Once the shock over the beheading of James Foley — the American journalist recently executed in Iraq — subsides, a reaction very different from the one that followed a similarly gruesome execution in 2002 — that of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan — may set in. For one, there is nothing left of that earlier self-righteousness among Western nations that once allowed them to pat themselves on the back for their ability to smoke out enemies, and to destroy and rebuild societies. It is a much demure address that flows from the president of the United States of America, who denounces the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham for its inhumanity that no religion could have upheld. But other than professing “support” to the people of Iraq and of Syria, while they battle cold-blooded killers and tyrants, Barack Obama does not make lofty promises. He realizes, perhaps as David Cameron — the British prime minister who has returned from vacation — does, that although it is important to deliberate in the international conference that the French premier is planning in order to take stock of the pressing situation, it will no longer be as easy to march into Iraq with guns blazing as it was to walk into either Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq itself in 2003. The idea is to let regional players handle the mess while they provide them support, limited but sustained. The plan has already been set in motion with the limited aerial bombardment by the US air force, the generous supply of arms to the Kurds and the cautious political machinations that have replaced Nouri al-Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi as Iraq’s prime minister. Mr al-Abadi has before him the unenviable task of once again befriending the Sunnis, Kurds and Sadrists the earlier government had alienated, apart from refurbishing the depleted Iraqi army, keeping the country together and preventing ancient communities from being exterminated by the marauding ISIS.
If that sounds like a tall order, take the one that the West is desperately trying to wish away. One, the fact that ISIS’s depradations have automatically given Bashar al-Assad a ticket to the high table with the other regional players. If ISIS has to be quelled, order has to be brought to neighbouring Syria — a feat impossible without the cooperation of Syria’s still-legitimate government. Two, the more numbing realization that the video of Foley’s murder brought with it — the presence of British nationals within ISIS. Will the West now have to hunt out the enemy within?