EDITORIAL: The Islamic State (IS) that had once captured huge territories in Iraq and Syria amidst the conflicts in both countries, is today a pale remnant of its former formidable self. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to ignore even these remnants, given that the defeat in Iraq and Syria has not prevented IS or its affiliated groups from spreading their wings in sub-Saharan Africa (Sahel), Mozambique and the Horn of Africa. It is by now undeniable that the roots of extremist fundamentalism and terrorism lie in the Afghan wars of the last half century. Al Qaeda found its feet as an international terrorist force on Afghan soil. Osama ben Laden may be dead, but his ideas permeated the Middle East, particularly and spectacularly seen in the rise and rise of IS. Its defeat in that theatre notwithstanding, IS has found ready followers in Africa, widening its scope and expanding the struggle against it worldwide. On June 28, 2021, an anti-IS coalition of 77 countries and five organisations set up seven years ago met in Rome to chart its future steps against an IS on the run in Iraq and Syria but alarmingly resurgent in Africa. Co-chaired by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, the meeting took stock of the current efforts to ensure the complete defeat of IS everywhere. The coalition is hoping to stabilise the areas liberated from IS’ grasp, repatriate and bring to book foreign fighters for their participation in IS’s military actions, and combat extremist messaging. The co-chairmen urged the representatives at the meeting not to drop their guard and step up the actions taken by the coalition, thereby increasing the areas in which it can operate. Antony Blinken called for the coalition to create a special mechanism to deal with the rising threat in Africa. He also noted that despite its defeat, IS in Iraq and Syria still aspires to conduct large-scale attacks. He urged the coalition members to stay as committed to their stabilisation goals as they did to their military campaign that resulted in victory on the battlefield. Blinken announced a new US contribution of $ 436 million to assist displaced people in Syria and surrounding countries and called for a fresh effort to repatriate and rehabilitate or prosecute some 10,000 IS fighters imprisoned by the Syrian Defence Forces, a situation he described as simply untenable and that cannot persist indefinitely. He also announced sanctions against Ousmane Illiassou Djibo from Niger and a key leader of the IS affiliate in the greater Sahara region. In addition to the meeting on IS, foreign ministers of countries concerned about the broader conflict in Syria also met in Rome ahead of a UN vote on maintaining a humanitarian aid corridor from Turkey. Russia is resisting reauthorising the channel amid stalled peace talks between the Syrian government and rebel groups.
While it is heartening that the anti-IS coalition is keeping its eye on the ball as far as IS in Iraq, Syria and Africa is concerned, what weakens its efforts are the complications engendered by its overt and covert support to the forces that attempted to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The Syrian government was able to survive unlike its fellow Arab holdouts against Israel, i.e. Iraq and Libya, only because of the concerted help of Iran and Russia. The Syrian civil war is still sputtering, leaving in its wake many displaced people without adequate means of survival. But aid to such people through the corridor from Turkey may only be acceptable if Ankara withdraws its forces from Syrian soil and desists intervening in that country’s civil war. Similarly, if the anti-IS coalition is serious about its goals, it must stop supporting forces fighting Damascus, and the US must end its unnecessary lingering in Iraq, an issue that is still giving rise to conflict with Shia militias that are routinely denigrated as ‘pro-Iranian’ forces.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2021