Julie Lenarz

Defeating ISIS: Moral Obligation and Strategic Imperative

Is enough being done to stop ISIS’ genocidal rampage? The answer is no.

Let us be under no illusion: the action taken by the US and its allies in Iraq are at best a short-term fix and a far cry from an overall strategy and long-term solution to the problems and challenges that Iraq and the wider region are facing, potentially with ripples that could directly impact the West.

Of course, we have to distinguish between the response to the humanitarian and the security crises. In terms of the humanitarian crisis, the US, UK and other Western countries have done an excellent job. It was absolutely right to first and foremost focus on humanitarian relief and get aid to the people in need. Thousands were trapped on the mountains in northern Iraq for days with very little or nothing to sustain them: no water, no food, and no medicine. Hundreds died. We heard horrific stories of mothers spitting in their children’s mouths to get fluid back into their systems and stop them from dying of dehydration.

The response to the security crisis, however, has been incoherent, insufficient and fragmented. The limited airstrikes currently undertaken by the US will not defeat ISIS. They may stymie the terror group’s advances and allow the Kurds to regain some strength in the short-term, but they are not an adequate response to the underlying threat. We know from previous experiences that as soon as the US takes its eye of the ball, groups such as ISIS recover.

Prime Minister Cameron is absolutely right in his assessment. The threat posed by ISIS is real and profound. At the moment, they target Yezidis and Christians, but eventually they will come for us in the form of foreign fighters. We know that up to 600 British citizens are fighting alongside ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Repeatedly, they have threatened in writing and on video that they will return, battle-hardened, to wage jihad on our streets. We must take this threat deadly seriously.

So what needs to be done?

First of all, our friends in Kurdistan have to receive all the assistance they have requested from the West. Kurdistan is an oasis of sanity in an otherwise chaotic region. They have earned the right to be protected. Over the last 3 ½ years, Kurdistan has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other parts of Iraq. Many of these people belong to the persecuted minorities. Kurdistan is literally their last place of safety. If Kurdistan were to fall, these people would be butchered to the last man, woman and child. This is not an exaggeration. ISIS’ ideology is genocidal in nature and they are determined to wipe out anyone who is different from the face of the earth.

What the Kurds need are heavy weapons in the form of anti-tank missiles, air defence systems and armoured personnel carriers. Whilst they are fighting with old, outdated Soviet weapons from the Saddam era, ISIS has a considerable repertoire of US-made heavy equipment, which they have seized from the Iraqi army when they overran Mosul. If we were to deliver heavy weapons to the Kurds, we would also have to provide adequate training. This would probably involve some element of Special Forces on the ground.

Secondly, the US and the UK have to commit themselves to an advanced and prolonged air campaign and must start targeting strategic strongholds of ISIS, such as Mosul. The US has taken steps in the right direction, but from everything we have heard so far from US and EU officials there is a lack of political will to tie ourselves once more to the fate of Iraq. On the contrary, the policy of the Obama administration seems to be to provide the Kurds with some weapons, conduct limited airstrikes to contain the imminent risk, and invest in a more inclusive Iraqi government after the resignation of Prime Minister Maliki.

This strategy, however, is doomed to fail. The Kurds lack not courage but the equipment and experience to defeat ISIS on their own and it will take a long time for the new Iraqi government to recover from the disastrous sectarian legacy of the previous regime. Trust has to be rebuilt between communities. This cannot be done overnight.

It is understandable that the public is wary of war and our political leadership is cautious to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict, after a decade of difficult engagements in the region. But we have to be careful not to overlearn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and realise that inaction carries grave consequences too.

ISIS is not so much a product of the Iraq war in 2003, as it is a result of non-intervention in Syria. Had we intervened in the early stages of the conflict, ISIS would have never grown so strong and certainly would not have been in a position to seize territory the size of Belgium. The attacks on Iraq were planned across the border, in Raqqa, where ISIS have their headquarters. If we want to treat the cause and not only the symptoms, we have to develop a strategy that encompasses the future of Iraq and Syria. The two countries’ fates are intertwined. We also need to understand that military intervention has many different levels. No one is calling for a full-scale invasion with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground. What would be required is a campaign comparable to Iraq and the Balkans in the late 1990s.

ISIS is a genocidal death cult which will stops at absolutely nothing. They are a threat to Iraq, the region and beyond. They are enemies of humanity. It is our moral responsibility, as well as in our national interest to confront and defeat them. Unopposed, ISIS will continue to carry out crimes against humanity, ranging from ethnic cleansing to forthright genocide.

About the Author
Julie Lenarz is Director of the London-based Human Security Centre and speaks widely across the media on terror and radicalisation.
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