Skip to main content

ISIS is forcing a 'moment of truth'

By Wesley Clark
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
A Syrian Kurdish refugee child from the Kobani area holds laundry on a cold morning at a camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, on Monday, November 17. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. A Syrian Kurdish refugee child from the Kobani area holds laundry on a cold morning at a camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border, on Monday, November 17. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wesley Clark: U.S. must respond to ISIS threat, but with coordinated regional response
  • He says U.S. can support Islamic friends in region threatened by ISIS, but can't fight their war
  • He says ISIS has sights on states like Jordan, Lebanon; it could well seize Saudi Arabia
  • Clark: U.S. involvement only helps recruit jihadists. Mideast nations facing their moment of truth

Editor's note: Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and NATO's former supreme allied commander in Europe, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. Clark consults and advises companies in the satellite communications, biotechnology and energy fields, some with government and Department of Defense contracts.

(CNN) -- America was rightly shocked by the brutal, videotaped murder of American journalist James Foley.

But we should not have been surprised. The Islamic State, as the jihadist group calls itself, has murdered, raped and savaged its way across borders in the Mideast and into the headlines as the latest terrorist foe from the region.

Foley's murder not only gives terrorist stature to ISIS but also, if it draws U.S. ground troops into the fight, will have given ISIS a recruiting bonanza. So the U.S. response requires, not just a set of airstrikes in revenge, but serious strategic calculation.

The U.S. must build a coordinated regional response -- diplomatic, economic and military -- with ground troops from our regional allies and friends, and with possible U.S. support with intelligence, logistics and airstrikes. But we cannot fight this war for our Islamic friends in the region.

Despite its pretensions, ISIS is not yet a state. It was initially a group of fighters funded, armed and assisted by groups or governments opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But its call for a caliphate governed by extremist interpretations of Sharia law precisely echoes Saudi Wahhabi teaching, and is magnetic to disaffected, vulnerable young people.

Thus far ISIS has perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 fighters or more, some heavy equipment, cash, oil, and a stunned, subdued population numbering perhaps a few million now suffering under extreme Sharia law. It is not, at this point, an existential military threat to an alerted Baghdad, backed by Iran (and the U.S.), or the Kurds, supported by U.S. airpower.

While it has challenged al-Assad's forces in Syria, it is more focused on carving out its territory in northern Syria, destabilizing Lebanon, and probably preparing for bolder moves against other states in the region, such as Jordan.

Who is the ISIS?

ISIS fighters, including perhaps a few thousand alienated young people from Europe, the Caucasus, or North America, do pose a terrorist threat far beyond the territory occupied by ISIS. Governments are anxiously screening travelers and seeking to block, intern, or otherwise isolate these potential terrorists when they depart Syria. This is difficult, but our homeland security is far stronger than it was a decade ago. The U.S., at least, should be able to handle this very serious threat

But if ISIS is allowed to consolidate its gains, build its forces, spread its tentacles of terror and subversion, then it will pose a serious threat to Lebanon, Jordan and the principal Sunni states in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Map: Where is ISIS?

Saudi Arabia must recognize that it will eventually become the primary target of ISIS. It controls the most holy sites of Islam, and by its adherence to, promotion and export of extremist interpretations of Islam, Saudi Arabia is uniquely vulnerable to the ISIS's moral suasion.

Massive purchases of Western arms will help only if the Saudi armed forces and populace remain loyal to the Saudi government. For Saudi Arabia, this time, there's no safety in underwriting the services of others from outside the region. Ultimately, it will have to be the Saudi people themselves, their ruling family and their clergy who rally to defeat the threat of ISIS.

Will Obama hit ISIS in Syria?
Who killed James Foley?
U.S. considers containing ISIS in Syria
U.S. prepared to strike ISIS in Syria

Make no mistake: The latent threat is that ISIS could seize control in Saudi Arabia, with all its oil, revenues, and modern weaponry.

Therefore, coordinated action against ISIS is urgent. But because ISIS's motive force is primarily religious, and because the U.S. armed forces are neither linguistically nor culturally best adapted for a sustained fight in the region, we should be wary of committing major land forces.

Opinion: How U.S. can help Syria drive out ISIS

The U.S. has learned the hard way that Western armies inflame extremists and serve as recruiting magnets for terrorists. Instead, other nations, and particularly Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, must put their soldiers forward, and bear the brunt of the fighting.

The U.S. can use diplomacy and economic assistance, and it can strike using airpower, or special forces, to reinforce the efforts of our allies, but we cannot fight a religious war as proxies for our Islamic friends in the region.

5 key questions in the fight against ISIS

The Mideast is approaching its moment of truth, particularly for Saudi Arabia. Having exported and promoted extremist Sunni religious ideology, Saudi Arabia must face up to the threat posed by its own, even more extremist progeny. It must summon the courage to take a firm stand now, before ISIS becomes even stronger.

For the U.S. there is nothing to be gained by delay. We must work urgently, behind the scenes, to shape an effective regional response, in coordination with our friends and allies, now.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT