Most of the discussion involving ISIS, the self-declared Islamic State, revolves around one thing. As the Romans said of their powerful enemy, delenda Carthago: Carthage must be destroyed. On the surface, this seems a blindingly obvious answer; the only answer. ISIS is committing mass atrocities on a wide scale. It is aggressively expansionist. Its interpretation of Islam is grotesquely skewed and virulently toxic. The group plans violent attacks against a laundry list of actors both local and global, and quite obviously has the means to carry them out.
Looking at a list like this, it is perhaps understandable that we come to the same conclusion that the Romans did. Unlike the annihilation that Rome accomplished however, “destroy them” isn’t possible in this case. The greatest threats that ISIS poses don’t stem from force of arms, they won’t be addressed by force of arms, and even if the group vanished overnight, the threats would still remain.
Grim? Yes. But not hopeless, and there is much that can be done.
The deepest threats
ISIS’s claim on territory has pulled back the curtain on the assumed inviolability of the nation-state system, which today seems so natural that we tend to forget how young it really is. Speaking of Rome, Italy, for example, has only recently celebrated its 150th anniversary as a unified state. And while we do have examples of new international boundaries from civil war (South Sudan) or multinational process (Israel), ISIS has done something quite startling: not content to aim for control of government or holding territory in advance of governmental conquest, ISIS has simply taken over territory and declared itself a Caliphate, something that bears more resemblance to empires past than it does to a modern state. Even the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and LTTE (Tamil Tigers), perhaps the closest analogues, never quite managed to do what ISIS has done in this regard.
The advance of ISIS, even if it were brought to a halt tomorrow, serves as “proof of concept” for future attempts by non-state actors at achieving the same brass ring. Taking this to an admittedly unlikely extreme for the sake of argument, there are 193 member states in the United Nations system, and several thousand ethnic, sectarian, tribal and other types of sub-national groups worldwide. The maths is quite worrisome to the Realpolitik mindset of the nation-state system, and attempts by sub-national groups to assert independence based on their own identity are usually challenged violently by the state or met with an official indifference that enables continued violence within the country.
In fact, the group’s advance was facilitated in both Syria and Iraq directly and deliberately (in both countries as a potential bulwark against sectarian aggression; vicious, perhaps, but “at least ours and vicious”) in addition to gaining strength as a symptom of sectarian schisms. The social and political fabric of both countries, already strained to breaking point before that advance, has now been torn severely. It wasn’t on the path towards healing before ISIS rose; it certainly won’t heal quickly now; it’s unlikely to heal completely at all. Those divisions have been worsened by ISIS, and will continue to worsen within what is now ISIS-held territory, in which supporters and non-supporters, collaborators and victims will be forced to contend with each other. The same point is repeated between ISIS-held areas and the rest of each respective country, in which tactics used to advance or hold the group at bay (such as the Shia paramilitary militias mobilised by the Iraqi government) have further exacerbated an already bad situation. The long and short of it is this: the social and political knitting without which a state is nothing but a Potemkin village is now vastly harder to achieve than it would have been before the advance of ISIS. Like all wars, it is inevitable that this one will end, but the soil of Iraq and Syria is now far more fertile for violence than it already was.
ISIS has taken the “franchise model” pioneered by Al-Qaeda and expanded upon it significantly. Al-Qaeda tended to bring in whole groups; ISIS has taken that to small-cell and even individual level. Al-Qaeda franchisees tended to have spent at least some amount of time within direct training or at least communication from the parent group; ISIS adherents may or may not have been in contact with anything but an ideological message. Once upon a time, Al-Qaeda’s choice of a cellular rather than hierarchical organisation was innovative. The lone-wolf and small cell model combined with the pervasive use of web-based social media not only to allow, but also invite adherents to claim allegiance through their actions as opposed to through a “real” organisational connection or membership, is the new wrinkle that makes Al-Qaeda look somewhat staid by comparison. The older group has maintained its focus on high profile mass-casualty attacks, but ISIS has made clear that its tactical philosophy mirrors that of its recruiting: small scale doesn’t mean small effect. Successful attacks across Europe show that this model can force sweeping change for a fraction of the usual cost.
So what can be done about it?
The simplistic answer is that it will take nothing less than a massive development and diplomatic effort, funded by outside interveners but designed and defined by the Iraqi and Syrian populations, to knit unity back into the socio-political fabric. The recent experience of watching ISIS grow from the shattered pieces of Al Qaeda should remind us that any effort that seeks only to destroy ISIS without also making the ground less fertile for the conditions and causes that led to its creation is doomed to do little but provide a small pause. Yes, this will take a long time, which doesn’t make it any less realistic an answer; it just means that “we’d better begin as soon as possible before more time is lost.”
