A View from the Think Tank – Syria. Talk first, fight later.

Editor’s Note: This was written before the Commons vote on air-strikes in Syria, but serves as a well-thought through indictment of an ill-thought through rush to war. It is a long read, but an important one. 

The terror attacks that took place on Friday 13th of November 2015 have proved to be a catalyst for a shift in policy away from the containment of ISIS to its destruction. Parallel to this there has been a shifting discourse concerning not only the nature and identity of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, but also of European and western society. The long term cultural impact of recent events has yet to be revealed. However, in the immediate term it is important to present three questions. A) What is the regional context in which ISIS operates? B) How can ISIS be defeated? C) How can regional stability be established?

The Regional Context

To defeat ISIS, we must understand why it has flourished without dismissing such attempts as apologist. On the most basic level, ISIS is a result of the failure of everyone who has and continues to be involved in the region. From the radical Wahhabism that has been exported from Saudi Arabia and remained unchallenged, to former Iraqi Prime Minister al- Maliki’s sectarian government, regional actors throughout the Middle East are responsible for allowing this threat to fester. Moreover, western intervention has contributed to the rise of ISIS – initially in its failure to provide effective post-conflict management in Iraq, as well as its lack of commitment -a consequence of pandering to a generally uninformed electorate- resulting in a failure to uphold universal values, peace and stability. Had Britain and the US not withdrawn from Iraq in 2010 but continued to provide effective security in the region, then ISIS would have not found itself in the position of material, military abundance it did in 2014. Every actor that has and continues to be involved in the region must be internally aware of its contribution to the growth of ISIS in order to write effective policy in the future.

Secondly, the current regional context in which ISIS operates must be understood more clearly. ISIS is not an instrument of other regions; it is an independent actor with territory over which it claims sovereignty, has a central political bureaucracy, an army and an economy with a currency. It is a self-funded, self-sufficient organisation. ISIS on an operational level is a quasi-state. This factor has a number of fundamental implications because in relative terms it provides a positive alternative for the lives of locals who have been subject to the failures of local and national government. ISIS trains, equips, employs and provides family for local people who on a practical level seek stability, food and money for their families; IS pay a salary of $65 a month to single men, and up to $200 a month for those with children. Assad’s regime in fact poses a far greater threat to locals than Islamic State, which in turn drives recruitment, underpinning the persuasive argument that Assad and ISIS must be dealt with simultaneously and not seen to be a choice of a relative evil against an absolute evil. On a methodological level, ISIS proliferates what could be described as a perverted voluntaristic, civic nationalism, where an individual only needs to volunteer into the fanatical and ideological Islamist values that the quasi state perpetuates, and in return, receive some benefit that local government has failed to provide. It is essential to understand this, given the sectarian tensions that dominate the region and the potentiality for increasing conflict between Sunnis and Shias. This is particularly toxic in both Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, Al-Abadi requires the Shia militia’s support in order to protect Baghdad, thus preventing him from reintegrating the Sunni population; and in Syria, with its 70%+ Sunni population, Assad’s Shia Alawite faith and government alienates almost the entire population. I advise the reader keep this point in mind when considering the later discussion with regards to building regional stability.

Finally, to understand the regional context, we must consider the various strategic responses made so far in response to IS. While ISIS is considered a significant threat, in the last eighteen months it has not been considered a top priority. Military figures in both Britain and the USA are aware of the failures that air strikes alone exacerbate. Yes, they have successfully prevented the slaughter of minorities such as the Yazidis, but ISIS are an enemy with strategic intelligence who do not risk their resources to the threat posed by foreign jets. Air strikes have certainly slowed down the advance of IS in many areas, but this also annoys locals and potentially drives recruitment. Estimates suggest that for every one person killed by the coalition, three more are recruited. A strategy of air strikes alone will only continue to fail. The other prominent western strategy is to arm the Peshmerga in the Kurdish regions threatened by ISIS. Like drone strikes, this strategy has slowed ISIS’ progression but remains deeply flawed. Such a strategy assumes that western governments can impose strategic objectives onto groups who share very different goals. The Kurds may well be phenomenally effective in fighting IS with US support in Kurdish regions, but the Peshmerga will not operate outside of their own spheres, where they are deeply distrusted, and simply have no interest. Meanwhile, the failure of these western policies has led to a shift in the Gulf States focusing their attention towards Yemen, largely because they are not convinced by Western strategies.

So, how can we defeat IS?

