The strategy to combat ISIS that was provided by President Obama last week has created an intense debate. The purpose of this column is to address the unanswered questions in regards to this strategy. On Monday, the military strikes of the international coalition against ISIS targets commenced, which is but one of the pillars of the strategy of the Obama administration. Now in the next step, following these attacks, we will see how the other phases of this strategy will be executed. However, even if the coalition completes the three-pronged strategy Obama outlined, there are two vague dimensions to this strategy. The first concerns how the coalition will engage and incapacitate ISIS in Sunni regions of Iraq without an effective counterinsurgency operation that will help the international coalition eradicate the social support for ISIS. The second concerns how the coalition will stop the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS-controlled areas during this operation and in its aftermath. Both of these questions are vital in order to disable ISIS in the long run.
Although military strikes against ISIS targets are conducted with the support of many Sunni Arab countries, this will not prove that the Sunnis in Iraq are fully supportive of these operations. In some regions of Iraq, ISIS gained considerable social support due to both the exclusionary policies of the previous Iraqi government under al-Maliki, and the public services that ISIS began to provide in the regions under its control. Without an effective strategy to win the support of the civilian population in these regions and an effective political solution to integrate the Sunnis into the Iraqi political system, a military strike followed by strategic operations by U.S.-trained ground troops will not bring stability or peace to the region. If the new government that was formed in Baghdad is willing to protect the unity of the country and put an end to the sectarian warfare that has plagued it for so long, then it will be more inclusive and consider this process not only a war against terrorism, but more like a reconciliation process that includes counterinsurgency operations that would isolate ISIS, halt its recruitment within Iraq and provide a functioning political system.
Speaking of recruitment, one of the most significant dimensions of ISIS is the foreign fighters that ISIS continues to recruit from different countries around the world. After the start of the operation, ISIS can use these attacks as a rallying ground in order to recruit more people. Such a threat can only be prevented by an effective intelligence operation, however. Countries from different parts of the world only recently began to engage in meaningful intelligence and diplomatic cooperation to coordinate their policies against ISIS. The focus of intelligence cooperation has to include preventing people from reaching Turkey in order to travel to other countries where they can rendezvous with ISIS fighters. Although Turkey is usually accused of providing passage for these foreign fighters in certain media outlets, recent reports demonstrated that Turkey has been very active in the process of preventing the transfer of ISIS fighters. For instance, last week the Associated Press reported that Turkey has denied entry to more than 6,000 people entering Turkey and deported 1,000 more who were considered suspicious. However, just like the United States, Turkey also cannot wage these operations alone. The control of different borders of Turkey can be more influential if there are more efforts to stop these people travelling to Turkey from the source countries to begin with.
With the continuation of operations against ISIS in the coming days, these issues need to be discussed more frequently by policy makers around the world, especially in light of the ongoing U.N. General Assembly.
About the author
Kılıç Buğra Kanat is Research Director at SETA Foundation at Washington, D.C. He is an assistant professor of Political Science at Penn State University, Erie.