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High stakes as Arab countries join strikes on Islamic State

26 September 2014


USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk Cruise missile from the Arabian Gulf on Tuesday

USS Philippine Sea launches a Tomahawk Cruise missile from the Arabian Gulf on Tuesday

SEVERAL Arab countries took a calculated gamble when they joined the United States in the extension of the air attacks against Islamic State (IS) to include targets in Syria this week.

The involvement of forces from Sunni-dominated countries in strikes on Sunni insurgents risks a public backlash if civilian lives are lost. On the other hand, allowing the continued existence of the IS's self-declared caliphate increases the risk that the jihadists might gain public support in a region characterised by political sterility.

The IS is a rare example of an Arab group presenting a clear Islam-rooted ideology. The caliphate, by its nature, throws down a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia's position as the guardian of Islam.

President Obama's decision to order air strikes inside Syrian territory came in the wake of swift progress over previous days by IS fighters in Kurdish areas in the north of the country.

As the Church Times went to press, the UK Parliament was expected to be recalled today, to debate British air strikes against the IS. David Cameron told NBC News on Tuesday: "There is no doubt in my mind it [the IS] has already undertaken and is planning further plots in Europe, including in my own country, in order to kill and maim innocent people. . . This is a fight you cannot opt out of. These people want to kill us."

Mr Cameron was due to meet the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, at the UN on Wednesday, the first such meeting for a British Prime Minister since 1979.

On Wednesday, Baptist and Methodist leaders warned of the "huge risk" of military action. "Any intervention must be legally justified, and can only be supported as one part of a broad political and economic strategy which must have the support of countries in the region."

Before the jihadists' advance, there was a surge in the number of civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border, raising the demand for humanitarian assistance across the Middle East.

A representative of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Carol Batchelor, has called for outside assistance for Turkey to help it cope with the latest influx. The country is already caring for about one million homeless people.

"This is an international responsibility," she said. "The question is: what will the international community do to provide support and solidarity to Turkey to ensure that the capacity is there? We appeal to all countries to increase their aid." Refugees were "deeply fearful. This is no longer an issue of access to food or water. They are fleeing for their lives."

Christians and others waiting in refugee camps across the region are watching to see whether the expanded military campaign against IS might signal an eventual end to their suffering.

But the signs are that a significant change of circumstances in Iraq and Syria is still a distant prospect. Despite the intensified airstrikes, IS forces continue to capture more territory and impose their uncompromising ideology on those in their path.

Non-Islamic communities are particularly at risk. Churches and other symbols of Christian faith continue to be destroyed. In a recent incident, IS fighters are said to have desecrated and destroyed a church in the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zur which commemorated the Armenian genocide of 1915. The Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nalbandian, denounced "this hideous crime. . . The international community should immediately stop and uproot this plague threatening the civilised world."

The desire to uproot IS is as strong among Arab leaders as anyone else. But the decision of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to join the military coalition raises the temperature in the Middle East. Jihadists and their sympathisers are already denouncing these states as agents of the West (or "the Crusaders", to use their terminology).

There is still anger and disappointment among Arab leaders that the West failed to intervene early on in the Syrian crisis to bring down the Assad regime before IS became a powerful force. Equally, there is little expectation that Western governments will take action beyond air-strikes.

The likelihood, then, is a period of prolonged airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, and prolonged tension in Arab countries which will be bracing themselves for a negative reaction to their decision to back the US-led campaign. All of this means that the millions of displaced Syrians and Iraqis are unlikely to be heading home for months, possibly many months.

Schooling can help fight terrorism - Paul Vallely 


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