Early last month, the U.S. military revealed its latest plan for combatting ISIS. With deployment of ground forces off the table, this is a thorny mandate—especially considering the thicket of geopolitical complications involved. Furthermore, the simple binaries in which the West frames the issue are not helping. The new strategy, emphasizing coordination between the Iraqi government, ethnic militias, and regional coalition partners, is a promising start. But if the U.S. is serious about dismantling ISIS and ensuring another group doesn’t pick up where it left off, America must use a holistic approach that considers the circumstances allowing the extremist group to flourish.
ISIS is often described as a unitary organization of fanatics wholly committed to constructing a caliphate (a state under Islamic law led by a Caliph, or successor to Muhammad) steeped in a hateful variant of the Muslim faith. The group’s fighters pontificate in long-winded videos precisely to groom this image. Interestingly enough, Americans readily consume this propaganda, assuming ISIS’s ranks are composed solely of irrational hate-mongers whose motivations are otherworldly and immaterial.
This is precisely what ISIS’s PR department wants: to inspire fear and obscure the pragmatic coalition building that has no doubt factored into their success. While virulent ideology plays a major role, ISIS has achieved many of its goals by marshaling the support of a range of regional actors, from the ex-Baathists that form its officer corps to the municipal and tribal leaders whose cooperation is essential to its day-to-day operation.
From this perspective, ISIS has sprung from a constellation of grievances throughout the Middle East, not just the pulpits of firebrand mullahs. Despite its good fortunes in battle, the group cannot function without a strong constituency. Like any coalition, it can be broken.
ISIS will not be defeated on the battlefield alone. The international community must use an approach that degrades the group’s forces while simultaneously eroding its base of support. On both fronts, this requires the meaningful ownership of regional powers, who need to contribute more than lip service to the endeavor. The U.S. has successfully cobbled together a coalition of Middle Eastern allies to confront ISIS, but thus far its strategy overemphasizes air power, with the U.S. doing all of the heavy lifting.
The coalition must include Turkey, which has remained aloof throughout the conflict. Reports of a forthcoming cooperation agreement suggest that the country will open air bases to coalition forces and assist in establishing a narrow no-fly zone near its border with Syria. This will cover the retreat of moderate rebels and refugees, but constraining Assad’s air power will always benefit ISIS to a degree. Getting Turkey involved at all would be progress, but the country will need to contribute more.
Going beyond tactical concerns, America must also broaden its overall strategy to limit the group’s local support and shrink its recruitment base. Sunni Muslims disaffected with years of sectarian governance in Baghdad and anarchy in Syria form ISIS’s backbone. Giving Iraq’s ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the boot was a necessary first step. Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons at ISIS’s advance because they felt no ownership of that regime or the military it inculcated in sectarianism. Without pluralism in Bagdhad, Iraq is doomed to spiral in and out of conflict, and we must do everything we can to ensure this new government is inclusive.
Along with our regional partners, we must aggressively work to create alternatives to radicalism. This includes investments in civil society, infrastructure, and goodwill projects that bolster the agency of the Iraqi people. This tactic has paid dividends in Afghanistan and Iraq—and worked well for the British in Oman in the 1950’s—but it has clearly not been enough.
A crucial aspect of this is keeping collateral damage from bombing to an absolute minimum, perhaps by not bombing at all. This is a disconcerting notion, but it is high time that the U.S. re-evaluates the effectiveness of even the most precise bombing campaigns; civilian casualties and destruction of property are the two most effective recruiting tools for guerillas. It’s no coincidence that President Obama’s announcement of an air campaign coincided with ISIS’s biggest surge in volunteers.
Bombing also seems to be more effective at placating Western constituencies than producing effective outcomes. Even after some 900 airstrikes since early September, we have killed a couple hundred of ISIS’s estimated 30,000 fighters and almost none of the group’s top brass. Reports in early November alleging that ISIS’s figurehead, Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi, had been killed in airstrikes now appear unfounded. It’s also unclear what effect creating more martyrs would have on ISIS’s functioning. Any group that squares off against the world’s best assassins probably has a decent succession plan.
Naturally, dispensing with these crude tactics means a heavier (and painful) emphasis on ground combat and tactical operations. This must be carried out, with American support, by Middle Eastern powers in the interest of their collective security. These actors must not delude themselves into thinking that American bombs will solve this problem. In reality, they could exacerbate it.
With tremendous effort and a bit of good fortune, we may be able to drive ISIS out of Iraq or sufficiently marginalize it. This leaves the question of how to root it out of its strongholds in Syria. Our best option might be to let ISIS and the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime tear each other apart while we ramp up our support of embattled moderate rebels; attacking ISIS in Syria would entail de facto military aid to a murderous autocrat. While pushing ISIS back into Syria would be an incomplete victory, preventing the spread of anarchy should be America’s first priority.
The Islamic State is not a monolithic force of global jihad that can only be defeated in a fiery hail of missiles. It is an opportunistic coalition whose constituency must be presented with credible alternatives to its utopian (but delusional) vision. A strategy that regards the group as a “cancer” to be treated with bombs is doomed to fail.