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In ISIS, Saudis And Other Sunni Face Monster They Created

For fear of an Iran-led rise of Shia, authorities from Riyadh to Ankara fed the radicalism that now eyes them as the primary target.

Saudi army drills earlier this year
Saudi army drills earlier this year
Alain Frachon

PARIS — Why isn't the Arab world more mobilized against ISIS? The question is genuine, and it might put the finger on the hidden causes that have been fuelling the repeated success of radical Islamism over the past 25 years.

Strategy experts are asking themselves whether U.S. President Barack Obama is doing too much or not enough in the fight against the jihadist terrorist group. Some are surprized by the fact that the U.S. President has not yet ordered airstrikes against ISIS strongholds in Syria, as it has in Iraq. Obama is weak, or so they think. And when they comment on the military aid provided by European Union countries to the Iraqi Kurds, who are on the frontline against ISIS "black shirts," they say that the EU took too much time to react.

To be sure, ISIS has captured Western journalists. Its henchmen executed two American reporters on video. Yes, ISIS has recruited hundreds of young Europeans, who once they return to their countries will be the devoted agents of a jihad against "Jews and Crusaders."

But let's not forget that the first target of ISIS is the Arab world. The jihadists' stated ambition is to reinstate a single caliphate where the most backward interpretation of Islam will prevail, to be preached by Salafis, the advance men of Sunni extremism.

Its enemies are the borders of nation-states. It already managed to largely erase the one between Syria and Iraq, thus carving with the most barbaric violence its first swath of territory for the upcoming caliphate. Lebanon and Jordan could soon become the next targets, and after that, the Persian Gulf kingdoms and emirates.

And yet, it is American planes that are backing the Kurds and what is left of the Iraqi army in their fight against ISIS, while Europe provides the weapons and the "advisers" that always come with it to the Kurdish peshmergas.

This doesn't mean that the armies of the Arab world are incapable and that their arsenals are empty. Far from it. Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, recently noted in the Financial Times that among them, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council possess more than 600 combat-capable aircraft. Meanwhile, signs of some of the most formidable air forces in the world are nowhere to be seen in the Iraqi skies.

Arab countries have historically had few qualms about warring against each other. In the 1960s, Egypt's air force bombed Yemen with chemical weapons. Only a few weeks ago, the United Arab Emirates, backed by Cairo, sent their fighter jets to Libya to tip the scales in the country's ongoing civil war.

Why, therefore, are these same states so feeble in their commitment against ISIS? Why the restraint, or even indulgence, in the face of such a dangerous enemy? You could argue that it is by force of habit, addicted as they are to the regional American police service, since 1945. Like Europe, the Arab world is more than ever reliant on the American military umbrella.

Nightmare scenario

But the real cause goes deeper. It lies in the strategic and religious conflict that is tearing up the Middle East. On one side are Islam's minorities, mostly the Shia, under Iran's protection. On the other are the majority Sunni Muslims, who are accustomed to dominating the Arab stage.

The latter, led by Saudi Arabia, believe — not without some reason — that the Islamic Republic of Iran and its local allies (Iraq's Shia and Syria's Alawites) want to steal the region's leadership from them.

In short, the fight that comes first in the list of priorities of the Sunni Arab world is that against the Shia. And in that fight, anything goes, including fomenting an extremist Sunni movement. In their battle against the Shia, Islam's majorities have fueled Sunni extremism.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

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In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

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