It is commonplace these days to refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shām (i.e. Greater Syria) – henceforth, ISIS – as the greatest threat to regional, international, and for some countries, even national security. As a product of mergers between smaller Islamist groups (e.g. an al-Qaeda affiliated Iraqi group) in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion, this rapidly evolving organization has been empowered in the context of the Syrian civil war, and has surprised the world when it swept into northern and central Iraq early June 2014. It has changed its name into Islamic State and declared the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, a state run according to Sharia law, in Syrian and Iraqi territories.
One of the biggest questions that needs to be answered is, how do we counter ISIS? Almost three months after ISIS advanced into Iraq, US President Barak Obama stated, “We don’t have a strategy.” This was quite a surprising statement coming from the White House given the high level of threat that ISIS poses; but it was, nonetheless, true. However, it was later decided for Obama to announce his plan against ISIS in an addresses to the nation on September 10th. Among other things, Obama is expected to introduce ways of enhancing international cooperation against ISIS and try to display a more coherent and decisive stance than the one presented thus far.
It is true that ISIS is not a usual case of a terrorist organization or insurgency, neither in military nor political terms, and thus coming up with a countering strategy is a complex task that necessitates the adoption of a multileveled approach. In what follows, the particular character of the group is identified in order for appropriated countering strategies to be suggested within the framework of the increasing global reaction to ISIS.
An insurgency is normally defined and understood as a movement that seeks to change the status quo for its own benefit through a host of tactics, such as violence and subversion. It is also distinguished from terrorism, which is seen as a tactic meant to achieve political aims by instilling fear through the use or threat of use of force on non-combatants. Although the content of both terms is up for debate, one could argue that ISIS is a case of insurgency. It is clearly trying to overthrow the regional status quo and it first targeted combatants – both in Syria and Iraq. But another difference between insurgency and terrorism is that the aims of an insurgency can supposedly be addressed within the framework of a countering strategy, whereas terrorism aims are more often than not unacceptable. What Western country, or Middle Eastern country for that matter, could say that it accepts ISIS aims which, in a nutshell, entail the establishment of a global Umma (i.e. Muslim Community/State) based on Islamic law? Presumably, none – each for their own reasons.
In addition, ISIS uses terrorist tactics and asymmetrical warfare (e.g. suicide bombings, beheadings, public mass executions, crucifixions, abductions), even as it has developed an increasingly well-equipped and sophisticated conventional army – not to mention its social media and technology-savvy members. To further complicate things, there is no rational basis on which one could negotiate with ISIS, for their vision is not so much territorial as it is ideological; they pursue a fundamentally different regional and global order with political, social, economic, and religions structures that would completely replace the existing ones, at all costs.
Given the above-mentioned it is imperative that a sound and thoughtful strategy is adopted, which would involve multiple states at the regional and international level as well as employ various methods and tactics, in order to effectively exterminate the ISIS threat – perhaps the greatest and most organized Islamist threat in modern history.
In cases like this, the first response is usually a military one, be it airstrikes or ground forces. Indeed, though with significant delay, a number of actors have undertaken a military response to ISIS, including the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdistan forces), the Syrian regime, the Iraqi state, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), reportedly Iran, and the United States.
American airstrikes have provided valuable support to both Iraqi and Kurdistan fighters against ISIS. Yet it should be clear by now that airstrikes alone are not enough, especially if the supported ground forces like the Kurdish Peshmerga lack sufficient or modern weaponry – as opposed to ISIS which has achieved significant gains in that respect. This is not to suggest that American troops should be re-deployed to Iraq; the training personnel that has been send to help Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish fighters is an adequate American contribution to ground forces. At the same time, legitimate anti-ISIS actors both within Iraq and in the region should be supported financially and militarily/logistically to fight the group. United States and European countries should boost such aid to the Peshmerga and Iraqi army. Moreover, given the ongoing peace process between Turkey and the PKK, the international community should even consider removing the PKK from the list of terror groups and support it, for these experienced Kurdish fighters have proved valuable in the fight against ISIS.
Other regional powers should also be more actively involved. Countries like Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia need to address head-on the fact that they have directly or indirectly supported ISIS. They should also conduct in-depth investigations in order to trace the money or any other kind of support – including black market purchases of oil from ISIS – coming from actors from within their countries. Turkey should also tighten up its border control thus preventing aspiring fighters coming from all over Europe and the Middle East to enter Syria and join ISIS.
Apart from the logistical help and military bases that these regional countries could provide, intelligence gathering and sharing would be another significant contribution they could make. Israel has already started providing intelligence to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, which the United States has been sharing with Turkey and other Arab allies. Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt could also provide intelligence, especially in relation to ground operations and ISIS networks. Simultaneously, the fight should be taken to cyberspace as well. As mentioned, ISIS has been using social media and the Internet widely. Therefore, cyber operations could be employed to trace their positions while cyber attacks could be undertaken to undermine ISIS’s ability to publicize its brutalities and victories for purposes of recruitment and psychological warfare.
Last but not least, it should be noted that all of the above-mentioned strategies cannot by themselves bring about definitive results, mainly because insurgencies have their roots in historical and social realities; a military defeat of ISIS does not exclude its later re-emergence. For this reason, a holistic and effective strategy against ISIS and other jihadi groups should include just, inclusive, and equality oriented social policies, which will provide security and economic development and thereby turn people away from joining such extremist groups. In the West this could be addressed by refining multicultural policies, while in the Middle East extremely conservative or authoritarian societies such as Saudi Arabia should seriously re-consider their state policies.
A step in the right direction was recently made with the formation of a new government in Iraq, inclusive of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. Similar examples should be followed throughout the region, such as in Libya that is undergoing a state of emergency in the face of an incipient civil war, in order to minimize the threat of Islamism and other forms of extremism.
Zenonas Tziarras is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick and a Research Scholar at Strategy International. You can follow him on Twitter @ZenonasTziarras.