On September 5, the United States convened with its NATO allies in Wales and announced that a coalition (Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark) would wage an air strike campaign against the Islamic State (IS).
On September 10, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad to meet with the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who appealed for international help.
The stage was set.
In a televised address on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President Obama essentially reiterated what everyone already knew, but there are a few points worth discussing:
“ISIL is certainly not a state…it is recognized by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
No, IS is certainly not a state, but it is quickly becoming one. As VICE News has shown in the Syrian city of Raqqa, IS is developing institutions and infrastructure in a surprisingly rapid manner. They’ve established Sharia schools for their young and military training camps for their adolescents; they’ve instituted a “justice” system complete with Islamic judges, magistrates and governors, a quasi-police force, prisons, and more. What’s more, they have begun to erase the borders between Iraq and Syria – literally.
And though IS is not recognized by any sovereign government, it is factually incorrect to state that IS has no support from any of its subjects, however bad we may want to believe it. The modus operandi of terrorist organizations throughout history has been to capitalize on the young, the poor, and the disenfranchised. IS has done exactly that, and to large success in the territories it controls.
Again, stating that “ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple” does not make it that simple, and claiming that IS “has no vision other than the slaughter of all” does not make it so. On the contrary, IS does have a clear vision, and they’ve used slaughter as their tool to achieve it, which is exactly why this group is utterly frightening.
IS has been operating in Iraq for almost a decade. On pamphlets released by IS in 2006 and 2007, they stated “modern notions of statehood and national borders must be discarded” and that, with regards to their citizens, “improving their conditions is less important than the condition of their religion.”
President Obama’s simplified generalizations of IS are intended to serve as comforting reassurances, but do not contribute to a greater understanding of IS and how to confront the threat they pose.
“These terrorists are unique in their brutality…”
“Barbaric” is often synonymous with “primitive.” Yet it is important to understand that while IS shies from modern (“Western”) influences on culture and religion, it has been open about its willingness to embrace modern technology to establish their caliphate.
IS will not turn away from social media and video-cameras; they will not choose a sword over an automatic rifle or anti-aircraft missiles; and they will not disregard modern notions of wealth in their day-to-day operations.
“I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
The Obama administration’s covert drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia in recent years have raised concerns on sovereignty and international law. In this statement, President Obama effectively committed to continuing the practice of military strikes in countries the United States is not at war with (which has been known to result in a condemnation of American exceptionalism and hypocrisy, both regionally and globally.)
Whether this course of action is right or wrong is an entirely different conversation. However, this course of action will undoubtedly further involve and complicate the United States’ role in the Middle East. Against the backdrop of President Obama’s calls for limited military involvement and vow of “no boots on the ground,” one wonders how genuine of a promise that is.
“Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition … Already, allies are flying planes with us over Iraq; sending arms and assistance to Iraqi security forces and the Syrian opposition.”
It’s no secret that the Obama administration has long been opposed to arming the “Syrian opposition,” which is more or less a fragmented and disorganized coalition comprised of literally dozens of armed groups.
Indeed, the president’s administration was so grounded in their position that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned from his ambassadorship over his misgivings with Washington and his inability to support their lack of involvement in the brutal civil war.
The subtle, yet matter-of-fact manner, in which President Obama lightly glanced over this fundamental shift in policy is surprising, to say the least, and leaves one to wonder what gave him the final push.
Was it the recent be-headings of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff? Was it domestic politics at work in the run-up to the midterm elections? Or perhaps, on the eve of the anniversary of the most tragic attack on the United States, President Obama in fact views IS as a direct threat to the United States.
*(Read President Obama’s full speech here.)