What it Will Take to Degrade ISIS?

Air strikes against ISIS will inevitably lead to ‘boots on the ground’. Those boots must be worn by Sunni Arabs focusing on Iraq.

The Islamic State, or ISIS, is more flexible and malleable than a traditional ‘state’ opponent, and it is a more durable, cohesive, and dangerous threat than any Al Qa’ida-associated formation has ever presented. The current set of analyses concerning how to combat the threat usually generate the conclusion of there needing to be ‘boots on the ground’, followed quickly by the a caveat stating the obvious – that this would be seen as a very bad idea if these boots were provided by Western powers, but perhaps this extraordinarily dangerous task could be taken up by some friendly regional allies, maybe from (as yet unspecified) Arab states, moderate  Syrian opposition forces, or Kurdish forces that now operate in Iraq and in Syria. Yet none of these options would serve to challenge ISIS’s power. Indeed, their mobilising could actually make matters much worse.

This analysis attempts to take this debate slightly further, accepting that multi-national airstrikes will not only serve to temper, tactically, ISIS operations (such as around Kobani in Syria, or north east of Mosul, in Iraq), but will also generate considerable amounts of popular support from Sunnis of a certain disposition (from around the world), thus seeing the threat from ISIS increase, rather than decrease in the future – unless ‘boots on the ground’ are in fact committed. Who would be wearing these boots, and where they will be, should now be the questions we seek to answer.

Many true words are being said following the UK Parliament’s vote to commit to air strikes in Iraq. It is true, for example, that the ‘critical mass’ of ISIS is in Syria, and that Iraq is of slightly less importance at present. Imagine Islamic State as a balloon. Squeeze it in one place, Iraq, for example, and it will simply move its forces across to Syria – with the other side of the balloon inflating. The trick, of course, is to squeeze from two sides. But who is there in Syria to do the squeezing? Those who advocate ‘boots on the ground’ do not answer this question adequately. The only possible, capable, option would be the military forces of the Assad government.

It is also true that  ISIS has significant weaknesses – not least in terms of it managing what could be a very large economy that contains many interest groups (tribes are often mentioned) that could turn against ISIS if their interests are not served.

This argument is being used to suggest that a new Arab tribal ‘awakening’, of the sort embraced and enhanced in Iraq in 2007-8 could be the political solution, alongside the bombing campaign. This is sound in theory, but in practice has been nullified by  ISIS’ strategy of removing any internal threat to their predominance: by buying into their project key interest groups, and by ruthlessly oppressing those who oppose them.

Following the horrendous slaughter of the Shaitat tribe in Deir az-Zur some months ago, it is little wonder that there are no murmurs of rebellion from Arab tribes, whether in Syria or Iraq.

Concentrate on Routing ISIS in Iraq

So what could be done? Syria is without doubt ISIS’ key theatre, but engaging ISIS in Syria, beyond air strikes, is currently a fool’s errand. But Iraq is still important and Iraq is where the process of unravelling ISIS can begin, which is a good job, as the opportunity to do it in Syria, for the time being is not readily apparent. Why is Iraq so important to ISIS? Quite simply, if the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces of Iraq are not under their control, then they will be under the influence, if not direct control, of their opponents – whether in Baghdad, Washington DC, the Arab Gulf, or Ankara (although Ankara’s relationship with  ISIS is profoundly murky).

The Kurds of Iraq, too, would rediscover their confidence and also work more effectively against ISIS, if they did not have to share a 1000km border with them on the over side.

For Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, control of Iraq is vital. It is also hugely symbolic. It was in Mosul, not Raqqa, that the Caliphate; was declared, and Mosul remains the biggest success story for ISIS. Nothing has been as impressive, and nothing has served to generate opposition to ISIS from Western powers quite so much as ISIS’ storming of the capital of Nineveh – and this remains an important wave for al-Baghdadi to surf.  ISIS is as much about the power of symbols as it is the power of their weapons and the brutality of their control.

If there is to be ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq, they almost certainly need to be worn by Sunni Arabs. Kurdish Peshmergaand Shia militias (and I include the Iraqi Security Forces in this definition) can certainly target and kill ISIS forces, but they will generate further legitimacy for ISIS the more they push south and north respectively. But for a Sunni Arab force to emerge, a new strategy is needed – one that gives the space for a non-Islamic State politics to emerge, and one that gives the opportunity for Western powers to do what they seem to prefer to do, of deploying Adaptive Brigades to begin the process of training and standing up new military formations.

Meanwhile, these same Western powers have to acknowledge one of the main reasons for the rise of ISIS in the period following the successful quelling of their predecessors in Iraq in the 2008-10 period: the failure of Western powers to ensure that promises made to Sunni Arabs were met, and that they too had a stake in the government of Iraq.

Creating a New ‘Inkspot’

This could start by creating a new centre of gravity for Sunni Arabs. In some ways, northern Iraq offers up a clear model – of the Kurdish safe haven of 1991 that grew into the Kurdistan region of today. Where could Arab (or anti-ISIS) safe havens be established? Clearly, Mosul would be a very strong contender – being one of the two symbolic hearts of the self-declared ‘caliphate’, and being able to be accessed through friendly Kurdish territory. It would also be an ideal place to nurture a Sunni Arab force away from what would be the deeply suspicious eyes of Shia militias in Baghdad. Kobani, in Syria, could also be a possibility, nestled adjacent to the Turkish border and with a ready militia, in the form of the Kurdsh YPG already taking the fight to ISIS in a way that no other opposition force has yet been able to achieve.

From these ‘inkspots’ – a term initially used to describe British counter-insurgency operations in Malaya – then not only could the ‘boots on the ground’ be assembled; so too would the political and social space be discovered in which ISIS could be further undermined.

As ISIS has discovered and prospered from: success breeds success; and failure also undermines. The standing up of a (relatively) safe Sunni Arab city and Syrian Kurdish city, of effective military forces, and of economies that would provide at least for a secure, baseline, existence would serve to destabilise ISIS more than the Tomahawks, Paveways, and Hellfires that are hitting their Toyota pick-ups today.

The creating of such safe havens, and the taking of such a large city as Mosul, is not an undertaking that would ever be clean, quick, or easy.  But this is where the logic of air strikes leads us towards, and where those who so easily say ‘boots on the ground are needed’ points to. The alternative – of aerial bombardment over a period of several years – is not only banal, it is counterproductive. Bombing without a strategy will see ISIS further legitimised, and it will see it even more radicalised. It will also see radical jihadist groups consolidate around ISIS. Consider, for example, the bringing together of the previously opposed Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS following US airstrikes

Stopping bombing now that it has started, though, will be seen as a further victory for ISIS and a defeat for the West, and so Western powers are now locked into a struggle that will require them to have strategies that will have to squeeze the balloon at both ends, working in Iraq where they can do so effectively and relatively easily, and working with those in Syria – whether in the opposition or in the government – to counter the rise of ISIS.  

Whether the UK government really appreciated this fact, and privately acknowledged the actions that would be needed to achieve this result before they joined the bombing campaign, will be a question that perhaps a future version of the Chilcott inquiry would be minded to ask.

Gareth Stansfield is also Professor of Middle East Politics, University of Exeter


Gareth Stansfield

Senior Associate Fellow

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