Western leaders and more than a half-dozen Arab countries finally decided to take military action against the Islamic State on September 14.
But, the pledge to use air strikes against Islamic Stateis simply not enough: Arab capitals—especially Cairo and Riyadh—must put boots on the ground and wage war against this organization.
Islamic State is not just perpetrating terrorism. What is occurring in the region is a Sunni-Arab civil war. It is a war for territory, a war for hearts and minds, and a war within a civilization.
Islamic State has a religio-political goal of setting up a classical caliphate based on the first centuries of Muslim armies advancing across the region a millennium ago. Their worldview puts all people outside of Sunni Islam into a second-class (or worse) status. Woe to women and minorities at the hands of this racially and religiously chauvinistic movement!
Islamic State is fighting an intra-civilizational battle. It is a war for the heart of the Sunni Arab world, fought in the heartland of the old caliphate based in Baghdad. Thus, Islamic State is a threat not just to the Bashard al-Assad regime or minority Kurds and Alawis and Yazidis, but to majority Sunni Arabs and their neighbors across the region.
This is a civil war: Sunni Arabs fighting and killing Sunni Arabs, and thus a threat to stability across the region. Therefore, it cannot be won by Shiite (Iran), Kurds, Alawis (the Assad regime), Jews (Israel), or the West alone: a real victory must be won by Sunni Arabs.
Consequently, Arab leaders in the region must rise up and respond. After a year of dithering, the Arab League finally in August 2014 took a firm stand against Islamic State. And on September 14 some of those countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, appear to finally agree to take an active role in pushing back the group.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are critical actors: both countries have advanced weaponry and training provided courtesy of the U.S. Elements of their national militaries are well-trained and they could quickly engage the enemy if invited by Amman, Jordan and Baghdad.
Air strikes are simply not enough. Islamic State can fade into urban areas and become a lurking threat for the next decade. Instead, Arab leaders must send in real military forces to beat Islamic State and then hold the territory.
Could they do it? Could, for instance, Egypt take the lead in “liberating” its Iraqi Arab brethren?
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ “The Military Balance 2014,” Egypt’s standing military is among the largest in the world at 439,000 active duty troops. Iraq with 271,000, and Saudi Arabia with 234,000, rank second and third in the region in terms of numbers, although Iraq’s forces have largely been on their heels against Islamic State.
According to the institute, Saudi Arabia has the world’s fourth highest defense budget, outspending everyone but the U.S., Russia, and China. These Arab states have the firepower; whether or not they have the will is another matter.
Of course, the Shiite majority in Iraq, as well as Iran, may not like this idea.
However, Sunni Arab boots on the ground makes sense in many ways: it supports Jordan (who ducked at signing any commitment to fight); it aligns with Turkish interests; marginalizes Assad; supports the moderate Syrian rebels; and buttresses the Kurdish peshmerga.
Sunni Iraqis would rejoice at help from Cairo and Riyadh and the West need not lead with active military forces on the ground. The U.S. in particular can provide needed logistical and airlift support without having to send in combat brigades.
Despite the rhetoric, there really are no cases of successful airstrikes holding the ground against an insurgency like Islamic State. They can be pushed from the air, but victory happens on the ground.
A victory against Islamic State in the field would also be a victory for the Saudis and Egyptians against violent extremism at home. If Islamic State continues to be successful, it will pull more and more recruits to its cause from across the region and may even spin-off local affiliates as Al Qaeda has done in the past.
It is time for Sunni Arabs to take the fight to Islamic State and end this now.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the School of Government at Regent University and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. He is the author or editor of 11 books, including “Ending Wars Well “(Yale UP, 2012).
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