IS threat symptom of deeper ailment

The tragedies unfolding in Syria, Gaza and Iraq are deeply disturbing, but so is the blood letting in Egypt and the anarchy and violence now gripping Libya.

Each conflict has its own timelines, causes and consequences, but they are interconnected. In the West, governments and media generally are fixated on the threat posed by the self-styled Islamic State. Yet, little is said about how violence in one context can easily feed violence in another.

The IS threat, in the making for more than a decade, is the symptom of a deeper ailment to which actions by the United States - notably military interventions, the "war on terror" and the West's confused relationship with the Muslim world - have greatly contributed.

IS is one of the many groups to have sprung up over the past 10 to 15 years as offshoots of al-Qaeda's brand of "militant jihadism". Soon after the US invasion in March 2003, a number of alQaeda fighters relocated from Afghanistan to Iraq. Presenting themselves as leading warriors against the infidel occupation and defenders of the Sunni cause, they unleashed an unrelenting series of suicide and conventional attacks against coalition forces and their domestic allies.

This maelstrom eventually gave birth in October 2006 to the precursor of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq. The brutality of its attacks and its deliberately sectarian strategy, including a series of bombings of Shia mosques, were intended to make the country ungovernable.

US forces responded by launching a full-scale campaign against the alQaeda insurgency, aided by several Sunni groups that had grown weary of al-Qaeda's indiscriminate attacks.

The combined assault drove al-Qaeda-aligned insurgents from many of their havens and inflicted on them crippling losses. But, given mounting American casualties and the refusal of most allies to do much fighting, the US eventually withdrew from what was widely perceived to be a costly, illegitimate, increasingly unpopular and ultimately unwinnable ground war.

The hope was that the emerging Iraqi state would soon acquire the political and security infrastructure to establish a relatively stable social order. This proved to be a forlorn hope.

The violence of the past three decades continues to take its toll. The IranIraq War (1980-88), in which the US at different times armed both sides in its desire to prevent either side dominating the vital oil region, cost the lives of half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and a similar number of civilians. Soon after came the Gulf War (1990-91), the economic sanctions and air strikes conducted by the US through the 1990s, and the protracted conflict that followed the 2003 US invasion. Conservative estimates suggest that since then close to 150,000 civilians have been killed. Indeed, the number of those who have died directly or indirectly as a result of the war may well exceed 500,000.

This prolonged violence has meant the destruction of the economic, social and cultural fabric of the country and given rise to warring fiefdoms, sectarian hatreds and pervasive corruption.

America's failure to establish the conditions for legitimate governance has in turn provided fertile ground for an array of extremist groups, each claiming to act in the name of Islam, of which to date IS is the most brutal, organisationally the most sophisticated, and militarily the most successful incarnation.

IS, which now controls a large part of the north-west of Iraq and north-east of Syria, is also the beneficiary of the West's ill-conceived attempts at regime change in Syria. Obsessed with the possible rise of Iran as a major regional power, Washington has long pursued a policy of supporting Tehran's enemies and opposing its clients and friends.

Accordingly, it has sought by all possible means, except for direct military intervention, to bring about President Assad's downfall. This has necessitated funding and arming an assortment of rebel groups, and importantly turning a blind eye, at least until recently, to the competing hardline Islamist groups financially and logistically supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Here then is the supreme irony. The United States, which chose to intervene in Iraq in defiance of the United Nations, as part of its war against terror, is re-entering Iraq 11 years later driven by the need to thwart yet another threat, namely the extremist multiheaded hydra its own actions have so effectively, even if unwittingly, nurtured over the intervening years.

Six years ago a newly elected American president pledged to extricate the United States from the military quagmire that was Iraq. Six years later the same president announced to the American nation that he was expanding the US military commitment in the region.

Soon some 2000 US troops and advisers will be in Iraq to prop up an incompetent army operating within a hopelessly fractured political environment. More could follow. Judging from recent statements by leading US military officials, involvement in combat operations by these special forces and advisers cannot be ruled out.

With some 150 air strikes already conducted in the past month, US President Barack Obama now promises an extension of these strikes not just in Iraq but also in Syria, and potentially wherever the IS threat might rear its ugly head.

In his speech Obama placed the emphasis on forging partnerships in pursuit of his anti-IS strategy. A new "coalition of the willing" is said to be in the making, but will it prove any wiser or more capable than last time? The President's speech was notable for its omission of any reference to the UN, or any suggestion of consultation, let alone co-ordination, with global or regional states that lie outside the American orbit.

Several questions arise: Is the sole objective to provide protection for vulnerable communities? If so, which communities, facing which particular threats? Who may legitimately and legally authorise the use of force, where and in what circumstances? What exactly are the targets of military strikes?

Will such strikes spare civilian populations? If not, how will those responsible be made accountable? And, what if military strikes fail to have the desired effect? If, on the other hand, IS is defeated only to give rise to other jihadist groups whether in Syria, Iraq, other parts of the Middle East, Africa or elsewhere, will the answer be more strikes and more military coalitions?

Simply put, are we entering a war without end?

This article was originally published in The Age.

Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor of International Relations in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.