On Saturday night Islamic State released a video of their third beheading in less than a month. This time the victim was British aid worker David Haines. Haines was kidnapped last year in Syria where he was delivering humanitarian aid. He had previously worked for charities from Croatia to South Sudan, and leaves behind a Croatian wife and a four year old son. This latest horrific murder will only steel the resolve of the West and their Middle Eastern allies to destroy the organisation. So who is working against IS? How can they hit hardest? And what will work in the long term?
The main Western partners in the American led anti-IS coalition are France, Australia and the UK. While the US will take the leading role in airstrikes on IS, France has indicated they will assist, and Australia has sent 600 soldiers to the area to train Kurdish and Iraqi troops. David Cameron isn’t yet clear on whether the British military will go further than humanitarian aid drops – he is a bit distracted by the potential breakup of the United Kingdom.
The West is joined by the Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia), Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon. The number of countries willing to take part is a testament to Washington’s ability to keep their Middle Eastern alliances intact in a region that despises them. These nations handily camouflage the fact that the US is again doing the lion’s share of bombing a Middle Eastern country, but will also help to reduce the flow of arms and fighters to IS. Notably absent though is Iran. They are backing Iraqi Shi’a militias who are part of the problem – Sunnis see them as even worse than IS. Excluding Iran could cause tensions on the ground though, even if the US likely continues secret communications.
It seems certain that airstrikes will begin again soon on IS – the question though is where. By setting itself up as a state instead of a guerrilla army, IS has made itself an easier target for air strikes. Together with France the US could severely damage IS from the air if they had free choice of targets. The problem though is that to effectively strike the Islamists, it will be necessary to attack targets in Syria. The US absolutely does not want to cooperate with the Assad regime, so the legality of this is tricky. But without attacking Syrian IS cities like Raqqa, their fighters have a safe haven to retreat to whenever necessary, making it utterly impossible to fight them.
Even if airstrikes are stepped up, defeating IS in the long term will require so much more. The Sunnis in Iraq have zero trust for the government, and will fight fiercely against any Shi’a militias. And with Syria remaining a complete disaster, IS will retain a fertile breeding ground. That’s one conflict it’s almost impossible to find a solution for. With at least four different sides facing off against each other, and the Western-backed group being the weakest, almost nothing can be done to stabilise the situation. It seems likely that the West will eventually have to judge who is their greater enemy – IS or Assad. Siding with Assad would be a humiliating back down on the part of the West, and a betrayal of their perceived values. But fighting IS inside Syria without their agreement will be tough.
For the moment though the anti-Islamic State coalition will be keeping their focus on the short term. With Western hostages continuing to be slaughtered, the Western powers must be seen to be doing something. The airstrikes so far have stopped the IS march across Iraq, and are causing the militants serious problems. If they get serious and constant air support the Kurds and Iraqi army should be able to continue to push IS back. But what happens when airstrikes aren’t enough, and IS won’t go away? No matter what Obama and Cameron might hope, the West will be in the Middle East for a long time to come.
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