US Defense Secretary Ash Carter and colleagues from 10 other countries have met in Stuttgart to discuss the fight against “Islamic State.” In an interview with DW, Middle East expert Udo Steinbach evaluates their work.
DW: Mr. Steinbach, how would you rate the work of the anti-IS coalition thus far?
Steinbach: The bottom line is that the record is quite sobering. When it began one-and-a-half years ago, one hoped that they would adequately coordinate; that they would develop the firepower to destroy “Islamic State.” There have been a few successes: the Kurds have really shown their battle scars; Kobani was a success (ed. note: In January 2015, Kurdish fighters with the support of the American air force won back the northern Syrian city of Kobani from IS), Ramadi in Iraq as well. But then it stayed steady. At the end, one might say that too many cooks spoiled the broth. There are too many partners, too many differing interests and only one unified decision at the lowest common denominator.
There have been military successes in Syria and Iraq . In Libya, however, IS is making inroads and has made a game out of the chaotic situation. Is Libya the biggest challenge?
No, the biggest challenge is Syria. There, it’s about the state as a whole; Libya, in that respect, is one step ahead. Libya’s statehood is not really being questioned, except from those people who are a part of “Islamic State,” which has its own concept. The German UN intermediary, Martin Kobler, is bringing the parties together. Of course, as before, there are free areas into which “Islamic State” can penetrate, but my hunch is that their days are numbered there and sooner rather than later we will see a government in power capable of acting. In Syria, that development is only in the distant future; the regime in Baghdad is likewise not particularly stable.
Can IS be beaten at the military level?
One can only subdue them militarily. You can’t speak with these people, you can’t discuss anything with them. They only have this one version of Islam that is absolutely exclusionary, not only about what the citizens in the areas they control do, but also in regards to the West. That means that a military solution is the only solution. But then, they have to really be unanimous, cohesive – and that’s where the problem lies. Everyone knows that they need to come to a military solution. The Iranians know this, the Saudis, the Kurds, those in the West. But the will to establish a political and military coalition that is strong enough to eliminate this specter of Islamic commonwealth just isn’t there.
The German role is rather humble in comparison to that of France, for example. Is it enough?
I would speculate that the Germans will ramp up their contingent; to date it hasn’t gone so poorly. We’re taking part in air operations with the use of Tornado aircraft for reconnaissance and I believe that the training German soldiers are doing, especially with the Kurds, has accomplished a bit. Even the delivery of weapons has increased efficiency, but once again, that’s not enough. It’s half-hearted. Above all, it’s lacking in cooperation and coordination.
The coalition is very wide-ranging, including Western as well as Muslim countries. But Russia is missing. Isn’t it implicit that Russia belong?
Russia does belong; they are also fighting militarily. The Russians are active in the fight against “Islamic State” in Syria, but they, too, are only half-hearted as they’re simultaneously fighting the opposition to [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. Russia has to be a part of it, but it has to obtain an obvious position.
The same is true of another very, very important country: Turkey. With Turkey, one has no idea where they stand. Are they taking part in the fight against “Islamic State”? Is the “Kurdish problem” a priority? Here, too, we have a half-heartedness, which, given the state of things, no one can actually manage because Turkey, as we’ve seen in recent months, is itself threatened by “Islamic State.”
What should the future strategy look like, and what are the chances of neutralizing IS?
I believe that the central problem is the coordination of military and political energy. Creating a front among the Kurds and the Iraqi army – which has to play a central role, between Turkey as well as Iran, which being Shiite is one of the most influential powers to play a role in Iraq. The West, Europe, the US, they cannot play a deciding role. They can provide military support, but they can’t play the deciding role. That has to come from regional powers.
Udo Steinbach is a Middle East expert and researcher on Islam, and the former head of the Hamburg Oriental Institute.
The interview was conducted by Christoph Hasselbach.