Hampton Roads academic experts weigh in on strikes against Islamic State

Daily Press

As a United States-led coalition launched military strikes against the Islamic State group Tuesday, professors at local universities with experience in foreign policy and defense weighed in on the volatile situation in the Middle East.

The U.S. and five predominantly Arab nations launched missile strikes into Syria and Iraq Tuesday, in initial efforts to destroy the terrorist organization, also referred to as "ISIL" or "ISIS."

Local naval forces have played a prominent role in the attacks, and several academic experts the Daily Press interviewed said they expected the coalition to be involved in a protracted fight against the Islamic State. But many disagreed on what would be needed to prevail against the Islamic State and stabilize the region.

Lawrence Wilkerson, a visiting adjunct professor at the College of William and Mary, and former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, said he didn't believe the current strategy in place would be effective in the long run for the war on terrorism.

"The only way you're going to manage the struggle, the only way you're going to manage global terrorism, is to do something about the reasons young people are recruited to its ranks," Wilkerson said. "The main purpose is to change U.S. actions, particularly in the Middle East."

Wilkerson said the U.S. was increasingly unpopular because of what's perceived as "unbalanced support for Israel" and at times supporting what he called "tyrants in the region."

"It's a complex situation we're in. Administrations like the Bush and the Obama administration try to deal with it as if we're not," Wilkerson said.

David Radcliffe, associate director of the military distance learning program at Old Dominion University, said he believes ground troops eventually would be needed to crush the Islamic State.

"I'm a little uncomfortable with the overall strategy," said Radcliffe, who served in the Air Force for 24 years. "I don't know if there's an easy way to eliminate this group."

Radcliffe said the Islamic State will likely attempt to blend in with the civilian population after initial airstrikes destroy training camps and other infrastructure the group has developed.

"I don't know if it can all be done through the air," Radcliffe said. "Somebody's got to go in, take them face to face and eyeball to eyeball at some point."

Radcliffe acknowledged the case for troops on the ground would be a hard sell politically. But he said it would be important to make the case to local allies in the region that the fight against the Islamic State would be crucial to their security.

"Hopefully we can recruit folks who see it in their vested interests … they're much closer to this onslaught," he said.

ODU international relations professor Steve Yetiv also said more needed to be done to organize Middle East forces, including those in Iraq.

"It will be critical for the U.S. to pressure Iraq's government to be inclusive and not just to talk about it — but to be a part of it," Yetiv said, referring to military operations.

He said a key goal of the operation should be developing two or three brigades of Iraqi forces under Iraqi leadership that bring Sunni and Shia generals together.

Hussam Timani, co-director of the Middle East and North African Studies program at Christopher Newport University, said he was encouraged that several Arab nations signed on for the military campaign.

"This will show that the Muslims support this operation and it's in their best interest to see the group be degraded and destroyed, because it's a threat to the whole region," Timani said. "This is not something where it is the West versus Islam — it's not America versus another Arab nation or another Muslim nation."

"These are Muslims trying to defend themselves and establish security," Timani said.

But University of Virginia professor Peter Furia said he questioned how much of a threat the Islamic State posed to the United States.

"The one thing that I think is largely missing from the current debate is that there's a difference between being brutal and being an existential threat to the U.S. homeland," Furia said in an emailed response to the Daily Press.

"It's obviously concerning that some American ISIS-enthusiasts want to travel to a conflict area in which they'll have access to certain types of advanced weaponry, but because they're leaving the U.S. and risking death to do so, I'm not sure the U.S. public should be any more concerned about domestic terrorism now than it was a few months ago," Furia said.

Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-247-4536.

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