The current situation in Syria and Iraq is presenting a much different challenge for the West and the Middle Eastern region than what it has experienced in the aftermath of 9-11 through the present.
For one, since 9-11, there has not been an Islamic terrorist organization with so many militant members that it actually constituted an army. Witness the estimated 20,000- 31,000 members of the Islamic State (IS) currently operating in Syria and Iraq. Some estimates count half of the Islamic State's membership as foreign fighters. Many of these fighters are youngsters coming from Western nations. The Syrian conflict has also served as a magnet for the irredentist Islamist fighters. Many "Holy War" veterans have streamed in from Chechnya, Afghanistan, Yemen and even North Africa, among other regions around the world. It is almost surreal to monitor the internet chatter amongst the Islamic State warriors. Some of the soldiers are clearly lifelong jihadis, hardened from various battlefield experiences. On the other hand, some of the "warriors" are simply youngsters in search of an exciting experience in their young lives. The latter often compare their on-field experiences to war video games that they play, such as Call of Duty, signing off with one another with "lol" and smiley face salutations. There are even young female volunteers coming to join the cause.
A major dilemma for the West in containing this insurgency is the geopolitical realities surrounding the conflict. There are many vested interests entrenched in Syria, to include those of Iran and Russia. These vested interests, as well as the general aversion of the West to commit to another on-the-ground military campaign in a far-off region, render direct ground action within Syria and western Iraq a highly unlikely possibility. The United States has the added conundrum of supporting the Assad regime, if it were to engage in a ground campaign against the Islamic State or even an extended bombing campaign. Siding with an enemy that has been publicly condemned by the U.S. for over thirty years will cause it to lose face around the world.
Also, sending in a token force of 1,600 U.S. military trainers and advisors will not replicate the U.S. successes in Iraq under the "surge" of 2007. In that case, General Petraeus' strategy involved a significant increase in U.S. military personnel. The U.S. forces ultimately reached 150,000 troops and it tilted the scales back in the favor of the United States and the Iraq government. In the current case, 1,600 American military advisors will probably not make a significant impact on the overall effort against IS. Not to mention, you cannot retake territory via air strikes. The Surge in Iraq was so successful because the U.S. already had its intelligence assets on the ground in Iraq. That is not the case in Syria.
The most salient concern for assisting resistance groups within Syria is that many are hostile to the U.S., not to mention the decades-old antagonism of the Assad regime towards the U.S.
The most salient concern for assisting resistance groups within Syria is that many are hostile to the U.S., not to mention the decades-old antagonism of the Assad regime towards the U.S. There are so many small militant groups involved in the conflict that a unified, U.S.-coordinated effort will be exceedingly difficult to achieve. We are also not going after a "small group of killers," but rather a bonafide Islamist insurgency that has membership numbers that have not been seen in many years. This insurgency has such a large membership that Saudi Arabia has become alarmed in recent weeks and has pushed for both Western intervention and for senior Sunni religious figures to speak out against the IS.
The tactics of the IS are terroristic, but they are not disguised. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars after 9-11, al-Qaeda (AQ) engaged in kidnappings and executions of various prisoners—mainly Westerners. What is truly alarming is that in Afghanistan and Iraq, AQ had to operate in clandestinity in holding and executing its prisoners. Very often, the beheadings would occur in hidden areas and the act would be electronically recorded for later dissemination to media outlets. Many of the Islamic State executions and beheadings, however, are occurring in broad daylight and on the city streets in front of highly supportive spectators. Such broad popular support for an organization that employs abominable tactics is astonishing.
The Spanish Inquisition has been reincarnated and is instilling fear among any who would dare utter a word in defiance of IS. Witness the public beheading of Iraqi General Muhammed Quareshi in June 2014, a public execution and mutilation of a national symbol of power in Iraq. IS also utilizes beheadings as foreign policy. The grizzly beheadings of innocent journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley in recent weeks are part of the Islamic State's foreign policy: sending a message to the U.S. and the West that it will target their citizens and assets if they continue to bomb IS locations in Iraq. They then paraded David Haines, a British citizen captured in 2013, in the video of Steven Sotloff's execution as a message to Great Britain that this man would be the next one executed if Britain decided to support the United States in its bombing campaign against the IS.
Having so many pockets of instability in a general geographic region like what is currently occurring in the Middle East and North Africa is the West's worst case scenario. The Abu Musab Al Suri strategy for the return of the global Islamic Caliphate looks quite viable from the perspective of AQ, IS, and other Islamic terrorist organizations. Al Suri stresses that if a large enough number of independent hot zones of Islamic uprising can be established around the world, the West would simply not be able to contain them all due to logistical and financial limitations. What we are currently witnessing with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North/Northwest Africa, and the IS in Syria and Iraq is the realization of the Al Suri strategy. AQIM has not been extinguished in Northern Mali, despite the robust French military campaign, Operation Serval. The overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya has left an extremely dangerous void of power that violent extremist groups are attempting to fill. Most importantly, these various nodes of Islamic extremist uprising are relatively close to one another and this allows ease of movement between the various fronts. This balloon effect in reaction to Western, regional, and national campaigns to neutralize them ironically provides the Islamic terrorist organizations natural bridges to engage in surge operations through migration to other jihadi fronts.
The West and its allies must understand better what is causing certain young Muslims in the West to cross the "confrontational divide" (the point at which one moves from criticism to violent activity) and to resort to terrorist activities and warfare in the name of the brutal IS organization. There seems to be the dual catalyst of being able to take part in a battle to overthrow the apostate and suppressive Assad regime on one hand, as well to exterminate the Shia Muslims that IS holds to be perversions of Islam. There also seems to be an undercurrent of rejection of Western cultural values and a view of the West as corrupt and immoral. This warrants further research.
At the present, however, it is clear that funds are coming in to the organization. The million dollar question is who or what entities are sending the funds to the organization.
Another area that must be further researched is the source of financing for IS. If the organization takes over lucrative regions that are rich in oil, or banking centers such as Mosul, it won't need to ask for funds from outside elements and nations. At the present, however, it is clear that funds are coming in to the organization. The million dollar question is who or what entities are sending the funds to the organization. How these funds are being moved into IS's hands is another question. Is it coming in the form of bulk cash, electronic transfer, Hawala transfer, or charities? Once the transfer methods are established, the money can simply be followed back to the individuals and entities that are bankrolling it. The U.S. Treasury Department's recent announcement that it will employ an identification and asset freezing campaign against the IS is definitely a good development.
In the meantime, IS's menacing shadow continues to spread throughout Syria and Iraq, feeding off of and building upon other regional jihadi hotspots. As the U.S. and other nations move forward with new offensives against IS and other jihadi groups, we must accompany our efforts with an updated understanding of our enemy, from grassroots methods of recruitment all the way to long-term global strategies.