Robert Ford writes: In August 2014, the United States launched airstrikes against Sunni Muslim militants of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) to help besieged Kurdish military forces and Yazidi civilians in northern Iraq. Within weeks, ISIS militants beheaded American civilians and, the next month, the United States expanded its operations to hit ISIS militants in Syria. An Administration guided by the principle of “not doing stupid stuff” now finds itself in a new military campaign of unknown duration where the definition of victory is also murky. Congress and the American public more broadly are wondering what exactly we are wading into.
The starting point to the answer is obvious: From Tripoli on the Mediterranean shores of Lebanon to Diyala northeast of Baghdad stretches a Sunni Muslim community that is bitterly aggrieved, insecure, and fearful. They perceive that Iran and its Shia allies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime, which is dominated by Alawis, are killing Sunnis indiscriminately and marginalizing them politically and economically. This would lead any reasonable American to ask: If the militants’ main beef is not with America, why then would they slit the throats of innocent Americans like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as those of other innocent foreigners who were sympathetic to the sufferings and fears of that community? Americans might also ask what kind of belief system and grievances could lead to such appalling acts and their use as political tools to recruit still more fighters.
Answering these questions correctly and accurately matters. How the U.S. government conducts the campaign against the jihadis, and with whom and for whose benefit it conducts it, will directly affect the calculations of the militants we are fighting and whether we can isolate them from the vast majority of the roughly 24 million Sunni Muslims who live in the Levant and Iraq. President Obama has rightly said that the underlying problem is political; the jihadis feed off resentment. But there are other questions, such as, “Do we understand the resentments correctly?” and “Do we shape our responses appropriately?”
Seeking answers to these questions could lead many to turn to the experienced Middle East hand Patrick Cockburn, who has reported for years for British media from Iraq, and whose 2008 book on Muqtada al-Sadr and Iraq was full of new insights into the history of the modern Shia political parties in that country. In The Jihadis Return, a much briefer book, Cockburn breaks little new ground in describing the nature of the Islamic State now ensconced in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, his blaming of Saudi and even Pakistani actions in helping to facilitate the Islamic State’s rise absolves Iran and its allies of much responsibility. His is a misleading perspective that — to the extent that it influences our policies — could add gasoline to the conflagration, as it would aggravate the resentments among Sunni Arabs that erupted onto the scene in 2014 and gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place. [Continue reading…]