Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.09.19

Not Every Coalition Member Behaves Itself

JBpress on September 15, 2014

As the beheadings of innocent American and British hostages continue in Syria, a new international coalition is being developed. Several Arab nations reportedly have offered to join the coalition in carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) strongholds. However, some of those who have served in post-Iraq War Baghdad now lament, "Alas, here they go again!"

It all started on August 19 when the first horrible video of that kind surfaced. No U.S. president had ever been more candid than Barack Obama when he paused, during his press conference on August 28, then said, "We don't have a strategy yet" on the situation in Iraq and Syria. What he also didn't have at that time was a decision on his policy vis-a-vis Syria.

The decision seems to have been made on September 2, when IS released a new video showing the execution of a second American journalist-hostage. On September 10, President Obama finally delivered a speech on his strategy for dealing with the threat posed by IS.

Obama, in contrast to a similar speech he delivered just a year ago--on the same date and time in fact--announced the United States would be launching airstrikes in Syria. Of course, U.S. Presidential speeches have always been serious, but this time it seems more real. It was good that IS will at last be properly dealt with, but it was not so good because there may not be a strategy again.

As the Western media frenzy goes on over the current IS crisis, the silent majority of Japanese seem to have remained silent rather than raising their voices. This is, however, not because they don't care or are not sympathetic to the victims of IS' brutal behavior. They are just holding their breath because this newly created international coalition may not be anything new in the end.

Almost all of them remember 2001's 9/11. Many still recall that the U.S. government was determined to go to war against Saddam Hussein regardless of the whereabouts or even existence of Iraqi nuclear bombs. With all these memories, they wonder if the new coalition is just another emotional Western response without a strategy to a Mideast reality that cannot be helped.

The United States continues to claim that this time is different and there will be no American boots on the ground. The British and Australian leaders echo the idea. The reality on the battlegrounds in western Syria and northern Iraq, however, is not that simple. No single pinpointed airstrike against IS can be successful without professional tactical and logistical support from the ground.

Military conventional wisdom tells us that no Iraqi or even Peshmerga units can effectively defeat the IS fighters without assistance from the experienced American special operations forces' non-combat "advisers and engineers." This leads to the apocalyptic reality that the Arab or Kurdish infantry forces cannot beat IS without state-of-the-art American military expertise.

This would be alright for battles against IS in the short run, but not so in the long run, because the new coalition can never win a war against IS as we never ultimately won the war in Iraq. The fundamental question, unfortunately, is whether we, the West including Japan, can truly solve the problems in the Middle East by force. The answer is most likely negative.

This new coalition may have another dilemma. That is the possibility that other brutal offenders against basic human rights may join the coalition without stopping their harsh crackdowns on the legitimate Islamic oppositions inside their own territories. Those nations, such as China or Russia to name a few, may even offer generous support to strengthen the international coalition against IS.

By joining the coalition, they may continue to justify their domestic human rights violations. This has already happened after September 11, 2001 and international attention was completely and successfully diverted. Over the last decade, such harsh treatment of domestic Islamic minorities grew worse and many such Muslims now join IS and are fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The silent majority of Japanese may be silent but they understand and support the urgent need for a new international coalition against IS. What they might be concerned about is not the airstrikes but their aftermath. After successful partial or logistical interventions in Syria and Iraq, Western "advisers" will eventually leave the region and most likely also leave chaos behind.

Local soldiers cannot deal with enemies like IS and not all coalition members behave themselves. These are the lessons we learned a decade ago and we should remember them. Don't repeat the same mistakes we made in 2001 and 2003.