The United States, Russia, Britain and France have been relentlessly bombing Islamic State (ISIS) positions. And yet ISIS is not in retreat. Though the Iraqi army on Monday recaptured Ramadi, provincial capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar region, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains defiant. In a 24-minute audio message released last Saturday, he taunted Western governments: "Your hearts are full of fear from the Mujahideen."
What is needed to defeat ISIS and end the unspeakable brutalities it is inflicting on its victims? The short answer: ground troops.
Aerial bombing has limitations. President US Barack Obama has forbidden US fighter jets from targeting civilian areas in ISIS-held territory. Consider Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital and headquarters. A cluster of buildings in Raqqa houses top ISIS leaders, control centres and a jail. The jail has civilian prisoners from the West as well as from local militias. The US has so far avoided bombing these buildings for fear of loss of civilian life.
Russia has no such compunctions. But it too has not bombed ISIS buildings in Raqqa, instead targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's heavily armed opponents backed by America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Zahran Alloush, leader of one of the most powerful of these groups, Jaysh al-Islam, was killed last week in a Russian air strike.
The key cities under ISIS control are Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. They need to be re-captured if ISIS is to be defeated. The only way to do that is commiting ground troops.
On December 29, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi said that "2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh's presence in Iraq will be terminated." He may be underestimating ISIS' resilience.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 with a force of over 1,00,000 US ground troops, which led to the eventual emergence of ISIS, was misconceived. It destroyed the Iraqi army, led to the dismantling of the Iraqi bureaucracy and set Sunni against Shia.
But when ground troops are required - as they are now in Syria and Iraq - US policy has again proved shortsighted. Obama is obsessed with ousting Assad who may be a brutal dictator but is still a better option than either ISIS or opposition terrorist groups like Jaysh al-Islam which the CIA has been funding and arming for over four years in an attempt to remove Assad from office.
If Washington's earlier Iraq policy was myopic, its Syria policy today operates blindfolded. Obama has proved a timid, indecisive leader. He withdrew US ground troops from Iraq before the country could rebuild its army to defend the country from ISIS. As a result, key areas in Iraq are now under ISIS control.
The Middle-East has a chequered history. Countries like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not exist before 1920. After the First World War ended in defeat for the Ottomans in 1918, the Americans, British and French carved up the Ottoman-ruled Middle-East into artificial nations, disregarding old sectarian conflicts between Shia, Sunni, Kurd and other ethnicities.
Nearly 100 years later the day of reckoning has arrived. A long-term solution to the Iraq and Syria crisis may involve the trifurcation of each country into autonomous Shia, Sunni and Kurd provinces as they were, loosely, under the Ottomans. What the Western powers stitched together in the 1920s is unravelling today.
ISIS has meanwhile taken full advantage. To defeat it militarily, US-led ground troops are necessary. To sustain the military victory over ISIS, a political solution too will be needed: trifurcation or at best self-governing, autonomous provinces under Shia, Sunni and Kurd control. This could be an unpalatable, but inevitable outcome.
In his latest audio message, al-Baghdadi has vowed publicly for the first time to attack Israel. He has continued his scathing criticism of Saudi Arabia, calling upon Saudi citizens to "rise up against the apostate tryrants, and avenge your people in Syria, Iraq and Yemen." Much of ISIS' tirade against Saudi Arabia is for public consumption.
Saudi Arabia is the progenitor of ISIS along with Qatar and other Gulf states. It funded ISIS until, like all Frankensteins, it turned rogue and began attacking Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia has a record of brutal human rights violations in which close ally America, through its silence, has been complicit. An article by Washington-based human rights lawyer Arjun Sethi, an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, recently exposed the Saudi-US nexus in clinical detail:
"Saudi law criminalises dissent and the expression of fundamental civil rights. Those who simply expect Saudi Arabia to reform its criminal justice system ignore the fact that the kingdom is an authoritarian regime that uses the law as a tool to maintain and consolidate power. They also ignore the reality that Saudi Arabia often escapes moral condemnation in large part because of its close relationship with the US.
"In 2014, for example, President Barack Obama visited the kingdom but made no mention of its ongoing human rights violations. The two leaders discussed energy security and military intelligence, shared interests that have connected the US and Saudi Arabia for nearly a century. Obama travelled to the kingdom earlier this year to offer his condolences on the passing of King Abdullah and to meet with the new ruler, King Salman. Again, human rights were never mentioned. Instead, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice tweeted that Abdullah was a 'close and valued friend of the United States'.
"This deafening silence is not lost on Saudi Arabia and has emboldened its impunity. In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the kingdom's brutal campaign against its Shia minority and political opposition has deepened. Despite its appalling human rights record, Saudi Arabia was awarded a seat on the UN Human Rights Council last year and this summer was selected to oversee an influential committee within the council that appoints officials to report on country-specific and thematic human rights challenges. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has used its newfound power to thwart an international inquiry into allegations that it committed war crimes in Yemen."
Complicity between Washington and Riyadh has allowed ISIS to become the venal threat it is today. Defeating ISIS is one thing; cleansing the Middle East of the malaise of Wahhabism spread by Saudi Arabia and left unchallenged by the US is quite another.