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Strategic patience? Displaced Iraqis, fleeing the ISIS advance into Ramadi, cross the Euphrates into Baghdad (photo: Haydar Hadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The captures of the strategically significant city of Ramadi in Iraq and the historically significant Palmyra in Syria together represent a symbolic success for ISIS. Losing them to a force that President Obama last year dismissed as minor-league players should serve as a wake-up call to the West. The consequences of Obama’s inaccurate assessment are clear. ISIS augmented their battlefield victory by launching the Turkish-language magazine Constantinople. It is yet another addition to their sophisticated propaganda campaign. They have joined a list of state and non-state actors exploiting a period of weak American leadership in order to redraw the map of the world through asymmetric warfare. In the case of ISIS it has been trying to open up buried faultlines in the countries bordering its self-declared caliphate — Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Now ISIS is starting to extend their influence across North Africa. Obama’s lacklustre response was to reiterate that he still does not “yet have a complete strategy”, a point he made 10 months earlier. In reality the problem is not an absence of strategy but a strategy that is failing disastrously and which the White House refuses to change.

Under Obama’s stewardship, the post-Cold War international order has started to unravel, bringing anarchy in its wake. When Obama came to office in 2009 it would have been unimaginable that a caliphate could be allowed to thrive in the midst of the Middle East or that a US president would be foolish enough to try to exploit ancient Persian and Arab enmity for the purposes of American retrenchment. Obama’s now familiar refrain is to counsel “strategic patience” while suggesting that America cannot solve every world problem. He remains oblivious to the fact that his worldview is the problem. ISIS has created a vision of the future which Obama appears unable to grasp. Its caliphate is being sustained through the mass murder and repression of those who do not belong.

It is clear that ISIS is neither an outgrowth of al-Qaeda nor the next step in its development. Elements of the media have been peddling the inaccurate characterisation of ISIS as simply a new extremist group whose brutality even al-Qaeda finds excessive. Such a viewpoint explains Obama’s strategy of containment; it suggests that ISIS’s brutality will ultimately cause its demise because it must be at odds with popular sentiment on the ground. Osama bin-Laden prioritised Saudi Arabia and America. In contrast, al-Qaeda in Iraq and now ISIS made the extermination of Shia Muslims a priority. In other words, ISIS is neither a reaction to Western action nor primarily concerned with the West.

ISIS understood from the outset that targeting Shiites and then Kurds would give it significant appeal to Sunni Arabs in Iraq and around the Persian Gulf. Where bin-Laden tried to rally Muslims by attacking America, ISIS has created popular support by killing Shiites, Kurds and Christians. There are more than 20 million Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, a large number of whom are now actively or passively cooperating with ISIS and who would presumably take up arms to resist Kurdish, Shia or American domination. In this light it remains hard to suggest that this is a terrorist organisation, as al-Qaeda was. Nonetheless, last September Obama drew a line of continuity between the two organisations, arguing that ISIS is “a terrorist organisation, pure and simple”. In both a strategic and ideological sense, although ISIS uses terror, it is quite unlike al-Qaeda and it requires a military and political rather than a counter-terror strategy to defeat it.

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