The United States cannot go it alone in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the extremist group known as ISIS whose ruthlessness and killing has dumbfounded and horrified the civilized world.
American airstrikes and other assistance from the United States have brought some measure of relief to religious minorities and others that ISIS has threatened. But defeating, or even substantially degrading, ISIS will require an organized, longer-term response involving a broad coalition of nations, including other Muslim countries, and addressing not only the military threat but political and religious issues.
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The recent persecution of Christians and Yazidis and the murder of James Foley, an American journalist, has brought ISIS’s savagery into full view. On Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ISIS posed an “immediate threat” to the West, in addition to Iraq, because thousands of Europeans and other foreigners who have joined the group and have the passports to travel freely could carry the fight back to their home countries — including the United States.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was equally emphatic. ISIS, he warned, is “beyond anything that we’ve seen” because it is extremely well-financed and has demonstrated sophistication and tactical skill in its campaign to impose an Islamic caliphate by brute force. Other analysts have gone so far as to describe ISIS as one of the most successful extremist groups in history because of its ability to seize and hold large sections of two countries — Iraq and Syria — with what seems like blinding speed.
While the group poses a risk to the United States and the West, those paying the biggest price are Muslims. That’s why President Obama was correct to argue that “from governments and peoples across the Middle East, there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.” Making this happen will take American leadership, but, so far, neither he nor America’s allies have laid out a coherent vision of exactly what this fight might entail or how to achieve success.
The response to the immediate crisis has been prudent. The United States has insisted that Iraq’s government and army set aside longstanding rivalries and work with the pesh merga militia of Kurdistan to back up American airstrikes by fighting ISIS on the ground. Germany, Italy, Britain and France have promised weapons.
The politics of Iraq, however, remain dangerously unsettled. The United States successfully pressed for a change from Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister in Iraq because only a more inclusive leader would have any chance of unifying the country against the ISIS threat. And, in a rare convergence of interests, Iran also withdrew its support from Mr. Maliki, resulting in the appointment of a new leader, Haider al-Abadi. But Parliament has yet to give final approval to the new government, thus prolonging political uncertainties that undermine the fight against ISIS.
The prospects of defeating ISIS would be greatly improved if other Muslim nations could see ISIS for the threat it is. But, like Iraq, they are mired in petty competitions and Sunni-Shiite religious divisions and many have their own relations with extremists of one kind or another. ISIS has received financing from donors in Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia funneled weapons to Syrian rebels and didn’t care if they went to ISIS. Turkey allowed ISIS fighters and weapons to flow across porous borders. All of that has to stop.
Creating a regional military force may be required, including assistance from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Turkey. It certainly will require money, intelligence-sharing, diplomatic cooperation and a determined plan to cut off financing to ISIS and the flow of ISIS fighters between states. France’s suggestion for an international conference deserves consideration.
No matter how many American airstrikes are carried out — Mr. Obama is also considering strikes against ISIS in Syria — such extremists will never be defeated if Muslims themselves don’t make it a priority. To their credit, some leaders are speaking out. Among them is Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, the grand mufti, who called ISIS and Al Qaeda the “enemy No. 1 of Islam.”
But they must go further and begin a serious discussion about the dangers of radical Islam and how ISIS’s perversion of one of the world’s great religions can be reversed.
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“One of the world’s great religions.” A typical NYT ending. It is not about Islam, it never is.