US President Barack Obama has announced a more aggressive strategy against Islamic State, including air strikes against its fighters “wherever they are”, even inside Syria – which he had previously ruled out.
The long-awaited strategy boils down to a four-point proxy war, involving:
- an increased “systematic campaign of airstrikes”
- providing extra training, intelligence and equipment for Iraqi and Syrian groups already fighting IS (which Obama refers to as ISIL), including sending an extra 475 service members to Iraq – although only in support roles, not as ground troops
- counter-terrorism efforts to prevent IS attacks, “counter their warped ideology” and stem the flow of funding and foreign fighters joining their ranks
- continuing humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians”, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians and others.
As recently as a month ago, Obama had rejected the option of strikes in Syria.
Obama is right to push back against calls within the US for the deployment of combat troops. He is wrong, though, to rely so heavily upon a military solution.
What the address to the nation didn’t address
Politically, Obama’s televised address to the nation had to showcase a strong response to allay the concerns of Americans. Regrettably, there was little to suggest that much effort was put towards developing some of the more important, geo-politically challenging non-military options for fighting IS.
Expanding military action has its limitations. Continued airstrikes run the risk of forcing IS forces to withdraw into urban areas where aerial bombardment would lead to considerable collateral damage – a response that would play into the hands of the very effective IS propaganda machine.
Encouraging Iraqi fighters opposed to IS to engage in urban combat raises the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe, and an early retreat if too many civilians are killed. Even if effectively implemented, military might cannot defeat an ideology.
The shift in thinking that is required, at least behind closed doors, is to move away from seeing IS as a terrorist organisation.
Fighting a rogue state
Deliberately using Islamic State’s previous name ISIL, which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Obama today stressed that:
ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognised by no government, nor by the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organisation, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.
While Obama is right that IS does not have standing as a state among the community of nations, its strategy is focused on establishing an Islamic State. That’s why any response by the United States should be focused on preventing it from doing so.
A more appropriate response would be for policy makers to see IS as a rogue state. Unlike terrorist groups that seek to disrupt society, IS is focused on the establishment of a new society that requires the support of the people.
Today, they are facing the same challenges as those that the international community faced in rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq, namely building the three pillars critical to a functioning state:
- creating legitimacy
- providing public security
- and catering to the basic needs of the population, such as water, food, health and shelter.
Seeing IS as a rogue state would take the US’s strategy in a different direction. This approach would focus on tracking town by town and community by community how IS is progressing in building each of these three pillars – in doing so, identifying opportunities to weaken each one through targeted military and non-military responses.
Stemming the flow of oil and foreign fighters
To start undermining IS efforts to establish a state , the US-led international strategy needs to contain and isolate them as well as support alternative centres of authority.
Containing IS through military action including continuing airstrikes will contribute to weakening the group’s legitimacy – albeit marginally – by limiting IS to its current borders. Without battlefield wins, the aura of divine imprimatur is undermined.
Isolating IS will weaken its ability to meet the basic needs of the communities it controls. However, such an approach would require Turkey to prove itself to be a reliable partner.
Year-on-year trade between Turkey and Syria along a border that is largely controlled by Islamic State has increased by 57% – including a 303% increase in vehicles and spare parts. Similarly, it is suspected that the majority of the oil produced in Syrian and Iraqi oilfields is being exported through Turkey via black marketeers.
Foreign jihadists are also guided to Syria via Turkey. Working with Turkey to ensure that not only is there political support, but also logistical capability to close these borders is critical in the near-term.
Hearts and minds
Providing non-military support to alternative centres of authority, such as tribal leaders, Baathists or even more moderate Islamic groups, could also undermine IS’s grip on public security and their efforts to create a growing population of people dependent on them for their basic needs.
This was a common tactic during the Cold War. Critics of such a course often point to the way that Western support of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan led to Osama bin Laden’s empowerment. Following the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in 1989, the political vacuum was filled by a corrupt and incompetent administration, which failed to establish a functioning state, and in turn quickly fell to the Taliban.
This time, the West has more credible, tried and tested partners to work with in the areas that IS currently controls. The Kurds in Iraq have administered a distinct area autonomously for more than 20 years. Turkish Kurdish forces have been in peace negotiations with the central government and have proven themselves worthy partners, especially following their efforts to rescue the minority Yazidi population.
Even Sunni groups who welcomed IS have, in the past, been partners with American forces. Many of those Sunni groups stood alongside Americans in the years following 2006, when together they rid eastern Iraq of al Qaeda. By supporting these groups with non-military assistance, the US and its allies will be in a position to slowly chip away at IS by winning over the hearts and minds of the people.
Seeing Islamic State as an overextended rogue state, rather than a terrorist network, and working to weaken the civil pillars of the state it is trying to establish, offers the best chance of stopping IS.