This story is still technically unconfirmed, but it seems very likely that the Islamic State has murdered American journalist Steven Sotloff. They had threatened Sotloff’s life in the same video in which they murdered James Foley on August 19 and, it should be noted, may very well have murdered Sotloff at the same time as Foley and simply waited to release the tape.
This will undoubtedly spark more talk about what America must do about IS. Watching Jen Psaki’s press conference, it’s already clear that the emerging media storyline is “these guys have declared war on America, so why won’t we declare war on them?” Which, you know, by any practical definition of the word, we already are at war with them. The fine distinction that’s now being made is that we’ve only hit IS in Iraq, not in Syria, but for one thing, as far as IS is concerned there is no distinction between those two countries (they’re murdering these journalists in Syria in retaliation for what we’re doing to them in Iraq), and for another thing, hitting IS “in Syria” is exponentially more complicated than hitting them “in Iraq.”
There is a strong desire to strike IS in Syria without helping the Assad government, which is a virtual impossibility under the best of circumstances but is utterly absurd given the current vacuum that exists where our supposed “moderate rebels” are supposed to be. At the very least, we’ll need Assad’s assurance that he won’t turn his air defenses on our bombing runs, which means we’ll have to promise not to bomb anything that still belongs to Assad, and at that point we’re really working with Assad whether we like it or not. It’s understandable that the Obama team wants to approach the expansion of its actions against IS with a lot of caution.
From IS’ perspective, two things jump out at me. One is that I really think they’re misreading the US public’s attitude here. These murders, like a lot of “far enemy” terror attacks against Western targets, are intended to demoralize and discourage the US public so that it will then exert pressure on its leaders to reduce involvement in the area (admittedly they’re also intended to “show off” IS capabilities to potential funders and recruits, but modifying US policy is still part of the equation). The Foley murder had exactly the opposite effect, and I suspect this will just amplify that. The second thing that jumps out at me is how much IS betrays its supposed claims on the caliphate every time it does something like this. One of the sacrosanct principles of Middle Eastern (and, really, just about everywhere else) politics and diplomacy in caliphal times was the inviolability of messengers. The murder of someone carrying a message or report was considered an act of war as well as being morally indefensible. It was, for example, the execution of his merchants and emissaries in Utrar in 1218 that caused Genghis Khan to turn his attention away from his campaigns in China and head west. Today the definition of “messenger” must incorporate ambassadors and journalists, and IS’s willingness to murder journalists would have been absolutely rejected by the authentic caliphate centuries ago.
Well, actually, three things jump out at me, because I feel like as we’re mourning Steven Sotloff, we must also remind ourselves that IS has also killed thousands of other, equally innocent people, throughout the parts of Syria and Iraq that it controls. Their deaths are equally tragic and equally deserving of our grief.