The fertility of that ground means that “delenda ISIS” is the wrong starting point. Good strategy asks first what it is we are trying to produce, not remove, and so we should start by supporting the construction of a strong society surrounding ISIS that can provide a better alternative at the level of what the population sees around it every day, hold its own in resistance and eat away at ISIS from the edges inwards, leaving the core increasingly isolated. This is not sufficient to defeat ISIS or extremism overall, but it is a critically necessary move. Ultimately it will, of course, be necessary to destroy the group’s command and control structure and to remove its ability to carry out violence; but the violent and politically repressive means that have been used historically to achieve those goals overlap heavily with the reasons why groups like ISIS find their inroads in the first place. That’s a doomed effort, and the attempt to secure short-term gains can undermine our ability to achieve long-term success. This isn’t to make the claim that there’s no role for kinetic operations in the fight against ISIS; rather it’s that reminder again that this war can be lost because of how we chose to fight the battles.
What do the component parts look like?
While the conflict with the Assad regime still rages in Syria, Iraq (as fractured as it is) is the best place to begin. The first stage should build strength, legitimacy and most of all communication and coordination towards common goals within the local, indigenous and non-formal structures of governance – tribal and religious networks – that serve as connective tissue within both the Sunni and Shia parts of Iraq. Those, collectively, produce that strong, alternative civil society and a way for populations (especially the marginalized Sunni population) to bargain collectively. Those networks will need to be approached and supported first within Anbar Province, the seat of Iraq’s Sunni population and the one thing standing between what ISIS holds and what ISIS might take.
When the Iraq war began in 2003, Sunni tribes had little negotiation with each other, and Western intervention reduced, rather than increased it. Lacking that conflict-moderating conversation, they began to act unilaterally and make war amongst themselves, which allowed insurgents to play one group against the other and to take advantage of the cracks in security through which they were able to operate, much as ISIS has done now. The reduction in violence around 2007/8 had a great deal to do with re-starting alliances and political negotiation, thus closing the gaps and enabling hard security efforts to work better in concert. It ultimately failed because that process never had a chance in the face of Al-Maliki’s Western-backed government, which amounted to little more than the abovementioned Potemkin village as far as the depth of its democracy was concerned. Undermining ISIS starts with not duplicating those two mistakes.
The coordination needs to be re-started now; those informal power structures are the mechanism through which civil work gets done, civilian populations get protected, ISIS gets held at bay, and if they are in disarray or lose focus on common issues of defence and livelihood, the door will remain open for ISIS. In order to further close that door, efforts will also need to focus all of the above in coordination with the national government in order to build centrality and communication. The Iraqi government will in return have to make guarantees, backed and enforced by the international community, that will protect the Sunni and other minorities, and give real substance to power-sharing democracy. The international community, in turn, will need to act differently this time around, and prioritize this processes rather than uncritically backing top-down institutions in order to enforce stability.
With power-sharing and holistic civil society in mind, the same work will need to be done simultaneously within parallel Shia structures since, as things stand, an increase in strength or unity within one will be perceived as a threat by the other. Governance is far more than the existence of strong institutions – if there is to be peace in that region, it is vital to build cross-cutting communication and trust such that the Sunni do not see groups such as ISIS as a potentially better alternative to Shia aggression.
The whole effort should be tied to development programming that can provide tangible “peace dividends”, strategically used to provide benefits to negotiation and communication so that those efforts “do more than just talk.” This will serve to strengthen the positions of those who work towards integration relative to those who do not. Think power grids, municipal services, all of those mundane elements of civil society without which peace still doesn’t remove suffering. That again is a long process, which again means there’s not a moment to lose.
Networked communication, strengthened informal governance to protect and cross the sectarian divides, tangible resources as dividends, and internationally-backed inclusion. All are required. Currently, the international community is focused far more on delenda than on building the long-term needs of a society that hopes to outlast the current threat.
After the Romans destroyed Carthage, they famously salted the ground so that nothing would grow. We, on the other hand, have to have something to say about what we would grow, not just what we would destroy. In the end, that’s the only real way to win this kind of war.
Dr. Alpher has over 14 years' experience implementing field programs within conflict affected and fragile environments, designing programs and advocating for peacebuilding policy.
He is an adjunct professor at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, at George Mason University, where he teaches courses in conflict theory and the design of complex reconstruction and stabilization operations. As a district manager and Chief of Party in Iraq, he has led youth engagement and IDP reintegration programs; helped facilitate back-channel dialogues in Israel and the Palestinian Territories; led conflict analysis missions in Nepal and Ethiopia; and backstopped programs in the Palestinian Territories, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In addition to his programmatic expertise, he holds an MS and PhD in conflict analysis and resolution, focusing on the effect of democratization on sustainability and success in international development programming.He has also a visiting Fellow at the US Army War College's Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.