There are two factors that are essential if military intervention is to occur. If we consider the context in which ISIS operates we can consider some of the fundamental elements required to form a successful strategy, without which, any intervention into the region will fail. Assad and IS feed off each other politically, economically and militarily. IS offers Assad a narrative that presents all rebel groups operating in Syria as terrorists, and, as a result, ISIS’ survival enables him to reassure Iran and Russia that they are on the right side. Assad’s strategic objective is not the destruction of IS but his own survival – this can be seen in the black market oil that he purchases from ISIS, and as discussed, the atrocities perpetuated by Assad towards his own citizens that have in turn fuelled IS’ recruitment. The Assad regime is not a lesser of two evils, but an evil in and of itself and must be dealt with simultaneously to IS.

However, given that Assad has international support from Russia and Iran, political consensus must be acquired involving a broad coalition that agrees to remove the Assad regime from power. Russia and Iran must be persuaded through diplomatic means that it is within their interests to have a stable Middle East with a legitimate government in Syria and a secure Iraq, and that it is not possible for Assad to be a part of that. Although it will be immensely difficult to achieve, this political consensus is essential to achieving a long-term solution. Furthermore, this broad coalition must involve the Gulf States who aren’t yet convinced by the current strategy of the US, but who must become primarily responsible for promulgating a more ideologically moderate response to Islamism – excluding of course Saudi Wahhabism. The Sunni Gulf States, Iran, Russia and the West all have a contribution to make in order to defeat both Assad and IS. However, Iraq is also central to this debate; it must secularise its political culture in order to provide a greater proportion of representation to the Sunni population. Consequentially, another alternative will be offered to moderate Sunni Muslims, provided that they are not only represented, but also have their social stability, employment and security protected.

Once political consensus has been achieved, involving the agreed removal of Assad and a strategy including the Gulf States and Iran, then ‘boots on the ground’ can quickly eradicate the elements of IS that make it a quasi-state- territory, institutions of government and bureaucracy, and the black market which finances them to the point that they are self-sufficient. This task would be relatively simple considering the professionalism, specialist equipment and experience of the West’s military forces, not to mention the strength of the Syrian army. Ultimately, Islamic State as we know it today, would be defeated.

However it would be naive not admit the flaws with such a strategy. While political consensus is unrealistic and probably unachievable in the short term, if it were to be achieved a number of familiar military challenges would be presented. These include burden sharing across the broad coalition, and the inevitability of a ruthless insurgency, all be it one that would not be capable of organising international terrorism or persecuting locals. It is for these reasons that post-conflict management is so fundamental.

How can regional stability be established?

Our post-conflict experience in Iraq and Syria show that simply creating a vaguely competent administration is not enough; we must also make efforts to foster a sense of national identity. A great draw of ISIL for its members is that it provides, through its extreme interpretation of Islam, a strong sense of identity. If we then consider that the majority of its fighters are young men, this conclusion becomes all the more inescapable – young men, as well as women, all over the world are generally confused and seeking some kind of belonging or direction. We are fortunate in our countries, for we are able to find other means of being part of something, like student politics, music, or sport, to name just a few examples. Those who end up joining ISIL have had no such opportunities, and so their only option to garner a sense of identity lies in subscribing to an ideology of violence.

Thus any plan to bring the region back to any kind of stability cannot only include measures to set up bureaucracies and the like, or indeed only to soothe international tensions which have grown steadily in the past year as a result of the region’s instability. Clear aims and objectives need to be established, grounded in a political consensus. You only need to look at the Coalition’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to see how destructive not having coherent war aims can be. On the flip side of that, we can look back in history to the Second World War to see the opposite – the Allied aim to defeat Nazis as opposed to Germany wholesale meant that post-war reconstruction not only took place with great efficiency, but was seen as a matter of course. When aims are clouded, it is totally impossible to see past them. Post-war reconstruction in Germany has invaluable lessons to teach us, it is from its example I base my interpretation of what our aims should be in this current conflict.

It is obvious that the next year will be a crucial time for the US and its allies in particular. What the rise of IS has shown is that delaying putting troops on the ground and simply “degrading” them with airstrikes achieves nothing. IS, through their rabid and bloody interpretation of Islamic scripture, represent at their core the fact that the region in which they operate, being shattered by almost fifteen years of continuous war, does not provide for its inhabitants the security they need. Obviously, they are lacking in material safety, but also mental safety because of the absence of stability that could have been provided if coalition forces had realised that building a bureaucracy is not that same as building a nation – in short, they have no solid identity. This makes them easy recruitment targets for IS, which can not only see to their monetary, but also their emotional needs. Since IS’ hold on the region is not only military and administrative, but also psychological, we must accept the fact that any reconstruction programme that has any chance of success must deal with all those facets of its rule: any successful reconstruction programme will be long and costly, but that is the only way one could possibly be effective. If we are not able to accept these conclusions and learn their lessons, any actions in the region will be merely token and an intensely arrogant attempt to salve our collective conscience.

Steven Male, Defence & Diplomacy Editor

Section on national identity – David Vallance, War Studies & History, 2nd year

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