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Return the Focus to Islamic State Central

As he meets with members of the anti-ISIS coalition in London, Secretary of State John Kerry should act to ensure the spotlight remains on greater action against ISIS by US allies.

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Ever since the January 7-9 attacks in France, European leaders have been preoccupied with domestic security and not the challenge of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) itself. However, driving their security problems is the core IS stronghold in Syria and Iraq. Although it is tempting to keep tending to matters at home, Europeans must refocus on the nexus of the challenge. And despite calls for Washington to do a lot more militarily against IS, right now the spotlight must remain on greater action on the part of US allies. Secretary of State John Kerry should bear these points in mind while he attends tomorrow’s meeting of anti-IS coalition members in London.

European Internal Issues

Naturally, European governments have been working vigorously to increase internal security, vigilance and to better identify jihadists linked to or inspired by al-Qaeda or, more importantly, IS. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced on January 21 the spending of $300 million to hire nearly 3,000 more anti-jihadi security personnel and increase moderate outreach in France’s prisons cum jihadi recruitment mills.

At a January 17 gathering of European Union (EU) foreign ministers, EU Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Frederica Mogherini said the EU also needed an “alliance” with Arab states “to strengthen our way of cooperating together.” Later, she huddled with Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby.

Far harder to tackle is the broader challenge of the grinding alienation, discrimination, and lack of opportunity facing young European Muslims. Shortly after 9/11 while in Europe on official business, I heard (along with expressions of sympathy) shockingly hostile popular views toward Muslims. I raised these disturbing comments at a NATO Middle East and North Africa meeting as a serious issue, urging member states to prioritize breaking down communal hostilities upon which extremism feeds.

Nearly 14 years later, parties like France’s xenophobic National Front thrive and anti-Muslim prejudice remains high, provoking resentment—or worse—on the part of resident Muslims. Repairing this rift is a daunting, long-term challenge, particularly in the present atmosphere of fear. The US has parallel problems that need attention, but the number of European Muslims flocking to IS’s Middle East jihad is telling.

Targeting the Islamic State

Among NATO states with the most formidable military capabilities, Germany has done the least to pressure the Islamic State. Germany has sent small arms and training cadres to assist the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, but nothing else. By contrast, even the relatively small Danish military is aiding US airstrikes. German public opinion shows the least support for active military involvement by German forces among major NATO players. Nonetheless, with rising security concerns (arrests and police raids against suspected jihadis), this relative passivity about taking on IS directly needs reconsideration.

Other NATO states already involved militarily should consider ramping up their contributions, such as the UK, France and Belgium. France has limited its anti-IS air strikes to Iraq, not Syria; that should change. France, however, has also committed significant combat forces to Mali and Niger to shield them from jihadi attacks from extremist safe havens in southern Libya. In addition, the French probably would take punitive action against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen from French military facilities in nearby Djibouti.

Turkey, of course, remains in a class all of its own—trying to keep its head in the sand concerning the IS menace along its southern border. Moreover, there are disturbing indications like an allegation last November that IS cadres viewed Turkey as an “ally” against Syrian Kurds, even turning a blind eye to IS troop movements within Turkish territory to outflank Kurdish positions or move fighters from the IS capital of Raqqa to Aleppo in western Syria. Most vehicles stolen in Turkey apparently go to IS.

There appears to be cause for even a wary Turkey to become more of a team player against IS. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported January 17 that 3,000 people in Turkey have ties to IS, and that security authorities had initiated a “red alert” warning of attacks by IS cells as well as raised security around foreign missions.

In the wake of this month’s events in Europe, there surely will be more pressure on Ankara to align itself more clearly against IS (as in taking tougher measures against foreign IS-bound recruits using Turkey as their preferred conduit and IS-related smuggling across the Turkish border). Whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently absorbed in addressing alleged plots from secular opponents and Islamist rival Muhammed Gulen, can keep giving his NATO allies the cold shoulder may now be more dicey.

For all governments concerned, it will be risky to squeeze, pound away, and help roll back the Islamic State in its lair, as January’s Paris attacks demonstrate. But the price must be paid. Most recently, Japan has been threatened with the beheading of two citizens in retaliation for providing $200 million in non-military aid to regional countries combatting IS. Tokyo has been defiant, but conflicted, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowing to save the hostages.

IS’s typically excessive hostage demands suggest it wants to execute victims for effect. This IS provocation may, in fact, help Abe sell a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution easing the ban on collective self-defense or militarily assisting a threatened ally.

Islamic State More Vulnerable?

There have been more indications the self-styled Islamic State is buckling under NATO and regional push-back. Daily coalition air strikes have turned one strip of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani in IS hands and nearby areas into a graveyard for IS fighters and weaponry. In fact, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s determination to press attacks against Kobani against such firepower and losses looks like a damaging exercise in hubris. Kurdish fighters reportedly retook a dominant hill outside the town overlooking IS lines recently, suggesting IS’s grip on Kobani could be slipping.

Conditions inside the Islamic State continue deteriorating, with increased shortages of food, medicine, doctors, and even potable water in Mosul and adequate water in Raqqa. Various public services have broken down for lack of technicians and professionals. As expected, disease is spreading, and women and children are begging for food on the streets. More shortages suggest foreign financial aid received by IS and earnings from smuggling have decreased. Furthermore—indicating that some IS fighters have less zeal for combat in the face of aerial bombardment, stiffer resistance, and scattered defeats against Kurdish and Iraqi forces—IS police have been tasked with mustering fighters for the front hiding in Raqqa.

What about the US?

American political hawks continue their refrain that the US should commit ground troops against IS. On January 14 Senator John McCain renewed his call for US “boots on the ground” as part of a “really robust effort to defeat ISIS.” Former UN Ambassador John Bolton had said three days earlier that “trying to beef up the Iraqi Army is wrong,” urging instead the commitment of American ground troops because “our response should be what a country does when it’s at war.”

The timing for this messaging is lousy. The need for Europe and Turkey to pressure the Islamic State militarily and otherwise needs to be spotlighted. And sending thousands of US or other foreign combat troops to counter IS in Iraq and Syria would likely require those troops to remain, occupy, and stabilize the chaotic territory they “liberate.” Such vast open-ended military commitments in lieu of coaxing local ground forces to rebound and assume their responsibilities is precisely what events since 9/11 have shown are best avoided. They simply are not the decisive quick fixes they were once cracked up to be.

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