering, does this glorified post have any other takers?
Germany is the first Western country to actually move towards finding such a long-term solution to the unfathomable chaos of the Middle East. Already, there are an estimated eight million people living under IS rule in the two embattled countries.
Reversing course and breaking with its post-reunification tradition, the German government announced that it will start immediately shipping $92 million worth of assault rifles, missiles, jeeps, tanker trucks and armored vehicles to Peshmerga Kurdish forces in the north of Iraq. The aforementioned military equipment, albeit a bit outdated, is meant to equip a 4000-strong Kurdish brigade that should stymie the Jihadists’ advances in the country.
This is a remarkable development for Germany, a country that has stalwartly refused to get itself involved in almost all military operations led by the West in the past decades, bound by its constitution to commit forces only for self-defense. Is Europe finally waking up and rising to the challenge of a world where the U.S. no longer wants to sit in the driver’s seat?
It is Europe especially that has a vested interest in quelling the current crisis. A rough estimate puts the number of Westerners who have gone to Syria at several thousand, including some 400 Germans and 500 Brits. This new form of Jihad, dubbed “Jihad cool” is just one of the many consequences of the rise of the Islamic State against the backdrop of continued instability in the Middle East. Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, argues that this unexpected sort of radicalization “should be understood as an expression of generational estrangement” towards a Western society that is unable to provide anymore.
Social alienation and the lack of a cohesive identity have pushed many youngsters to Syria, fighting alongside Islamists, learning their tactics and ideologies before returning to their respective homelands. This spillover effect is the clearest indication that the U.S. and Europe can no longer sit idly on the sidelines. Germany’s unprecedented decision to send arms to foreign fighters — the first time since the end of the Cold War — stands in stark contrast with Obama’s non-existent policy for finding a long-term solution to IS.
There is no easy out. But having turned a blind eye to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians lost in the past three years, maybe the few thousand Western-born newfound jihadists capable of launching terrorist attacks in our backyard will force our leaders to stop dithering and act. Germany’s grit should be lauded, but without significant backing from Washington it will be just a drop in the ocean.