by Kambaiz Rafi
There are two ways to deal with the Islamic State (or ISIL). One is presently seen in action -- US and ally warplanes fly over Iraq and Syria, targeting ISIL hideouts and their militias. The other less popular method is to contain the movement and limit their access to financial resources and new recruits. The urgency of the situation in Kobani and Northern Iraq in recent weeks has made a non-military option less likely at the moment. But the current strategy is largely a repeat of the war on terror strategy seen during the past decade which has mostly brought more radicalism among the Muslim youth and a much bolder and assertive militancy.
Following the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 and diminishing Al-Qa’ida presence in the Af-Pak tribal regions, proponents of the war on terror prematurely celebrated a victory. Three years later, ISIL seems more powerful than the decentralized Al-Qa’ida organization and has occupied large stretches of land in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qa’ida was also seen as the most brutal and notorious militant group in recent history. Now it condemns ISIL for its brutality. At the end of 12 years of war on terror Islamist militancy has become more, not less, effective at spreading fear.
Sunni Islamist groups have grown nearly 65 percent after the war on terror began in 2001. Anti-western rhetoric gives these groups legitimacy among some segments of the Muslim population. The resumption of aerial campaigns in Iraq and Syria makes the militants' case and buys them more legitimacy and new recruits.
Moreover, ISIL’s popularity is unprecedented and the number of its recruits has jumped from 4,000 to at least 30,000 between June and August this year, including many from the US and Europe. The group is timidly condemned by Sunni clerics, but its ideological sway is likely to grow if the self-declared caliphate continues to be bombed by American and European fighter jets.
Containing ISIL without destroying it remains a strategically and geographically difficult option. Nevertheless, this approach is vital for a sustainable solution to Islamic extremism, necessitated both on political grounds and in order to prevent more people falling victim to its appetite for bloodshed.
The West should also share part of the blame, together with its Middle Eastern allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, for the current crises in Syria and Iraq out of which ISIL emerged. ISIL resumed a central role in the fight against U.S. forces and the Shia dominated government of Al Maliki in Iraq under the leadership of the Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. The group has grown significantly under Abu Baker Al Baghdadi, who took over leadership in 2010 and coined the group's name. Western countries will need to commit resources and more perseverance if they are serious about addressing this menace. A headstrong military option is easy but not adequate in the long-term.
The idea of Jihad advanced by the ISIL and similar groups grows dangerously regardless of victory or defeat in the battleground. Though it may seem paradoxical, the West and its Middle Eastern allies should avoid wiping out ISIL militarily, which could clad the group with a veneer of martyrdom, a notion highly revered in the Muslim world. This is especially true when a military option cannot be carried out effectively without engaging Iran, the Shia heavyweight in the Middle East. Cooperation with Iran would mean indirect cooperation with Bashar Al-Assad and Hezbollah. The Iraqi government is also largely seen by Sunnis as a Shia force propped up through support from the US. The ever-growing Shia camp fuels resentment among Sunnis who see Shias no less than heretics. ISIL has been cleverly harnessing this resentment.
Iraqi Sunnis can be co-opted to limit ISIL advances or create pockets of resistance inside ISIL held territories in Iraq, but only if they are given the right political concessions that would reflect their role as the main rulers of the country prior to the 2003 US-led invasion. The recent appointment of a Sunni defense minister in the new Iraqi government is a positive step. Meanwhile, the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and the Democratic Union Party in Syria, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), are perhaps the most reliable forces in their respective countries. A combination of Arab Sunnis and Kurds leading the offensive against ISIL will prove more sustainable in the long-run. For this to happen, support to Kurdish forces should be in harmony with Turkey’s interests in the region, building on the close relations between Turkey and the autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. Despite Turkey’s detrimental role in Kobani, the recent change of stance allowing Iraqi Kurds to cross its territory into Kobani is a welcome sign.
Nonetheless, ISIL can be countered significantly if the fight against the group is honed with a less publicized sectarian antidote: Shia resentment. Such efforts have been bolstered after Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a reluctant Iraqi Shia cleric, gave his consent to Shias seeking to enter the fight against ISIL. Sistani had refrained from such declarations for much of the violent sectarian clashes that took place in Iraq between 2006 and 2007.
The strategy to contain ISIL presupposes the continuation of the Islamic State within its current territory, or a smaller version of it. Blocked inside a geographic enclave, Sunni extremists will defend their caliphate and fill them with the false hopes of expanding their territories. But the Islamic State will look more like the isolated North Korea in the modern world than the historically prominent Abbasid dynasty or Ottoman Empire.
Let’s remember that ISIL is ideologically more akin to the Taliban than the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. ISIL’s Salafism rejects the ‘Islamic Democracy’ of Iran, seeing it as an innovation and therefore heretical. Their harshness towards religious and political dissidents coupled with a tactically imposed economic blockade will inevitably lead to popular resentment. Simply put, there is unlikely to be a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic of Iran in this region. ISIL seems far more politically shortsighted than the Shia clerics of Qom and Tehran were in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. A gradual decay will bring the so-called Islamic State down to its knees, and with it, its ideology. Confronted with economic blockade and a constant besiegement, ISIL can only continue a war of attrition which it will inevitably lose.
If the Islamic State is wiped out militarily by the US and its allies, there will need to be only a few months of instability in a Middle Eastern country for Islamic militancy to reemerge. On the other hand, a policy of containment and a long-term stalemate would give the local population a taste of what it looks like to live under the Islamic State and will divest it of its ideological appeal. Such a strategy faces many challenges but also harbors the greatest potential for a lasting solution to Islamic militancy.