December Issue 2014

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 9 years ago

The terror associated with the now ubiquitous acronym, ISIS, is enormous. The emergence and systematic expansion of this Sunni extremist militant group in Iraq and Syria has sent alarm bells ringing across the globe. But it has also presented the United States with a unique opportunity to reset the Middle East equation in order to thwart the ISIS juggernaut, abate the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and build a new working relationship with Iran.

A coalition of about 62 nations across the globe has been formed to counter the ISIS campaign, which is probably the biggest alliance made since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The US has been carrying out aerial strikes against the militant group since the end of August this year. Recently, President Barack Obama announced that it would send an additional 1,500 troops to battle the Sunni radicals claiming to establish a global caliphate. The question that arises here is whether using military force is the smartest option in addressing the ISIS threat. To my knowledge, the answer is no.

While military action might curtail, it cannot eliminate the threat of ISIS and may actually complicate the conflict further, making it harder to resolve in the long term.

There is no immediate action that will make ISIS disappear, even if the US wields its military might to the utmost, as it did in Afghanistan. An ideology or organisation can never be destroyed solely through military assault, and Al-Qaeda is proof of this. Despite being crippled, it has still managed to survive in several other countries. A military strike may bring some short-lived relief, but the policy of revenge always serves as a flawed basis for formulating foreign policy, and could bear dangerous consequences.

Rather than waging a war in the Middle East once again, the US should opt for alternative means to eradicate the militant organisation. The main strength of ISIS lies in its unparalleled access to financial capital and manpower. This allows the violent group to recruit fighters, procure weaponry, and garner the support of the locals. Much of its finance comes from illegally smuggled oil from fields that are in the group’s control. Control over these fields needs to be wrested from ISIS in order to cut off their access to massive revenues. There must also be a crackdown on Turkish, Iraqi and other oil dealers who purchase the oil from ISIS on the black market. Military action against the group without first stemming its cash flow is absolutely useless.

Turkey must also be forced to crack down on the surge of fighters and weapons across its border with Syria. If access to these supply routes is not denied, ISIS will be able to replace any weapons that the US destroys.

ISIS has a militia of roughly 20,000 fighters and, like in past insurgencies, it cannot be defeated as long as it retains its popular support base. The grievances of Iraqis and Syrians with their governments are genuine, and they must be addressed by drawing Sunnis back into Iraq’s political process. This would serve to drive a wedge between ISIS and the local population. Without such an effort, US strikes will only push Sunnis seeking security further into the arms of ISIS.

The instability in Iraq and Syria is massive. Millions of Iraqis and Syrians are either refugees or internally displaced. The inadequacy of food, water and other essential items threatens more lives than any weapons. Failing to address these needs will not only lead to more fatalities, but also feed further into the radicalisation of the young and the unemployed.

The US must also mend its fences with Russia. Admittedly, there are enormous tensions between the two states over Ukraine, but a diplomatic gesture could open up new corridors of cooperation for resolving the ISIS crisis by reclaiming the good relations that were built last year in order to deal with the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons’ arsenal.

Finally, the US must keep the door open for negotiations. It may be a far-fetched notion for now, but eventually sustainable peace lies in talks and mediation. Britain’s experience of Northern Ireland subsequent to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bears testimony to the fact that while “no talking to terrorists” is a nice slogan, the approach always results in a deadlock.

What needs to be highlighted is that ISIS is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the Middle East. Unless the social, cultural and religious roots of these insurgencies are not properly addressed, radicalised militant groups will continue to emerge. The region’s many problems require new thinking and out-of-the-box solutions. The American leadership must show the Middle East how a better future can be achieved through religious pluralism, political unity and free market capitalism.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue under the headline, “Combating ISIS: Military Might or Diplomacy?”