It is extraordinary that after an 18 month ISIS rampage of beheadings, torture and executions across northern Iraq and Syria, and after the killing including crucifixion of 500 Yahidi men because of their Christian faith, the brutal murder of one man has now aroused such passion in the West. But that of course is because he was an American. It even brings Cameron scurrying back from his holiday to take charge – but to do what? This is a real turning point in the West’s confrontation with the international jihadism that was unleashed by the illegitimate and disastrous Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq a decade ago. The jihadist movement is now far stronger in the territory it holds, in its related clusters in Nigeria, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, in its resources from kidnapping, control of oilfields and smuggling, and in its tactical capacity to disrupt the West. They face Western nations in the mirror reverse of uncertain response, bruised by a decade of war weariness in Iraq and Afghanistan, hobbled by the veto on boots on the ground, and rather lamely having to appeal to allies in the Middle East to take a leading role.
Even Obama’s main instrument of retaliation, American airpower, may be constrained by the ISIS threat of further beheadings of foreign nationals, especially US citizens, if air attacks continue. Already another captured US journalist has been threatened with the same fate if US bombing continues, and ISIS has taken another 4 foreign hostages near Aleppo, bringing to 20 the number they hold. Another constraint is that whilst US air strikes continue in Iraq, ISIS acts with impunity in Syria because of the earlier Western decision to withhold bombing or missile attacks on that country. That still leaves other potential means of exerting pressure against ISIS, notably the use of drones to destroy personnel or munitions targets, the use of SAS specialist troops to pinpoint targets and pass back key intelligence, the squeezing of ISIS funding lines especially from wealthy donors (including Saudi Arabia), and attempts to concert Arab resistance against extreme Sunni militancy. But this is hardly a full-blooded pushback against a rampaging enemy resorting to psychopathic violence.
The ultimate ISIS objective is the disruption of the Western-dominated international order that is perceived to suppress the billion or more Muslims across the world, beginning with the territorial establishment of of an Islamic caliphate, according to al-Baghdadi’s mediaeval revival, across the Middle East. The ending of the imperial boundaries arbitrarily drawn in 1916 and the right to self-determination for both Sunni and Shia populations in the Middle East (so long as it includes protection for ethnic or tribal minorities) must certainly be on the agenda. And it will ultimately require a conference of all the key regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US and the EU as well as ISIS itself – under the auspices of the UN to establish the new principles of the Middle East free of external imperialism.