The prolonged vacuum of governance, security and rule of law in Syria has created the biggest humanitarian disaster in contemporary history, and enabled over 1,000 separate groups of insurgents, militias, rebels, armed gangs and thugs to terrorize civilians, religions and cultures, resulting in heinous crimes and zero accountability.
The anarchy that has paralyzed Syria since 2011 is now engulfing northern Iraq, and with it, facilitating the emergence of a powerful organization that appears to have caught Western intelligence agencies on the back foot: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).ISIS, which rebranded itself as the “Islamic State” (IS) in June, goes by a number of pseudonyms, including the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL) and the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” ISIS is now thought to have over 50,000 ideologically-fueled fighters at its disposal in Syria. To put that figure in context, the British Army will be reduced to 82,000 this year (comprising logistics, signals, intelligence, engineering and infantry capabilities).
Some reports estimate the total number of foreign fighters in Syria to be as high as 11,000, including 366 citizens from the U.K. and 80 from the U.S. – jihadists with Western passports who are of particular interest to British and U.S. intelligence agencies. Not all foreign jihadists are necessarily fighting among the ISIS ranks. But the purported video of James Foley’s beheading appears to also reveal an executioner with an East London accent, elevating the issue of foreign fighters in Syria from a statistic to a very real problem that could come home to roost in the West. Targeting an ideology is complex, and the answer cannot be bounded by a conventional military response. But recent history does give us some clues.
When the West invaded Iraq on May 20, 2003, military strategists and their politicians were caught woefully short. Forty-three days later, then-President Bush declared major combat operations over, underpinned by a notion that the mission had been accomplished. In reality, Saddam’s conventional army and air force had been crushed, along with Iraq’s security, judicial, political and economic structures. A vacuum had been created, and the gate had been left wide open for deeply entrenched sectarian agendas to spread across Mesopotamia like wildfire.
If you were to ask military planners and political advisers today to define the word “winning” or “victory,” the answer would be hesitant, nondescript and complex. You’d hear sound bites about post-conflict reconstruction, economic development, electoral reform, the eradication of corruption, alternative livelihoods, asymmetric warfare, bolstering existing security structures, disarmament and demobilization, and weaving political and democratic functions into extant cultural traditions and ways of life, certainly not replacing them.
Then there are the antagonizing and opposing external influences in the region. At the tip of the iceberg, Iran and Syria’s Shiite and Alawite governments are guilty of backing the divisive Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who recently stepped down, while Saudi and Qatar are culpable of fueling Salafism with a long-term objective of Sunni hegemony in the region. The frictions run much deeper, exacerbated by U.K. and French foreign policy post-World War II, and deeper still, to the days of the Ottoman Empire.
ISIS has raped and pillaged northern Iraq, terrorized the Yazidi and Kurdish communities that inhabit the region, and threatened the capture of Baghdad. U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, a short-term answer compounding a long-term problem, may temper the momentum of ISIS, but bombs, no matter how accurate or plenty, will not eradicate the threat of the radical Islamic insurgency.
ISIS’s raison d’être is driven by an ideology that transcends national and regional frontiers; ISIS is not bounded by sovereign principles or held accountable to democratic amendments. It does not follow any rules of engagement, it does not comply with international law, and while it parades around in a black uniform for PR purposes, it can, with the blink of an eye, disappear into the landscape and disguise itself among non-combatants.
The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (the previous leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq), was methodical in his choice of Aleppo in northern Syria. The ancient city has become the center of a governance and security vacuum since the Syrian uprising in 2011, facilitating the building of ISIS training camps and the ability to develop as fighting units on the battlefield. Aleppo’s proximity to the Turkish border has also enabled recruits and foreign fighters relatively unhindered access from locations such as Europe and further afield.Deterring ISIS in Iraq will not be “mission accomplished” but merely a moment for the Islamist insurgency to recoup in Syria. The West should be reflecting on over a decade of combat in Afghanistan to acquire a sense of the ISIS conundrum. Both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, overpowered in Afghanistan, resettled in Pakistan to plan and coordinate operations.
Progress in Afghanistan is limited without a holistic and collaborative approach with Pakistan that confronts the insurgencies in its own back yard. Similarly, defeating ISIS will only be a viable option if the West has the access and acquiescence of regional partners to strike at the heart of Baghdadi’s organization.
Those regional dynamics may be more complicated than they appear at first blush. There is evidence to suggest that Western perceptions of Assad being engaged in conflict with ISIS could be inaccurate. Moderate Syrian rebels with the primary objective of toppling the Syrian regime have also made an enemy of ISIS, part of a civil war that actually works in Assad’s favor. Such complexity reinforces the need for regional buy-in to U.S. led initiatives by key state actors such as Iran and Russia. It also requires Saudi to reassess its financial backing of Salafi terrorism.
Unilateral airstrikes by the U.S. in Syria should be avoided at all costs. Military activity by the U.S. in Syria must have regional buy-in and be attached to a broader holistic strategy that also considers the potential negative secondary effects of airstrikes, such as collateral damage to civilians and property.
Prioritizing ISIS as the biggest global threat to the West is the first critical step to a coherent regional foreign policy, and an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate true leadership in today’s prickly geopolitical landscape. Establishing a semblance of acquiescence on targeting ISIS between the heads of state in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Qatar will be imperative.But before the U.S. spends another $4-6 trillion in the Middle East on military activity and its consequences, with no exit strategies or clear objectives, serious consideration should also be given to bolstering homeland security through increased budgets, personnel and intelligence gathering. Countering the external threat to Western cities and populations is complex, and tracking the organic threat from within is resource-intensive.
Bombs and bullets alone cannot target the ISIS ideology, but a collaborative, coherent and holistic strategy led by the U.S. across the gulf states, along with improved intelligence targeting, collection and processing at home, may be able to treat the ISIS cancer before it spreads.
All actions to counter ISIS from here on in should support long-term objectives that cannot be achieved overnight. Meanwhile, the levers of power in the West would be wise to start identifying those terrorist groups and leaders in their incubation phase – Baghdadi has the limelight for now, but history shows ISIS will have a successor.
Michael Kay is a British TV host, foreign affairs reporter, regular contributor on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg and the Huffington Post, and director and producer of current affairs documentaries. He previously spent 20 years as an assault helicopter pilot in the British Royal Air Force.