Israel has been at the heart of the turmoil in West Asia for the last 11 years. During this period it has bombed Lebanon, imposed an embargo on Gaza, and then bombed Gaza not once but twice. It has bombed Syria without provocation several times, most recently in May 2013, played a key role in destroying Iraq, and had almost convinced the United States and the European Union to unleash an all-out air attack on Syria in reprisal for using chemical weapons against civilians, before the British chemical and biological weapons centre at Porton Down concluded that the Sarin gas used in these attacks could not have come from the Syrian army.
For the past 10 years Israel has also spared no effort to instigate a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This relentless warmongering, and especially its second attack on Gaza, has it close to becoming an international pariah. Yet Israel has also been one of India’s staunchest allies. Not only has it given India its unstinting support on international issues, but it has been the most important supplier of arms and sophisticated defence technology to us during the past two decades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly was therefore both an act of courage and of affirmation.
But Netanyahu wanted to meet Modi not simply because he is prime minister of a brave new India. He had an urgent purpose: To persuade India to join the global coalition that Obama is forging to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) ‘unconditionally’. This is because Netanyahu’s goal is not to destroy ISIS but to ensure its survival and continued control of northern Iraq and Eastern Syria.
Netanyahu has made no secret of this. On June 22, when Obama briefly toyed with the idea of enlisting Iran in the defence of Iraq, he went on MSNBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ programme and said: “When your enemies are fighting each other, don’t strengthen either one of them. Weaken both. By far the worst outcome that can come out of this is for one of these factions, Iran, to come out of this with nuclear weapons capability. That would be a tragic mistake. It would make everything else pale in comparison.”
So great is Israel’s influence on American politics that it has succeeded in preventing a decisive US response to ISIS invasion of Iraq for three whole months. This delay has allowed it to grow from 800 to between 15,000 and 31,000 fighters, and embed itself through a reign of terror in the cities of Mosul, Kirkuk, Fallujah, Ramadi and a string of smaller towns closer to Baghdad. Only the public execution of two American journalists and a British aid worker, accompanied by taunts and threats to the US and Europe, has forced Obama to raise his target from ‘degrading’ ISIS’ capability to destroying it. To do this he has assembled a global coalition of almost 70 countries, 27 of whom have undertaken to take part in the operations.
Netanyahu could not prevent this. But he still hopes to achieve his goal because he understands, perhaps better than anyone else in West Asia, that the strategy Obama unveiled on September 11 for destroying ISIS is bound to fail. This has three components: Attack ISIS from the air to kill its leaders, destroy its bases and training camps, and make it impossible for it to move out in force; send more American soldiers and specialists to guard the embassy in Baghdad and enhance the military capability of the Iraqi forces, and train a new 5,000-man army of moderate Sunnis in Saudi Arabia to fight ISIS on the ground.
The gaping hole in this plan is the absence of ground troops. Air power would have sufficed when ISIS was travelling in pick-up trucks across open desert. Today ISIS fighters will move into city centres, from building to building, build tunnels and underground redoubts, and use civilians as human shields. Without large numbers of ground troops, therefore, ISIS can no more be destroyed than the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Where will the troops come from? A look at the membership of the coalition that the US has put together only shows where they will not come from. The US has 1,700 specialists and marines in Iraq and may send some more. But Obama has sworn that there will be no combat troops. Will any of the European members of the coalition send their soldiers to fight ISIS? After Afghanistan the answer is self-evident.
As for the US’ Sunni Muslim allies, not only do their armies not have the necessary numbers, but even their desire to fight ISIS, whom they were arming, and paying until yesterday, is questionable. In fact Turkey, despite being a member of Nato, has not only refused to join the coalition, but demanded that the US create a ‘no fly zone’ to prevent Assad’s forces from attacking ISIS from the rear. As for training ‘good rebels’ to fight both ISIS and Assad, the CIA has been trying to do this in Jordan for more than two years and hasn’t found many recruits.
The Indian Army has the manpower to fill this gap. But Modi would do well not to make any commitments until Syria and Iran have been asked to join it. Syria is the only country that has both the will and the capacity to fight ISIS on the ground. But it is also the only country Obama has explicitly refused to ask. The reason is its closeness to Iran and Israel’s obsession with the threat Iran poses to its security.
The Syrian army has lost 200,000 soldiers killed and wounded in the past 42 months. Three and a half years of seeing its surrendered brethren having their throats cut like sheep on ‘social’ websites, has hardened its will to fight to the end. This is because it, and the Syrian people, understand that the civil war is not between the Sunnis and Shias, but between enlightened, secular Islam and a ruthless Wahhabi fringe that believes that god has given it the right to kill Takfiris (apostates). Forced to choose between defending a harsh, oppressive, but secular regime and an even harsher religious tyranny they have chosen the former.
With its immense army India has the capacity to tilt the scales decisively against ISIS. But it should do so only on the condition that Syria and Iran are also asked to join the coalition. As Modi said to the UN General Assembly, terrorism is a global threat, so everyone should be asked to join in the fight against it. There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terrorists, only terrorists.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior columnist.
The views expressed by the author are personal.