Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Comprehensive strategy needed to fight violent extremism

Countries as far as Japan have felt the pain from ISIS’s terror when journalist Kenji Goto was kidnapped and executed in January

By Javad Zarif

VIOLENT extremism is probably the most critical challenge that is not only menacing our region, but in fact the entire world, where threats recognise no borders. It is a grave threat that has already ravaged Iraq and Syria and cast gloom over the region’s horizons. Its global reach and stated worldwide ambitions make it clear that it has major implications for the geopolitical and security environment, not only in our immediate neighbourhood, but also in many other parts of the world.

The success of Da’esh (also known as ISIS) in seizing control over swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq is often attributed to a number of factors, including the weakness or collapse of central government authority, continued financial and military support from certain regional governments, lax border control that allows cross border movement of recruits—deliberate or unplanned—access to huge weapons depots in Syria and Iraq, battle-hardened during their fight with the US in Iraq for many years, and being well-supported with revenues from oil and human smuggling.

While the above have been all important, there is another important factor enabling Da’esh to grab land: the major role the former members of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party and officers of Saddam’s army played in command and control of Da’esh and its affiliates in Iraq and Syria. The alliance of convenience between ISIS and Ba’ath could enhance Da’esh’s terrorist techniques with classic military organisation and skill. Hoping to restore the former political system in Iraq, the Ba’athists brought the smuggling networks developed to circumvent sanctions in the 1990s to help ISIS.

There is a broad international consensus that Da’esh and similar groups, including those who fan sectarian violence, are criminal entity that should be defeated. While this consensus is an asset, translating it into a targeted and effective set of actions has proven elusive. The international community continues to suffer from the lack of a comprehensive, consistent and coherent strategy to confront violent extremism. Such a strategy must address the problem in its entirety and have the following components:

First, it should be serious, global, rule-based, non-discriminatory, inclusive, and avoid selective applications based on defunct patterns of alliance and bilateral relations. In so doing, all actors must avoid the temptation to prioritise political considerations above this goal. It should also provide for a paradigm shift in which all actors avoid employing the fight against violent extremism as an instrument of alliance policy, and abandon selectivity and double standard in conducting this fight.

Second, it should be based upon and in full compliance with the norms and principles of international law and the provisions of the UN Charter, in particular the principle of refraining from the threat or use of force against other states. We cannot uproot a menace by solidifying its foundations and widening its recruitment opportunities.

Third, it should stipulate that any war against violent extremism must be fought first and foremost on a cultural and ideological front. Thus, a winning strategy should mobilise religious and community leaders, media outlets, universities, social media and similar outlets to reject twisted, violence-oriented interpretation of religions and denounce hateful and violent philosophy, which essentially runs counter to the basic teachings of all religions. In this context, the recent message of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, to European and North American youth is a serious endeavour to initiate such enlightened cultural and ideological discourse.

Fourth, it should also address the contributing factors that help create space for and sustain extremism, including dictatorship, poverty, corruption and discrimination. Economic, political, and cultural disenfranchisement of the youth in the West as well as discriminatory measures that marginalise people of foreign descent should be addressed. The continued occupation of Palestine and the plight of the Palestinian people and their tragic predicament have been another effective recruitment tool for extremist groups like Da’esh, which require attention and action.

Fifth, it should contain measures to counter Islamophobia, which conflates violent extremists and true Muslims, thus playing right into the hands of Da’esh and similar Takfiri groups and directly lending credence to the extremists’ messaging.

Sixth, it should engage all regional states and international actors to deny extremists access to funds, recruits and other resources. That should include resolute measures with a view to putting an end to moral, material, logistical and financial support for extremists coming from private or public entities or individuals within or beyond the region. Denying extremists free movement, including through enforcing effective and coordinated border control, will be critical to the success of this campaign; as will be the disruption of financial and logistical support networks and the sharing of information and intelligence. It should encourage the international community, including the West—if they are really interested in ending extremism and defeating Da’esh—to make external military and political support to all actors in the region conditional on their genuinely fighting Da’esh and other violent and extremist groups.

Seventh, it should provide for extending support to those countries that are directly engaged in fighting violent extremists. They should be assisted in their efforts towards strengthening their national unity and territorial integrity. This approach requires discouraging centrifugal forces and non-interference with the ethnic and sectarian mosaic of nations. Any approach that undermines these authorities while differentiating between segments of population in terms of protection will be a recipe for defeat.

Eighth, it should provide for a renewed focus on the imperative to fight Da’esh and its affiliates and prevent nations, particularly in the Middle East, from undermining the unified front against extremism in all its forms. Military campaign against Yemen is a case in point, in that it has emboldened and provided space for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. An understanding between countries and factions opposed to Da’esh and its affiliates would provide a more conducive environment for a more effective fight against extremism. Trying to undermine those who have proven their resolve and dedication to fight Da’esh while embracing those who have been tepid in this regards, would undercut the efforts towards containing, let alone uprooting extremism.

Iranians have been consistent in rejecting and fighting violent extremism from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to AQAP, Da’esh and others similar forces in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Iran takes pride in being instrumental in preventing extremists from consolidating their rule in Afghanistan in the late 1990s by providing support to the forces resisting the Taliban. Iran has shown unqualified determination to help the Iraqi government and coordinate with it to assist all those threatened by Da’esh. When, during the first blitz by this group in June and July 2014, all others were taken aback and stunned or were hallucinating about possible tactical gains, we rose to the challenge and helped save Baghdad and Erbil from Da’esh, with our advisers and military supplies being there before any other help arrived on the scene.

We also rose to the challenge on the cultural and ideological front. When some were pushing for destructive war and social engineering in our region in 2001, Iran proposed, “A Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilisations,” adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2001.

More recently, and long before the battlefield successes of the extremists alerted the whole world, Iranian President Rouhani introduced a comprehensive agenda for “A World against Violent Extremism,” that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2013. This agenda provides a path to combat violent extremism and, if thoroughly pursued and implemented, would help empower peoples around the world to effectively address this serious challenge that we all face.

On the basis of the experience that Iran has so far gained and the success it has achieved in its efforts towards containing and defeating the scourge of violent extremism, we are prepared to contribute to all genuine and comprehensive efforts at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. Cooperation at all these levels is imperative for defeating Da’esh, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and their affiliates, because they represent a global threat that jeopardises not only local communities but also those located far from the centres of these crises. We hope that regional and global stakeholders will sooner rather than later recognise this imperative and engage in this collective endeavour.

Javad Zarif is the foreign minister of Iran.

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