The top US official charged with the campaign to defeat ISIS warned Wednesday that it would be a long-term campaign that could require a generation to stamp out the ideology that has encouraged thousands of Muslims worldwide to flock to Iraq and Syria.
Gen. John Allen, US presidential envoy for the international coalition battling ISIS, added that the emergence of affiliates of the jihadi group in recent months represented an expanding challenge, even though the focus of the campaign has been on Iraq and Syria.
“This will be a long-term campaign. Aspects of it, like defeating Daesh’s ideology will likely take a generation or more,” Allen said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “In an age when we are more connected than at any other time in human history, Daesh is a global threat. And if we do not defeat this threat through strength and unity, our collective future will [see] more groups like Daesh.”
He added: “They will use the tools of modernity like the ease of world travel, our global financial networks and the Internet, to wreak havoc upon the progress of humanity which has been achieved at such a high cost by all of us over centuries.”
Allen was speaking at the annual US-Islamic World Forum in Doha organized by the Brookings Institution and the Qatari Foreign Ministry.
The threat posed by ISIS was a dominant feature of the three-day event. Last month, ISIS took over Ramadi in western Iraq and Palmyra in central Syria, leaving the organization potentially poised for advances toward the capitals of both countries.
In recent days, the group has made a push in the Aleppo area of northern Syria, threatening to undermine recent gains by Syrian rebel factions in neighboring Idlib province. Urgent requests by rebel factions to the anti-ISIS coalition for airstrikes against the advancing militants reportedly went unanswered, highlighting a key complaint that the international campaign is concentrating its efforts on Iraq rather than Syria.
“It would be a significant challenge to the legitimacy of the [Syrian] opposition in the north if ISIS makes gains north of Aleppo and perhaps takes a border crossing,” said Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “If ISIS does push into those areas, you will see a real lack of trust in the international coalition.”
Washington has been reluctant to support the military effort to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad, although it has said the Syrian leader has lost all legitimacy to rule.
In the past four years of war, hard-line Islamist groups, some with links to Al-Qaeda, have emerged as the most potent of the anti-Assad forces, underlining Washington’s hesitation. However, the anti-ISIS coalition has been providing a disproportionate level of air support for Kurdish groups battling ISIS in northeast Syria, which has seen them gain up to 900 square kilometers of territory, according to Salman Sheikh, director of Brookings Doha.
“The coalition support for the Kurds is raising the suspicions of Arab tribes in the area,” he said. “This could lead to conflicts.”
Asked to justify the disparity between the Iraq and Syria theaters, Allen gave what he admitted was an answer “with a lot of nuance.”
He said that the US was helping support the much-touted train-and-equip program in which vetted rebel groups would be trained in Turkey and sent into Syria to fight ISIS. Territorial gains made by these US-backed fighters could be exploited by the Syrian opposition to create space for a political process leading to Assad’s ouster, he said.
But it was a tough sell to much of the audience. “You have to look at the group as a whole,” said Aimen Dean, a Saudi-born former senior figure in Al-Qaeda who switched sides and worked for British intelligence for eight years. “They are not just in Syria and Iraq but also in Libya. The idea that you can hope for the best in Libya, [adopt] halfhearted measures in Syria and go hard on them in Iraq just won’t work.”
Allen touched on the rise of ISIS affiliates in the region and the potential for more to emerge around the world. “When we see groups and individuals seeking to align themselves with Daesh in several parts of the world we see clearly that these challenges are not linked to one region,” he said. “Indeed, the growth in the number of Daesh affiliate groups is a challenge that the counter-[ISIS] coalition is beginning to confront.”
But he added that the focus of the anti-ISIS campaign would remain on Iraq and Syria. “Squeezing and defeating Daesh there strikes a blow in the distant provinces as well.”
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