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The ISIS Quandary

The ISIS Quandary

By Mrigank Rajan

Edited by  Nandita singh,Senior editor,The Economist Indian

US airstrikes on Sunday helped break the two month-long siege on the Iraqi town of Amerli (as per Washington Post). The move came just in time, as the residents of the town were beginning to suffer from starvation and disease in their determination to resist ISIS. Three strikes on Saturday, two more on Sunday, plus air drops by Australian, American, British and French forces led to a swift conclusion, the Pentagon reported in a statement. This is another instance of American influence, during the course of their recent infractions with ISIS, where things have gone America’s way. According to Time, President Obama has claimed that “strikes would be “limited in their scope and duration,” but given their impact and recent history (like the airstrikes and humanitarian aid drops in early August, in order to help Kurdish forces open a humanitarian corridor to thousands Iraqi Yazidis trapped by ISIS) it is difficult to imagine the US giving up on perhaps their most optimum plan of action to counteract the ISIS juggernaut. It is a given that redeployment of troops would be akin to political suicide for the President, given that most people had assumed that President Obama had reneged on his promise to bring the troops home until he finally did. Close to a thousand troops, however, are still stationed in Iraq, for security of American diplomatic facilities, and are not serving a combat role, which might be a long enough stick for the opposition to beat the President with in the Congress. Perhaps, these are trifling difficulties in a plan designed to decimate ISIS with as little human casualty as possible, but all doesn’t seem to be going as well as the Obama administration may have led us to believe.

A video posted online Tuesday purported to show the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State, the second one after James Foley in less than two weeks. In the video, the former journalist mentioned how he was ‘paying the price’ for American intervention, and promised that there would be more to come. Sotloff’s killer specifically mentioned the recent U.S. airstrikes around the Mosul dam and the beleaguered Iraqi town of Amirli, making it unlikely that Sotloff was killed at the same time as Foley, as some analysts had speculated, according to Al Jazeera. ISIS has shown that it is capable of subtlety when dealing with a seemingly unconquerable nemesis like the United States, where sustained diplomatic and patriotic pressure might be enough to sway the country, while AK 47s and Stinger missiles cannot.

The ISIS threat to execute Americans must be a sore spot indeed for the present American Government, as it forces them to make the less evil out of two choices. The Obama Government can either clear out of Iraq and ostensibly give ISIS a completely free reign, or it can stay and fight for the sovereignty of Iraq (and the equal representation for the Sunnis, Shias, Kurds etc.) If the US decides to leave, it will most likely have the unconditional declaration from ISIS complying with the US stand of not harming their (the US’s) citizens, even though it will remove the biggest obstacle in the terrorists’ path. If America decides to keep fighting, then rest assured that the ISIS will execute as many Americans as needed to make the US fall in line. It makes to conclude, in this case, that hypothetically the only two scenarios possible in these circumstances is that either America stops fighting, thus drawing the ire of a world which still perceives America as a global watchdog of sorts, or America could keep fighting and maintain their steadfast ‘no-negotiation-with-terrorists,’ paying no attention to American casualties, and thus risking the wrath of the American public who would see this as exceptionable behaviour (deliberately committing actions that will cause the death of your citizens sounds unforgivable, no matter what the cost to anyone else); a perverted way to look at it is that ISIS is outsourcing its lobbying to patriotic Americans who care more about their countrymen than others.

 This is a simple model that deals with the question – ‘do you think the American Government is going to act against ISIS due to the beheading?” and the two answers, yes and no, have been supported by cushy, highly elementary arguments. Now the question is, can we conclusively say (and as of the day I write this, the US government has not given a statement on the issue) which path the US would choose to follow, and what would its effect be on the overall ISIS strategy?

Both men killed so far have been journalists. Both were allegedly recognised by the American intelligence community, as ISIS verbally threatened Sotloff with murder in the Foley video (which has since been judged ‘authentic,’) and so their deaths don’t necessarily come off as that much of a shock, at least to the White House. Regardless, nothing substantial really has been said about the situation at hand, except for empty platitudes. At the same time, America has also reaffirmed several times that they will continue to use their drones against the terrorist organisation. This leads us to a game of who blinks first: America or ISIS. The coup de grâce of the whole twisted situation is that ISIS is forcing America to question the one principle that the country has stuck longest with: the conviction that their work is humanitarian. The opposition must be waiting with bated breath to see how Obama reacts when he has to choose between the lesser of two evils.

 Of course, having discussed the options, we should also try and analyse what the next few days would hold for this current state of affairs. I believe that Obama would refuse to stop the drone strikes, thus putting the onus on the ISIS to retaliate in whatever manner the organization sees fit. Of course, there could be two clear cut responses to this hypothetical act of the US; ISIS can either back down from their threats and risk lowering the groups’ morale and showing lack of commitment, or they could continue to put pressure on the US by executing US citizens. It is perfectly understandable, logical even, that the US cares more about the violations of the rights of Americans abroad, rather than that of people from other countries. Surely, there must be a point, if the Islamic State could go on for long enough, where president Obama would be swayed by public pressure into calling off the drone strikes. In the end it is a race against time, as the US hastens to clear up towns impacted by ISIS infestation and tries to regain control over the country they started doing ‘nation-building’ exercises in almost 8 years ago.

In the end, I would like to remind the reader about the recent dent that America’s ‘non-negotiation’ tactics has taken. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl goes home to the United States, while five terrorists check out of Guantanamo Bay and make their way to freedom in Qatar (according to Forbes) and this has rightly been seen by commentators as a softening of the American stand, something that might not necessarily be a positive, as situations such as the Foley and Sotloff incidents go to show. Everybody is waiting with bated breath to hear what the President has to say this Wednesday, the 3rd of September, about the problem, which might just prove to be one of the toughest the President has handled.

Mrigank is a junior pursuing a degree in Economics from the University of Iowa in the United States. A man of simple tastes, he keeps himself occupied by reading voraciously and obsessively watching soccer. A compulsive news junkie, his need for watching (or reading) the news for at least twelve hours out of the standard twenty four is outweighed only by his need to sleep and breathe.

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