Stopping ISIS beyond Iraq and Syria

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The growing threat of ISIS in northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq - the territories it currently controls - has led to efforts to form a regional-cumglobal coalition against it. Given the deadly security vacuum created by the Syrian civil war and the dismal failure of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to serve all Iraqis, this is now a strategic priority. Add to this the brutal tactics used by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), including beheadings and indiscriminate killings, the ground is ready for a major offensive against the terrorist group.

U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy, announced on September 11, is comprised of four components: airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria; empowering moderate opposition groups - e.g., the Free Syrian Army - in Syria, a comprehensive political, economic and ideological fight against ISIS and delivering humanitarian aid.

There is no doubt that ISIS poses a major security and political threat and must be dealt with. It is expanding its territorial reach by the day and exacerbating the already troubled interreligious and sectarian violence in the region. But a successful strategy has to identify the problem properly and make sure that it does not come back as an injured lion. First of all, it should be acknowledged that the collective failure of regional actors and global players has helped create the ground for ISIS to emerge and spread in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS emerged in Iraq after the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003 and then moved to Syria. Over the last few years its ideological backbone has been its self-declared goal of defending Sunnis against Maliki's sectarian policies in Iraq and President Bashar al-Assad's brutal destruction of the Sunni opposition in Syria.

In this, al-Qaida parted ways with ISIS. While al-Qaida has traditionally attacked Western targets, ISIS targets what it considers to be enemies nearby: rival Sunni groups and Shiite militias supported by a mixture of patrons from Maliki and Iran to the Assad regime. This explains why ISIS has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims.

Secondly, the bloody three-year war in Syria has emboldened and strengthened ISIS. The Assad regime provided direct and indirect support to ISIS because it wanted to use it against the Free Syrian Army. By allowing ISIS to attack ethnic and religious minorities in northern Syria, the Assad regime tried to use this as a PR tool to sell a better image of itself and show the world that the alternative is savages like ISIS.

Then there is the problem of foreign fighters coming from more than 80 countries. Many come from Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan but also significant numbers from Europe and the U.S. What is the attraction here? How does ISIS recruit so many people from so many different social, economic and cultural backgrounds?

Foreign fighters coming from Europe are estimated to be around 4,000. The so-called "Jihadi John" is as much a product of al-Qaida extremism as it is of the conditions in Europe.

Muslim nations ought to give serious thought to this type of radicalism. But European nations, too, need to think about this new wave of radicalization and explain why a youngster growing up in London, Paris or Vienna would join a military battle in such places as Iraq or Syria. The sense of alienation, discrimination, racism and Islamophobia all seem to play a role in this outcome.

Aristotle famously said that nature abhors a vacuum, implying that no void remains unfilled forever. It is not different in politics. The huge security vacuum created by the chaos, disorder and war in Iraq and Syria was bound to have catastrophic consequences. A successful fight against ISIS involves addressing this problem in a comprehensive way.

Simply put, it has three dimensions: Iraq, Syria and the broader region. Iraq has a chance to make a new start with the new government. The first priority is to establish a new political and security architecture to include all Iraqis and empowering Iraqi security forces. Iraqis will distance themselves from ISIS when they see Baghdad engaging in rational politics and producing solutions to their political, economic and security problems.

The second priority is Syria where the three- year long war has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, turned millions of Syrians into refugees and internally displaced people and destroyed nearly the entire country. A new political order with democratic legitimacy will not only make Syria a livable place again but also stem terrorist recruitment.

Finally, the broader regional context requires a re-assessment of regional politics, Sunni-Shiite relations and socio-economic policies. The return of rational politics will help establish a reasonable degree of order, security and stability in Iraq, Syria and beyond. As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said, ISIS is neither Islam nor a state as it claims. It cannot take root or establish order in Iraq or Syria. But it will continue its ascendancy if the key players try to use its existence to justify their myopic policies and go for short-term gains at the expense of regional destruction.

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