Skip to main content

ISIS is forcing a 'moment of truth'

By Wesley Clark
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Fire and smoke rise from the Syrian city of Kobani following airstrikes against the ISIS militant group on Thursday, October 30. ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters have been battling for control of the city near the Turkish border, and the United States and several Arab nations have been bombing ISIS targets to take out the group's ability to command, train and resupply its fighters. Fire and smoke rise from the Syrian city of Kobani following airstrikes against the ISIS militant group on Thursday, October 30. ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters have been battling for control of the city near the Turkish border, and the United States and several Arab nations have been bombing ISIS targets to take out the group's ability to command, train and resupply its fighters.
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
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
>
>>
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
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT