ISIS or the Islamic state is one of the most vicious and retrograde political and military forces to emerge in recent history. Their cruelty and wanton destruction of culture and history, along with a desire to install a restrictive and punishing religious order such as the caliphate, has attracted attention and stimulated jihadists. Most even minimally enlightened world leaders believe ISIS is a sufficient threat to warrant some sort of action. The issue is how to do it. Do we send in troops composed of Americans or do we maintain some distance and simply try to contain ISIS?
ISIS is a political system with a religious basis. It claims to be a state but rules primarily by force rather than political principle. It is also a terrorist organization. It must be stopped from acquiring territory or controlling geographic communities because that simply legitimizes them further and increases their capacity to operate. ISIS is determined and sophisticated (note their skilled media use) and the combination of their religious, political, and ruthless nature poses a particular difficulty and dilemma.
The best soldiers, the most ideal, would be Sunni who oppose ISIS. If you compose an opposition force of Shia then ISIS will just be further convinced that they are surrounded by an enemy that must be stopped. A Sunni opposition force requires money and training and this puts the US in the same place it is now – training a foreign force to fight the battles we want but are often a little bit less motivated. Between Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we have not had all that much success at training soldiers in other cultures to fight the enemy we choose. The reasons for this are complex but it remains so difficult that it’s worth considering other avenues of influence. There is a tendency to fantasize about powerful and skilled US troops simply overwhelming and outsmarting the evil ISIS. Almost a movie version of how the good guys prevail. But it’s time we wake up from this dream and try more diplomatic maneuvering. Clearly, there is a place for military action and we should exploit it whenever possible.
Consequently, an alternative approach would be to persuade supporters of Syria to remove Assad but do it in a way that an Islamic state does not replace it. The presence of Assad is a recruiting tool because many extremists join ISIS pleasured by the thought of eliminating Assad and overthrowing a minority Islamic leader who is killing Sunnis. ISIS is a Sunni organization and no friend of Shia Iran. In fact, we have experienced US-Iran cooperation and coordination in the battle against ISIS. We should continue to cultivate a more cooperative relationship with Iran and enlist their help whenever possible. The nuclear treaty might play a significant role in improving the relationship between the United States and Iran (that’s one of its goals). The US should also be prepared to offer considerable humanitarian aid to the disadvantaged people of Syria.
We have to remember how difficult and intractable religious wars are. They are the most vicious and resistant to change because of the deeply held beliefs rooted in theology by both sides. Religious wars in Europe lasted for centuries. Borders were unclear and populations where displaced, destroyed, and disadvantaged. I would not expect such religiously motivated wars to be any different in the modern Middle East.
Finally, we have to remember that we are fighting an ideological war. Military action is called for but will certainly be insufficient by itself. The US and its allies will require a deep penetration into the workings of ISIS and the jihadist states that support it. There is a tendency to believe that ISIS is an independent operator when in fact they are supported by jihadist states. It is also typical to think that ISIS and jihadist states are so religiously committed and motivated that they cannot be deterred. There is some truth to this but it does not diminish our ability to weaken them and deter their supporters such as arms dealers, financiers, and other institutional forms of support. Defeating this aggressive, subversive, and expansionist politico-religious movement will not be easy.