Locals discus ISIS


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Dozens of members of the Iowa City and University of Iowa communities, guided by a handful of expert panelists, met Thursday to have a frank conversation about America’s role in the Middle East.

The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights organized the panel, which was interested in the measures proposed by President Obama Wednesday regarding ISIS.

“Everyone in Iowa City are members of our democracy,” said center Assistant Director and panelist Nathan Miller. “The decisions of our leaders reflect on all of us.”

ISIS began as an Al Qaeda splinter group in Iraq, but it has grown into a threat that has already prompted more than 150 American air strikes in Iraq since Obama ordered them in August.

UI political-science Associate Professor Brian Lai, who did not attend the panel, said ISIS members identify themselves as Sunni Muslims and are unique for brutalizing members of differing sects of Islam.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites were strained in some areas before ISIS arrived. Lai said some Sunnis may support them because they are seen as preferable to the existing Shiite government, which has a history of discriminating against and even oppressing Sunnis in Iraq.

Lai, an expert on terrorism and American foreign policy, said air strikes in Syria by the United States are potentially contentious, because President Bashar al-Assad, who objects to Obama’s plan, still technically runs Syria.

Miller said Obama’s plan to disregard Syria’s sovereignty was a clear violation of international law, though there isn’t a clear legal precedent on how to handle a group of ISIS’ prominence.  

“This decision brings up a number of significant legal problems,” he said.

Iraq has invited the American military into the country, but Syria has resolutely refused and condemned Obama’s efforts.  Miller said that while ISIS isn’t a state, it still has somewhere around $2 billion in assets and a large army, and it controls vast swathes of territory.

Miller said at the panel the international community needs to take the opportunity to develop laws to regulate the handling of conflicts with powerful state-less groups like ISIS.

Though Obama admitted on Wednesday that ISIS hasn’t made any direct threats against any site within America, they still represent a real threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East. 

Lai said that of more immediate concern is the large number of international recruits from America and Europe that ISIS has proven capable of attracting.

Sham Ghoneim, a panelist and the vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Iowa, said one of the keys to defeating ISIS lies in disabling the toxic propaganda it so effectively uses in its recruitment process.

“Unfortunately, American foreign policy in predominantly Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East, helps to create these monstrous groups,” she said.

Former Iowa congressman and moderator Jim Leach is unsure about America’s potential inaction. However, he said, based on the group’s previous threats, actions against the West seem likely.

“They can do that if we’re involved or if we aren’t involved,” he said.

Lai said ISIS has a dogmatic ideology, which all but ensures that its dislike of the United States and Europe would persist regardless of whether America is present in the Middle East.  Though, he added, if America pulled out it, would mean less contact with the group.

In two weeks, Obama will meet with the U.N. Security Council in order to garner additional support. Russia has vocally opposed any action in Syria by the United States, but America’s position on the Security Council allows it to veto any proposed sanctions.

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