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Two new RUSI reports suggest Western military efforts to eliminate ISIS from the Middle East may result only in the Balkanisation of the region. Instead, the best hope of countering the extremist group may come from within.

 Part 1: The Regional Response

Part 2: The Military Response

In the two-part report Inherently Unresolved, edited by Dr Jonathan Eyal and Elizabeth Quintana, RUSI's leading regional and military experts explore the political backdrop to the counter-ISIS campaign and analyse the effectiveness of military interventions against the extremist group. 

Part 1 begins with a survey of the regional conditions that have facilitated the rise of ISIS, the potential role of the US in finding a solution to the crisis, and points for consideration if a longer-lasting solution to the threat of ISIS – and the conditions that spawned it – is to be found.

It then provides a brief outline of the emergence of ISIS, before exploring the perspectives of the various actors within Iraq, and then of the Gulf States, Iran and Russia.

Part 2 examines three key elements of the military aspect – the air campaign, the land component and the battle of the narrative – with each chapter considering the broader coalition effort before focusing on the UK contribution. The final chapter then assesses in detail the domestic terrorist threat posed by ISIS to the UK and its response to this threat so far.

Map 1: Map of coalition and Iraqi Security Forces training bases from the Building Partner Capacity (BPC) programme and areas of strategic interest

Map of coalition and Iraqi Security Forces training bases from the Building Partner Capacity (BPC) programme and areas of strategic interest

Source: Open sources and Kathleen J McInnis, ‘Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State’,
Congressional Research Service, August 2015.

The authors warn that eliminating ISIS from the Middle East entirely may no longer be realistic, and Western strategies should be altered accordingly.

Michael Stephens argues ISIS has become too deeply entrenched in the territory it rules to be easily displaced, and the best hope for its defeat comes not from without, but within:

‘[T]he basic premise of the ‘caliphate’ is the end of the established order of states, and the creation of its own in its place. As such, there appears to be no room for compromise – or even direct negotiations – with the group at the present time. Indeed, the end of ISIS will only come if, like its predecessor [Al-Qa’ida in Iraq], its rule crumbles from the inside as its ‘citizens’ turn against it.'

With this intractibility in mind, Elizabeth Quintana states the long-term difficulties of maintaining an alliance such as the counter-ISIS coalition mean Western objectives may have to be scaled down:

‘While the current percentage containment strategy is based on an expectation of eventual success – defined as the destruction of ISIS as a military force – it may therefore be more realistic to assume that the strategy will become one of open-ended containment, degrading ISIS in Iraq and Syria and limiting its spread beyond the region. In this case, “success” may be the reduction of the ISIS phenomenon to something that regional players and Western powers can tolerate while the Syrian civil war plays itself out.’

Finally, report editors Dr Jonathan Eyal and Elizabeth Quintana warn of the dangers of further Western intervention in an already highly charged part of the world:

‘[T]here is a very real risk of Balkanisation of the region (despite the fact that most Syrians resist the idea), and preserving the unity of today’s states is becoming increasingly difficult. The real concern is that an intervention which began as a counter-insurgency campaign could now become something much deeper, with – ironically – ISIS the only real winner.’

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