Since the emergence of the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), we have heard one refrain of politspeak be repeated at any and every meeting between Arab and Western officials, particularly US officials: “The two sides agreed on the need for coordination in the fight against ISIS,” or something along these lines. This, of course, is all well and good, but what about other terrorist organizations?
It is puzzling that there are some terrorist groups that must be fought, and others that are simply being ignored. Every joint statement issued by Arab and Western officials calling for “cooperation” in the fight against terrorism should be clear and comprehensive and, most importantly, call a thing by its proper name. So the statement that was issued from Camp David following US President Barack Obama’s meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders should also have explicitly named Shi’ite terrorist groups, in the same manner that it named ISIS and others. There should be Arab and international cooperation against all terrorist groups in the region, whether they are Sunni or Shi’ite. Otherwise, we are allowing terrorism in all its forms to prosper and this is something that harms the very concept of the state and national sovereignty.
What is happening in Iraq and Syria is the clearest example of this, as well as the ongoing situation in Yemen. Why don’t Arabs and the West label the Shi’ite armed militias in Iraq and Syria as what they really are? In Iraq we have the so-called Popular Mobilization forces, which are made up of armed Shi’ite groups and militias like the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, the Peace Brigades and Saraya Tala’a Al-Khorasani, among others. How can we, in principle, accept hardline Shi’ite armed militias usurping the role of the state to liberate Sunni-majority Ramadi from ISIS? What about the official name of this “Labaik Ya Hussein” (We obey you, Hussein) military operation and the clear sectarian overtones contained therein?
Following Sunni, Iraqi, Arab and international outrage, the name of this operation was changed to “Labaik Ya Iraq” (We obey you, Iraq), but the point still stands. How can we accept Shi’ite Iraqi militias being armed to fight ISIS in Sunni-majority territory, while the calls of local Sunni tribes for arms and military assistance to combat ISIS are being ignored?
The silence over the Popular Mobilization forces, and other Shi’ite militias in the region, has emboldened Hezbollah in Lebanon and encouraged it to interfere elsewhere in the region, including in Syria and Yemen. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah recently called for forces similar to that of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization to be replicated in Syria, Lebanon and across the region.
So, there are many questions that must be asked, and answered, regarding just where we are heading. Isn’t it the role of the state to deal with threats like the one posed by ISIS in Ramadi, rather than sectarian militias being allowed to take charge? How can we defuse the ugly sectarian conflict that is brewing in the region?
So yes, ISIS is a terrorist group and the Al-Nusra Front is a terrorist group; The Iraqi Popular Mobilization forces and its militias are also terrorists, as are the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Our duty is to confront terrorism in the region, regardless of sectarian differences. We must confront terrorism across the board and make sure that we name things as they are. This is the first step to resolving the deteriorating situation across the region which is striking a blow against the prestige of our states and creating division between citizens.
This is something that is particularly urgent in Iraq, as well as in Syria where moderate rebel forces need greater support. It will be a long journey, but we must take steps in the right direction to defuse the threat of sectarian terrorism. However if we fail to take this first step—dealing with terrorism and terrorist groups on an equal footing—then we are facing a long and difficult road that will have a prohibitive cost for the region and its people.