BAGHDAD — With the attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian passenger plane, the Islamic State has declared war on the wider world, galvanizing new calls for an intensified global effort to defeat the emerging threat.
It may already be too late and too difficult, however, for any swift or easy solution to the tangled mess the Middle East has become in the four years since the Arab Spring plunged the region into turmoil.
What Jordan’s King Abdullah II referred to as a “third world war against humanity” has, more accurately, become a jumble of overlapping wars driven by conflicting agendas in which defeating the Islamic State is just one of a number of competing and often contradictory policy pursuits.
In those four years, four Arab states — Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen — have effectively collapsed. Civil wars are raging in all of them. World powers have lined up on different sides of those wars. And the chaos has given the heirs to the legacy of Osama bin Laden the greatest gift they could have hoped for: the gift of time and space.
Aided by the disinterest of a world wearied and wary after the failings of the Iraq war, an assortment of al-Qaeda veterans, hardened Iraqi insurgents, Arab jihadist ideologues and Western volunteers have moved into the vacuum left by the collapse of governments in Syria and Iraq and built themselves a proto-state. It can hardly be said to count as a real state, but it controls territory, raises taxes and maintains an army.
Any responses now “are very late in the game,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The costs of inaction have accumulated, and we can’t undo the damage of the past four years.”
The Islamic State is finding new footholds in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan as state control crumbles there, too, confronting the world with a vastly bigger challenge than it faced after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, said Bruce Riedel, who is also with the Brookings Institution.
“We have now been fighting al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda offshoots, which is what the Islamic State is, since 1998,” he said. “We now face an enemy that has more sanctuaries and operating space than ever before. The battlefield is now much larger than it was before.”
It is also more complicated. At no point has any world power made defeating the Islamic State a top priority, including the United States, said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group. “Everyone’s using the Islamic State,” he said. It’s a diversion “from what’s really going on.”
For the Obama administration, avoiding entanglement in another Middle East war has been the foremost policy priority, followed closely by the pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. There seems to be little doubt that the United States has soft-pedaled its Syria policy, ostensibly aimed at removing President Bashar al-
Assad, in order not to jeopardize the Iran deal, Hamid said.
Russian intervention in the region has been driven primarily by President Vladimir Putin’s desire to reassert Russia’s stature as a global power and shore up Assad’s regime, hence the focus on targeting U.S.-backed moderate rebels rather than the Islamic State in the earliest days of its intervention.
Saudi Arabia, America’s most powerful Arab ally, is preoccupied above all by the challenge posed by Iran and is expending its military energies on fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.
Iran has prioritized the projection of its regional influence through Syria and Iraq to the Mediterranean, funding and arming proxy militias to defend its interests in Shiite-dominated areas of Iraq and to quell the anti-Assad rebellion mostly in the areas around Damascus, the Syrian capital.
And Turkey’s attention is focused mainly on its domestic Kurdish problem and on the perceived threat posed by the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish enclave along its border in northern Syria.
It seems unlikely that the Paris attacks will generate a more coherent international response, analysts say.
France has joined the United States and Russia in conducting airstrikes in Syria, raining bombs on the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa on two occasions since the bloodshed in Paris on Friday. On Tuesday, President François Hollande dispatched an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean, where Russian warships are already deployed for a fight that has focused mostly on Syrian rebels fighting Assad — some of whom also have been supported by France.
Syrian activists with the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which maintains a network of undercover reporters in Raqqa, say that the initial French strikes, at least, hit only empty buildings vacated by the militants in anticipation of retaliation.
Experience has already demonstrated that the Islamic State is unlikely to be defeated with airstrikes alone, and for now, there are few other alternatives on the horizon, Riedel said.
“The Islamic State can be degraded by air power, but in the end someone has to provide the infantry that goes in and takes Mosul and Raqqa and restores governance and rule of law, and I don’t see anyone offering that.”
In America, the Paris attacks have precipitated peripheral debates about whether the United States is waging war on Islam and the question of whether to admit Syrian refugees, rather than ways to address the wider problems of the Middle East.
Although there have been calls for more robust intervention, including boots on the ground, from some members of Congress, President Obama has made it clear that he thinks the current U.S. strategy is working.
And in recent days, there has been a spurt of progress on the ground. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters recaptured the eastern Syrian town of al-Hawl and dozens of surrounding villages. In northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters ejected the Islamic State from the town of Sinjar in 48 hours. The Iraqi army has made advances around Ramadi, the capital of the province of Anbar, which is now almost encircled.
The gains reflect a newly concerted effort to coordinate efforts among the diverse local forces fighting on the ground in order to pressure the Islamic State in multiple places at the same time, said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.
“We’re fighting them across the entire depth of the battlefield at once. We are synchronizing and aligning our support,” he said. “Each one of these gains is not necessarily compelling, but when you look at them simultaneously it’s very compelling.”
The gains nonetheless leave unaddressed the core problem confronting the region, which is the collapse of viable state structures in the Middle East and the absence of any immediately apparent alternative to Islamic State rule in the mostly Sunni areas it controls, said Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and now a fellow with the Middle East Institute.
Kurdish fighters have made most of the advances in Syria so far, but they are unlikely to succeed in retaking core Sunni strongholds such as Raqqa and other cities in the Sunni Arab territories that form the heart of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“Kurds are never going to liberate Palmyra; Kurds are not going to clear the Islamic State out of Deir al-Zour,” he said. “Sunni Arabs are going to have to do that, and what Arab force is going to do that? Assad doesn’t have the forces; he can’t even take the suburbs of Damascus.”
Likewise in Iraq, Shiite militias and Iraqi Kurds have made most of the gains so far. The Iraqi army’s recent advances in Ramadi have isolated Fallujah, which has been under Islamic State control for nearly two years, leaving residents besieged and short of food.
Many residents “would like Daesh to be expelled,” said Issa al-Issawi, the mayor of Fallujah, who left the city when the Islamic State, also known as Daesh, overran it and is living in government-controlled territory. “But at the same time they have major concerns about what would happen next.”
Obama acknowledged the problem in justifying his reluctance to commit troops to the fight. “We can retake territory and as long as we leave troops there we can hold it, but that does not solve the underlying dynamic that is producing these extremist groups,” he told journalists in Turkey this week.
Progress is being made on standing up Arab forces to fight in both Iraq and Syria, said Warren, citing the creation of an Arab coalition in northern Syria and ongoing efforts to train Sunni fighters in Iraq. The three-to-five-year timeline for defeating the Islamic State offered by the administration when airstrikes were launched last year is still on track, he said. “Now it’s two to four years.”
That may be an optimistic assessment, analysts say. The networks and ideology generated by al-Qaeda survived more than a decade of American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and are likely to endure for at least another decade, Riedel said.
In the meantime, more attacks of the kind launched in Paris are to be expected, a message the Obama administration seems to be trying to convey.
“We’ve always said there’s a threat of these kind of attacks around the world until we’ve made more progress,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told CNN in an interview Tuesday.