In classical Greek mythology, the Lernaean hydra was an enormous hideous serpent with numerous heads that ravaged the area around Lerna in the Peloponnese. According to legend, its very breath was so poisonous that whomever came into contact with it fell dead. The legendary hero Hercules, as part of his twelve labors was tasked with destroying the monster. Accompanied by his companion Iolaus, he found the beast and forced it to emerge from its lair. Hercules then began to lop off the heads of the creature, but in vain; for every time he struck off one of the hydras’ heads, two more grew in its place. Hercules then instructed Iolaus to seal each wound with a flaming brand; thus, preventing new heads from growing.
A wonderful tale from ancient mythology, but what relevance does it have to modern times? There is a new hydra loose in the world; one far more deadly than its mythical forebearer; for unlike the original, its reach is global. This modern day hydra goes by the generic name of radical Islam and like its mythological ancestor, it too, has sprouted many heads; each of which goes by a different name: Boko Haram, Ansar al-Sharia, al Shabaab, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and of course, ISIS. In 2011, in what now seems like an act of hubris, President Obama announced to the world: “Osama bin-Laden is dead, and al-Qaeda is on the run.” Thinking the hydra dead, the administration went ahead with plans to reduce both America’s presence and influence in the Middle East with predictable results. Our abrupt departure created a power vacuum which both Sunni and Shiite Islamic fundamentalists are exploiting. Across a broad swath of the Middle East and North Africa, radical Islam is on the march. The hydra has once again grown new heads.
The recent raid by Delta force into Syria which took out Abu Sayyaf, ISIS Chief financial officer, while spectacular, is only a temporary setback, for someone else will be appointed to take his place. This successful foray into Syria does in no way offset ISIS recent victories: the fall of Ramadi in Iraq, the loss of Palmyra in Syria, and ISIS control over the Euphrades River Valley. All the while, President Obama continues to tout his 60 nation coalition and assures us that “we are not losing.” Perhaps this administration could learn a lesson from Greek mythology. Hercules overcame the hydra using flaming brands to seal the wounds where the heads were lopped off.
But what “flaming brands” could be applied to halt the advance of radical Islam? The answers are multi-faceted, complex, and long term. The first step we must take is to vastly increase our capabilities in cyber-warfare. At present, we are losing the propaganda war on the Internet, You-tube, and social media. Next, we must go after their finances; the banks, charities, and institutions that funnel monies to advance the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. We have had some success in this area, but apparently, not enough. Thirdly, we must get control over our borders and immigration. Finally, we must use what ever political leverage and credibility we have left to put pressure on so-called “moderate” Muslim states and allies to change the way they think and educate their populations. Ultimately, this is their fight; not ours. The majority of troops doing the actual fighting must come from Muslim countries.
We must also try to re-establish the alliance we had with the Sunni tribes of central Iraq. Considering that we threw these people “under the bus” when we walked out, and given our naive faith in the Shiite dominated central government, this could be very difficult. Since the Sunni tribes of central Iraq are not likely to pledge their allegiance to a Shiite dominated government in Baghdad under Iranian influence, some degree of local autonomy, or even independence might be necessary. An independent Sunni state in central Iraq, if properly supported, could not only act as a barrier opposing ISIS; but also, as an impediment against further Iranian expansion in the area. It seems that some degree of American re-involvement in the form of “boots on the ground” would be required. As is, Iraq has been effectively broken into three parts, with the Kurds in the North; and it is extremely unlikely that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.
Over and above what is happening in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond is the looming spectre of a resurgent Persia. A nuclear Iran would be a game-changer, for this conflict is also a continuation of a millennial old struggle between Sunni and Shia. The Iranian hydra head is just as deadly and dangerous as its Sunni counterparts, yet the current US administration seems intent on pursuing a nuclear arms deal with Tehran at any cost. Given the extreme complexities of tribalism, sectarianism, and fundamentalism that permeate the Middle East, it would take an individual possessed of true Solomaic wisdom to unravel this Gordian knot. In all reality, the best that could probably be accomplished is some form of “containment” where the hydra would be caged and a balance of power between Sunni and Shia achieved. Radical Islam is an ideological and political movement as well as a theological one. As is the case with almost all extremist ideology, the best way to defeat a bad idea, is with a better idea. Unfortunately, this usually takes a great deal of time and would be virtually impossible, as long as the militants are perceived to be winning on the field of battle. Ultimately, the “flaming brand” can only be applied by Muslims themselves, for in the final analysis: radical Islam cannot be conquered from without; it can only be slowly reformed from within.