If Islamic State cannot be defeated militarily, and if “degrading” it remains a distant and uncertain outcome, then everyone may have to accept that the IS will remain a factor and that the effort to build a Sunni state on the basis of Sharia must be allowed to play itself out. It seems ever more unlikely that the West can prevent this outcome through armed intervention in what is essentially a war within Islam to determine which century the people of the region decide to live in.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
I recently gave a talk at Drake University on peacekeeping and US foreign policy. During the Q&A, I was asked what I thought would happen with the Islamic State (IS). I thought a bit and replied that I guess they will win and we – the West – will have to find a way to deal with them. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, retired US Army Major General Robert Scales suggested the same thing: “If the American people won’t accept further escalation [in Iraq], they will have to accept the caliphate.” It remains unlikely that the American people – perhaps excluding another 9/11-like terrorist attack – will accept the major escalation of introducing ground troops.
According to Scales, the US air war has contributed to stopping the IS advance on Baghdad. But the IS has not lost territory and the Iraqi army had not gained much. He called this a “culminating” position that allows IS to strengthen its military and political hold on the Sunni parts of the region while readying for the next phase. President Obama’s decision last week to send another 1500 military advisors to Iraq is meant to train up those Iraqi troops that may be able to fight sufficiently well to take the war to the IS. Scales suggests that may be too little and too late.
Meanwhile, the US has made clear that its efforts against the IS and other jihadists in Syria is not aimed at deposing Assad. Recently, Assad’s forces seem to have begun taking direct action against IS. (This may be because between his attacks on the “moderate” rebels plus advances against them by IS and Al Qaeda forces, there is nothing much left for him to attack.) A cynic might say that Obama’s approach to “degrading” the IS and making Iraq safe for democracy appears to be an implicit alliance with Assad (and his Iranian allies) and winning enough space in Iraq to avoid its fall on his watch.
But the IS has distinct advantages that suggest it might be hard to displace or keep from making further advances. It has a high octane motivating world-view and an explicit framework for organizing life in its territory: fundamentalist Islam. It effectively uses modern weapons, oil, social media and brutality to wield power and seize territory. A US general involved in the war effort recently noted that while the US inflicts roughly 800 casualties a month on the IS, the movement gains at least 1000 new recruits in the same period. These recruits are highly driven and many are apparently ready to commit suicide to further the group’s aims. The US air war cannot be used against populated areas where the IS can take shelter. The US may be able to kill leaders but experience suggests that there is no shortage of others ready to step into their shoes. (IS includes Baathist officers who apparently do know how to fight.) The IS brand is meanwhile spreading as groups in Nigeria and Egypt pledge their allegiance.
Washington has suggested that the war to degrade the IS will be a long one. There is no reason to expect that the advantages of a protracted struggle will not mostly accrue to the IS. Sunnis will resist fighting Sunnis, Shias will be increasingly dependent on outside support and the secular, moderate middle that US policy depends upon will evaporate.
It might seem too late for the West to back away from confronting the IS without paying a cost. As the war against it deepens, the group may seek to take reprisal attacks of its own in the form of terrorist actions beyond its territory. The IS may not be interested in negotiating an outcome even if Washington and its allies come to see the necessity of a settlement. So perhaps it might work best to seek to de-escalate within the context of calling a pause to explore some grand international effort to come to terms with the new borders that may have to be drawn in the region. Allied military actions would focus on holding the ground against further IS advances while not taking the offensive. Washington might take the lead in calling for an international conference including the various regional and extra-regional actors – including Russia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – to establish baselines and eventually directly engage the IS themselves as well as other warring parties. Or perhaps, the outside actors might empower the UN to begin the process. It would mean, however unpleasant the prospect, accepting that all parties holding territory must be allowed to remain in place. This would require effective recognition of partition and new boundaries and acceptance that “democratic” outcomes may remain impractical at this time.
Or it may be that a gradual freezing-in-place – whether by design or default – offers the best achievable outcome. (UN Envoy de Mistura has suggested such an approach beginning with a ceasefire in Aleppo.) But essential to any effort would be eschewing any notion of a military solution. If IS cannot be defeated militarily, and if “degrading” it remains a distant and uncertain outcome, then everyone may have to accept that the IS will remain a factor and that the effort to build a Sunni state on the basis of sharia must be allowed to play itself out. It seems ever more unlikely that the West can prevent this outcome through armed intervention in what is essentially a war within Islam to determine which century the people of the region decide to live in.
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.