Questions abound over what to do about ISIS and whether it should be pursued into Syria (the US has now started hitting ISIS targets in Syria). Concentrating simply on ISIS though, risks misunderstanding the regional nature of the problem and the fact that ISIS is just the strongest of numerous Islamist groups threatening to upset the regional balance and trying to establish its own version of Islamic rule. Others might not be as publicly aspirational (or provocatively foolhardy) as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's ISIS and his claim to have established a caliphate, but liberal democrats they ain't.
To concentrate solely on ISIS as the media (and hence the public) tends to do can lead us into thinking that if we degrade ISIS then we have fixed the problem.
But take this week as a snapshot of how complex a problem we are really facing. On Israel's long-dormant border with Syria, the UN and Syrian military have now left the field of battle to the control of Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that continues to pledge loyalty to al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. And in Lebanon, Jabhat al-Nusra has just executed the second Lebanese police officer of 22 soldiers and police officers they hold. Islamic State supporters have beheaded two of the soldiers. These are just the latest deaths of Lebanese security personnel in an ongoing battle with Islamists that saw Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliates briefly take over the Lebanese town of Arsal in early August.
In Syria, Islamist groups wanting to implement their version of Islamic government also battle away, for the most part cooperating with, but not part of, Jabhat al-Nusra. The umbrella group Islamic Front, however, suffered a setback recently with the death of the leader of Ahrar al-Sham and other senior figures in a mysterious attack in northern Syria. The transnational nature of the Islamist problem was illustrated by the fact that even the Dagestani branch of the Islamic Caucasus Emirate sent its very public condolences. The US sees a group of vetted rebels as a possible solution but as this and this show, while the idea of vetted secular Syrian rebels sounds attractive, the devil is in the detail.
None of this is to say we are wrong to focus on ISIS in Iraq. ISIS threatens a government that is internationally recognised and which owes its existence ultimately to the 2003 invasion, of which Australia was a part. The Iraqi Government should be encouraged to take the ground fight to ISIS while supported by air strikes, and while regional governments help to degrade ISIS through squeezing its revenue base, sealing off its borders (in the case of Turkey) and persuading ISIS's non-Islamist allies to leave it to its own devices or even take up arms against it.
When leaders are asked about airstrikes in Syria though, the question that needs to be asked is not simply whether we are going to target ISIS but what we are going to do about other Islamist groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, both of which threaten Lebanon. None of these groups fundamentally differ about their desired societal endstate; its simply who should lead that is their point of difference.
The problem with this regional Gordian knot is that it cannot be cut simply by a sword, as Alexander did. It is a problem of breathtaking complexity, of which the military solution is a small but necessary part. While Australia's contribution is small, Australians should be alerted to the complexity of the environment so that they don't expect a neat solution or 'victory'. The problem of course, is how to make such a complex issue simple enough for the public to digest.