Last week, GW’s Alexander Hamilton Society, joined by the Delta Phi Epsilon Foreign Service fraternity, hosted a panel discussion on the roots and rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the greater conflict in Syria. Policy analysts, think-tank fellows, and former ambassadors alike gave their accounts on how IS rose to power and how the U.S. can respond. Though the panelists reflected different ideologies, they all stressed two points: the growing complexity of the situation and the threat this poses to the liberal world order.
In assessing IS’s rise, James B. Smith, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, stressed that the underlying roots of the region’s problems were the failed foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s Sunni powerhouse, has made its foreign policy containing the region’s Shiite leader, Iran. In this capacity, Smith says that many clerics associated with Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s conservative strand of Sunni Islam, have exported intolerance and turmoil to other parts of the region.
Indeed, much of the Middle East’s conflicts boil down to the Sunni-Shiite divide. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at a proxy war with one other. And IS, a Sunni terrorist group, directly threatens Bashar al Assad, a Shiite, and Iran, his ally.
Much of IS’s rise, accordingly, was through disenfranchised Sunni Arabs becoming radicalized in Iraq and Syria due to the influences of extremist Sunni groups. In this process, IS began carving out territory in Iraq.
Its spillover into Syria, though, was predictable, says Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. All of this was happening, of course, while rebels in Syria were rising up against Bashar al Assad.
Ms. Pletka criticized the Obama Administration’s early response to the crisis in Syria, saying it was naïve not to act sooner. By refusing to act even after Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on its own people, President Obama signaled that he was unwilling to use force. This further compounded the problem, giving IS room to expand into Syria to exploit the chaos.
Fast-forward to the present, and as James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, explained; the vacuum in Syria has been filled with Russian airstrikes and Iranian militants, making a difficult situation intractable. Jeffrey, a former Bush Administration official, was critical of the Obama Administration’s current strategy in Syria, saying that it was not sustainable. When asked about the prospects of peace, he said that “the military expects for [ambassadors] to have the answer for long term peace, but we don’t. We can’t solve that problem.”
Amal Mudallali, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a foreign policy advisor to Lebanese officials, echoed Pletka and Jeffrey’s criticism, though highlighted other problems compounding today’s quagmire. She points to the fact that there is no unified opposition against Assad’s regime, as religious and political divisions fragment many of the rebel groups. Much of the sources of conflict, though, rest in greater regional cleavages.
Mudallali and Smith stressed how unstable countries in the Middle East are, largely because they are pluralistic countries without pluralism. Instead of striving for peace and prosperity, leaders have failed to remain responsible to their citizens, and have not addressed these divides. Accordingly, Smith noted that countries like Saudi Arabia had to reassess Islam and reestablish nation-states.
All of the panelists, however, agreed on a major point: the most pressing danger to the U.S. is the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition and its capacity to upset the American led world order. IS, however, enables that coalition’s existence, and thus should be the primary target.
Today’s situation threatens not just the United States, they argued, but its allies, interests, and the entire post-war order it created. As Pletka noted at the end, “this is the world that America built…. We built free market, free governments, free people. That was our guarantee.” IS, Assad, and Russian and Iranian aggression threaten to disrupt this guarantee.