Abdulhamid Qabbani
Last updated: 28 September, 2014

“IS might appear powerful following advances in Iraq, but the group’s popularity in Syria has been in sharp decline”

Obama’s speech on 10 September authorizing air strikes against Islamic State (IS) inside Syria came as no surprise to many Syrians. Although the aim of the speech was to convince war-fatigued Americans to support yet a new Middle Eastern war, the televised speech probably met more weary audiences in the Middle East than it did at home. The violence is now taking place on their soil.

US policy makers do not seem to grasp that announcing a war on Al-Qaeda’s breakaway (IS) will strengthen the group at least in the near to mid future. Particularly when the announcement comes by an American president which acts as a mobilizing factor for IS to attract global extremists for jihad against those they call the ‘modern crusaders’. Many will heed the call as they did in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. This suggests that the US has not fully comprehended the nature of its enemy let alone the long term impact such an approach will have on its image in the Middle East and on a fragile region.

“I pledge if America goes to Syria, I will be the first to volunteer to fight the Americans,” reads a comment following the war announcement in a liberal Arabic news website. The comment got 105 likes.

“I pledge if America goes to Syria, I will be the first to volunteer to fight the Americans”

Indeed already 162 fighters, four of them are Australians, have joined the group in the past week thanks to Obama’s war strategy.

THIS INDICATES that America’s current strategy will become a magnet attracting more jihadists to join IS or jihad in general. New IS fighters would be more than happy to join the holy war. In their beliefs “Al Shahadah,” Arabic for martyrdom, is something to be coveted.

Obama has openly declared the war on IS in a similarly dramatic fashion as his predecessor President Bush announced the war on terror against Al-Qaeda 13 years ago. Many years of experience fighting this type of group has not helped American policy makers understand the right tactics to confront radical Islam.

Violence which creates the absence of order, economic stability and governance combined with the existence of a greater enemy represented by the United States as a combatant is exactly what IS needs to grow more popular in the region and beyond. This will further add weight to the rhetoric IS uses to attract new recruits to defend Islam from ‘crusader attacks.’

ULTIMATELY THE WAR MESSAGE the western-dominated coalition sends to the eastern end will strengthen support to the group which has been losing local sympathy lately.  Although IS might appear powerful following their advances in Iraq, the group’s popularity in Syria has been in sharp decline over the past year.

Varied Free Syrian Army groups, Kurdish fighters including major conservative fighting groups like Islamic Front have been engaged in a war of attrition against IS. Moreover, Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is a great foe of the group and a growing number of jihadists fighting with IS have already defected. Defectors either return home or shift allegiances due to increased dissatisfaction with the group’s brutal tactics. Other fighters shun away on ideological disagreement with the group. However, the coalition is acting as a force to bring together foes in consolidated ideological front. Al Qaeda will end up fighting this war along with its enemy IS.

Now that the direct enemy has become the United States of America, this will not only attract new recruits but also more hostile governments or private funders. This in turn deflates one of the main strategic objectives the American president has announced: “More counter-terrorism efforts to cut off the group’s funding and help stem the flow of fighters into the Middle East.”

THE CURRENT TURMOIL and violence encompassing several Middle Eastern countries following the Arab Spring indicates not only the ill timing of a military intervention but also the misjudgment of the local and regional support for this action.  This is due mainly to the low morale in the region, particularly in Syria as a result of America’s prior mismanagement of that crisis.

The founder and head of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riad Assaad, has already declared the group’s rejection of being part of the US coalition: “We will not collaborate with America in its intended war against IS,” he said. He added, “Its alliances know nothing, and did not even consult the Syrians, and therefore are not required (of Syrians) to implement what is asked of them.”

“…instability in Iraq combined with rapprochement with Iran adds up to a regional dissatisfaction with US policy”

Crucial actors in the region like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had several disappointments as a result of the US floundering in Syria. This was exacerbated when Obama reversed his decision to bomb the Syrian regime following the chemical attack in Damascus in August last year. The continuous instability in Iraq combined with recent rapprochement with Iran adds up to a regional dissatisfaction with US policy. This also reflects the extent of current political polarization of the region the US has announced to get back to.

The regional divide will affect the fortitude and will of the coalition that the US is building. It will also test the appetite, if any, for a genuine partnership with an administration that has failed key Middle East players.

THE MIDDLE EAST is currently an ideal environment for a group like IS to flourish. If the environment helping the empowerment and growth of the groups are not dealt with, the fight will continue for years if not decades to come. The IS fighters have returned stronger occupying Iraq’s second largest city and vast swathes of Syria’s north and eastern lands after their assumed defeat in Iraq almost seven years ago. They also have now more dedicated European fighters.

It is worth mentioning that the violence and recent instability in the Middle East was not initiated by IS – it was rather used for the group’s benefit and growth.

The Middle East’s current turmoil has underlying causes. This includes mixed of sociopolitical, economic and sectarian dimensions. If local grievances, equal rights, freedom and social justice are not met by local leaders themselves, extremists will claim to bring them instead.

After the protracted violence and destabilization of their eastern neighbour Iraq following 2003, Syrians are all but optimistic about the future of their country in the wake of American-led intervention.