ISIS will not be destroyed with bombs alone

Flickr/Freedom House

Following the attacks in Paris last week, attention has turned to defeating ISIS and preventing subsequent attacks. While many are calling for increased airstrikes across ISIS-controlled territories, this will not be enough to defeat the group. We must remember that violent extremism is a hydra-like beast and that airstrikes will only breed more violence. Instead, learning the lessons from the Iraq War, a three-phase strategy is needed to run alongside surgical strikes against the group’s leaders and ideologues, that will separate the core members of the group from those who have turned to it in times of existential need.

Resolving the Syrian Crisis

The first step is ending the Syrian Civil War, which has served as a recruiting tool for ISIS, from both within the region and abroad, while also bolstering the ranks of the group with more passive people who don’t subscribe to ISIS’s ideology but need protection from the Assad regime. Clearly, with great powers holding seemingly intractable positions, this is a difficult task, yet as France and Russia both seek a UN resolution to deal with ISIS, it is not impossible. Getting Saudi Arabia and Iran to agree on a post-Assad direction will prove more difficult but a new system of government outlined below may facilitate this by ensuring that the interests of both are maintained.

Ensuring Safety in Syria and Iraq

The second step is to ensure the safety of people across Syria and Iraq, both as an attempt to separate ISIS leaders from Sunnis across the region and to reduce the group’s recruitment capabilities. Much of ISIS’s appeal for Sunnis in the region has been driven by existential questions about survival and ensuring that basic needs are met will go some way to eroding this appeal. Moreover, this will also erode the narrative of suffering that has proved so influential in recruiting foreign fighters, many of whom travel to Syria and Iraq to support their sectarian kin, or for humanitarian reasons. This will require the establishment and management of safe zones, to be secured by UN peacekeepers.

Power Sharing and Investment in the Future

The third step is to establish a power-sharing system of government where all identity groups are invested in the future of the state. Lebanon, long-plagued by sectarian violence until the Taif Accords that ended the 15 year-long Civil War, has a power-sharing system that has largely kept its multi-ethnic society at peace since 1990. Such a system could be replicated in Syria to provide political access to a range of ethno-religious communities across the state and, if done right, could also reduce the scope for proxy competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In neighbouring Iraq, Prime Minister al-Abadi has taken a different approach, challenging corruption and seeking to integrate Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd into the Iraqi government, which will take time to erase long-standing grievances but is commendable. In the short term, ensuring that the rule of law is upheld for all is essential, yet achievable.

Clearly this strategy requires creative diplomacy and will not be implemented overnight. The stakes are high but the failure to secure peace in Syria would be catastrophic, as would wide-spread airstrikes over ISIS held territory, resulting only in more deaths, displacements and potentially, increased support for groups similar to ISIS in the long term. This strategy will not decapitate ISIS, rather, it will take the legs out from underneath it and in conjunction with surgical strikes and strangling ISIS finances, ultimately, will destroy the fertile ground in which violent extremist groups across the region have been able to thrive.

You can follow Simon on Twitter @drmabon 

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