As the civilized world reels from the horror inflicted upon innocent civilians in Paris, leaders of the world’s nations must contend with what steps should be taken next to deal with the threat from the Islamic State, who has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Calling France a “capital of prostitution and obscenity” and seeking revenge for the country’s aerial assault on oil fields in Syria that are currently under ISIS control, the Islamic State promised there would be more violence ahead. The question of how to prevent it and how to combat this enemy is the most challenging one facing the world of nations today.
Understanding what the Islamic State is and what they want is one of the keys to taking them on. Unfortunately, because they are so directly connected with Islam, leaders falter in their analysis from fear of insulting Muslims the world over and creating an even larger conflict. But it doesn’t need to be this way.
Islam is a religion like any other religion. It is a system of ideas, believed by some to come with divine warrant, and this system of ideas form a worldview for billions of people around the world. There are countries in the world who use their religion to form the basis of their government, creating theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia for example. In Saudi Arabia, minority religions do not have the right to practice their faith, non-Muslim propaganda is banned, and leaving the Muslim faith or converting to another religion is considered a crime and is punishable by death. However, this in and of itself is not the issue the world is contending with when it comes to the IS. While arguments can be made that the type of theocracy that exists in Saudi Arabia restricts freedom and creates punishments that are extreme for the alleged crimes committed and should be reformed for the betterment of its citizens, this is not the same as dealing with the threat posed by Islamist jihadists.
Islamism is the desire to impose Islam on others, spreading Islam and imposing it upon other people and other nations. Jihadism is the use of force to accomplish this expanding imposition of Islam. Taken one step further, targeting civilians to instill fear as part of the means to accomplishing the forcible expansion of Islam is jihadist terrorism. So what the IS represents is Islamist jihadist terrorism, and they represent it in an organized way, with millions of adherents. Does this mean that Muslims around the world are responsible, or are the foes we must face? Of course not. The foe is the Islamic State, and their ideology is Islamist, but that’s not the same as being a religious Muslim. The most devoutly religious Muslim does not equate to being an Islamist who seeks to impose Islam on others. It’s a distinct difference, and my contention is that leaders are mistaken in not specifically pointing that out because ultimately a reformed Islam that fully condemns Islamist jihad would be an ally in the battle against the IS.
The Islamic State is not merely a terrorist organization. They use terror as one weapon in their arsenal, but in order to accomplish their goals of Islamism, they must take actual territory, which is a more conventional means of warfare that humans have been practicing with varying degrees of success for millennia. The upheaval in the Middle East that began with the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq by the United States armed forces created an opening for the Islamic State to coalesce around and grow. This article by Brian Glyn Williams, a former CIA Counter Terrorism Center employee and Professor of Islamic History for the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, lays out how the Islamic State grew from the ashes of the former Iraqi Military, left without jobs by the US Government’s specific orders post-invasion to ban the Baathist Party and their large military component that had ruled Iraq for decades.
The Islamic State has taken over large sections of Iraq (the orange circles in the map below) and are engaged in battles for other areas that remain contested (dark purple circles). IS also is believed to control about 50% of Syria.
The Islamic State is very much engaged in their mission of Islamism and nations like the United States and recently France are engaged in trying to stop them by dropping bombs on them and arming local Kurds and other anti-IS groups. The US has now sent forces to Syria, although not in specific combat roles. Yet. The Islamic State is not in a position to militarily attack the United States or France, so the weapon of choice in their arsenal to fight back against their enemies is terrorism. With 8 men in coordinated attacks they murdered 128+ French citizens in cultural night spots around Paris and shocked the entire civilized world, and they claim to have done so in retaliation for French military attacks on IS positions in Syria. That’s a pretty powerful weapon for an insurgent group trying to establish itself as a force in the Middle East.
For the US and its allies in this battle to contain or destroy the IS, the options are fairly limited. Dropping bombs is not going to get the job done, and serves to fuel terrorist attacks by the IS as their means of retribution. As we’ve seen in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, a full scale military assault isn’t guaranteed of success either. Could a multinational coalition of forces, with their full complement of military troops and equipment, hit the ground in Iraq and Syria and defeat the IS? I don’t think that’s an easy question to answer, because the Islamic State is not a country with a military that wears a uniform that can be easily identified in the battle field. But even if it were deemed possible to defeat them militarily–which would likely take killing all of their number because there’s no Parliament or Congress to meet with and negotiate terms for an end to the conflict–are the Governments of the US and its allies willing to do it? Are the citizens of the United States and any nations that would join us willing to sends tens of thousands of our young men and women to die and be maimed in the deserts of the Middle East yet again, and for years on end? Because that’s exactly what it would take. To have a shot at defeating this enemy militarily, the US and its allies would have to send a force sizeable enough to take the territory held by the IS and keep it, and continue to push forward into all the cities and provinces held by IS and force them out or kill them all, and then to keep those territories as well, all while defending our rear and all flanks to prevent IS jihadists from attacking us from all sides in our newly taken territory. Diplomatically, we would have to somehow convince the neighboring nations that our intentions are pure, and we seek only to exterminate the jihadists, who should be seen as enemies to all peaceful nations, not just the United States, France and other nations that may join in a “coalition of the willing.” I very much doubt that I am alone in the view that this is a very tall order to fill with a slim chance of success and a high probability of escalation. Without hyperbole, a full scale military invasion of Iraq and Syria by a US-led coalition, with the sole objective of eliminating the Islamic State, might in fact lead to a conflict involving many nations who would view the US position with cynicism. And that doesn’t even begin to address the issue of how we’d know when the IS was truly defeated, and how we would leave the region and what would we leave behind in the destruction and the rubble.
I’d like to propose a different means of dealing with, and hopefully seeing the demise of, the IS.
- Leave the Middle East alone.
Without US, French or other nation’s involvement in the region, the Islamic State would be waging its jihadist campaign on the ground in Iraq, Syria and surrounding regions, without the recruiting tool that is Western intervention. They’d face resistance from local governments who have the most to lose from an IS foothold in their neighborhoods. I don’t believe the ideology of jihad is one that can be sustained without the fuel of outrage against an intervening enemy as foreign to the Islamist jihadists as the liberal and religiously plural nations of the world are. The United States, France and all nations could focus their efforts instead on more effective security at their own airports, ports and borders, along with focused and beefed up covert operations and intelligence gathering to protect their own nations. Just as there was no Islamic State to speak of in the pre-US invasion of Iraq, ultimately there may be no Islamic State to speak of in a future Middle East without the meddling presence of infidels.
World leaders could devote extensive time and energy on diplomatic relationships with leaders in the Muslim world to learn to better understand each other, and to try to get Muslim leaders to see that reform with a goal of respecting individualism, equality and freedom will lead to greater peace and prosperity for all people, everywhere. Muslim nations have just as much to lose from an army of dedicated Islamist jihadists as non-Muslim nations do. Condemning this violent, belligerent crusade to impose one’s ideology on others is something everyone should be able to get behind, leaving the Islamic State isolated, with no foreign enemies bombing their people and causing death from the skies to give them ammunition to urge others to join them in the fight against the Western nations who would occupy the Middle East if the Islamic State didn’t stop them. The US and Iran have just shown us that negotiations are possible, that terms can be reached, that comprises can be made, and that perhaps war can be averted.
This strategy may not bring an end to the IS, but it might, and it would represent a saner and less bloody alternative to the saber rattling coming from those who seem to see war, and only war, as the answer, despite how many times it has failed.