Solutions to Violent Conflict

The ISIS Stalemate: It’s the Long Game

In Counterterrorism, Middle East, Religion and Conflict on November 24, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Ebrahim Moosa

With another U.S. aid worker beheaded by ISIS and unreported civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes in ISIS controlled territories in Iraq and Syria, the conflict is taking on the features of a military stalemate.

As long as ISIS is America’s problem, there are no good medium and long-term solutions to the “caliphate” of Abubakr al-Baghdadi. Even assassinating Baghdadi would not solve the problem of the menace of ISIS, just as the execution of Osama bin Laden did not put an end to al-Qaeda. In fact, ISIS is a version of al-Qaeda on steroids.

A FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT

More revealing about the civil war in Syria and Iraq is the account of Theo Padnos, the American journalist who was released by the Nusra Front after two years of captivity. The real battle in Syria, according to Padnos, is between the Nusra Front and ISIS. The two groups detest each other yet they share a common enemy in the Assad regime.

It appears that the Nusra Front, listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., is comparatively less interested in spectacular acts of violence. Nusra has also frequently threatened Western hostages with beheadings but it has not done so. ISIS has fewer compunctions in engaging in such despicable and graphic acts of violence against all their enemies, whether Western or non-Western.

The take home from Padnos’s account is this: all the actors involved with the Nusra Front, whether they are low-level foot soldiers or senior figures, hate America with a passion. ISIS obviously also detests America and Americans and makes it clear with their beheadings of hostages. If Padnos’s account is true, and there is no reason to doubt him, then this should be an eye-opener to policy makers in Washington.

AN UNNECESSARY FIGHT

The message is that the United States does not enjoy any credibility in the region, following the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilization of that country. So even if the U.S. is committing resources to destroying ISIS, there will be very little appreciation on the part of those who are being saved from ISIS’s craven behavior. And if we assume that ISIS will be destroyed or fatally weakened, there will be no one to fill the vacuum when territories now under ISIS control are liberated in Iraq and Syria by U.S. military might. However, a scenario of military victory over ISIS is a long shot at best.

The fundamental error is that the U.S. has now become a global security “nanny,” attempting to baby-sit regions and countries that are totally out of control. These far-off regions have very little impact on U.S. national security. However, everyone in Washington and the punditocracy that supports a new round of military engagement in Iraq is trying to make the case that this fight is necessary for national security. The truth of the matter is that ISIS is first and foremost a threat to regional states such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf States, in addition to the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. If these states do not take a leadership role in combating ISIS, then they clearly do not see it as a threat. Or perhaps they do not magnify the threat to the extent that the U.S. does. These countries might be playing the long game, knowing that one has to wait out some crises with minimal action. Perhaps that is the lesson the U.S. might have to learn—that muscular diplomacy and military action are not the solution.

Ebrahim Moosa is a Professor of Islamic Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Notre Dame’s Department of History.