Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Less than over a year ago, most of the world had never heard of it. Fast forward to present day, and it is now perhaps the richest, single most powerful terrorist organization the world has ever seen. Present day IS, better known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sha’am) now poses a significant risk to the long term geopolitical stability of the Middle East. It has driven President Obama to become the fourth consecutive president to order the use of military force in Iraq, when his campaign openly made claims opposing it. It has made the US implicitly consider the possibility of coordinating with Hezbollah, which has traditionally been labelled a terrorist organization. It has publicly beheaded two Americans and a Briton in the span of one month.
ISIS, it seems, has more tricks up its sleeve than the world originally thought it did. However, it seems almost implausible that a terrorist organization could grow so rapidly, amass such wealth, all the while controlling a vast expanse of land. But this happens to be just one of the consequences of the long drawn conflict in Iraq and the Syrian civil war.
As it turns out, power vacuums, widespread arms and ammunitions proliferation, and all round general instability are the perfect breeding grounds for a transnational terrorist organization hellbent on the systematic elimination of an ethnic group, and pretty much everyone else who stands in its way. It was only the West’s patience in allowing the conflict in Syria to continue that led to the fortification of ISIS as a transnational militant organization. Had Assad been bombed, and some transitional government taken over in Syria, ISIS would never have controlled such a vast territory. Had the proper rebels (God knows who they are now) been assisted, the systematic cleansing of the Shiite population in Syria could have been avoided. But because any of those things weren’t done at the right time or on the required scale, ISIS has become a problem not confined to Syria’s national borders.
However, calling ISIS a political organization or a terrorist splinter group would be far from the truth–it is a brutal and nihilistic militant army that has goals that are diametrically opposed to any value system associated with statehood. With ISIS’s goals for Pan Islamism under a Caliphate at Raqqa being far from plausible, the question everyone should be asking is – what will it take to get rid of this menace? The answer is much more complicated than we think it is.
Nothing in today’s world is monocausal, let alone the formation of a 30,000 strong militant group. But the most obvious explanation to the existence of ISIS, it seems, is the way Middle Eastern politics has been centered around an underlying ethnic conflict between Sunnis and Shiite Muslims. The Syrian civil war, the protests in Bahrain, and Iran’s support of Shiite militias in conjunction with other governments’ sponsorship of their Sunni counterparts have all equally contributed to making the problem as egregious as it is today.
ISIS’s current strongholds are in Syria and Iraq, both traditionally Shia majority nations, but with sizeable Sunni populations nonetheless. This sectarian discord is one that traces its roots back to the times of nascent Islam, formalized by the lines in the sand drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement. The schism between Sunnis and Shias on the political spectrum is one that continues to plague the modern world today, and ISIS has found it an effective tool in garnering support from all across the globe-rallying people to fight for what it labels the Sunni cause. The elimination of ISIS will be the first of many steps needed to prevent the breeding of sectarian conflict and bloodshed in the region.
So far, getting rid of ISIS seems to be the right path for now. They pose not a political or a consular challenge to the region, but a purely military one–and a military offensive is the solution. They’re a militant army with no political legitimacy and an unprecedented bloodlust, and that alone, requisites a military solution to the problem. I like to think that the West and other important regional actors such as Qatar and the UAE have a responsibility of sorts to rid the region of this parasite that wants to establish not an Islamic Caliphate, but a reign of terror. Not for the fact that it was the West’s inaction that lead to the problem intensifying, but also because any future growth of ISIS poses a significant risk to the long term geopolitical stability of the region, and that does not bode well for anyone involved.
The next logical question is, how to strategize against a group that is spread over such a wide area? ISIS thrives on selling oil on the black market from the refineries and fields it has seized, and these refineries and oil fields should be considered legitimate targets of airstrikes, in attempts to cut the revenue stream to the organization. These are however, one of many of ISIS targets that need to be eliminated to diminish the group’s strength. And air strikes alone, however, will do little in weakening the group–ground forces will be needed to deal with the vast network of ISIS fighters, a sizeable percentage of whom are foreigners, from as far as Britain. But given how domestic politics are in the United States, a US military presence on the ground seems like a far fetched possibility–the only other solution is finding the right rebels to mount an offensive against the ISIS stronghold in northeastern Syria. But with most rebels’ primary aim being the ousting of the Assad regime, including al Nusra, ahrar al Sha’am and the Free Syrian Army, caution needs to be exercised to avoid being involved even deeper in this predicament.
The offensive approach is surely not without its complications–by arming and aiding rebels, any external help would be providing arms and ammunitions to the fighting in the region. Given the vacillating nature of alliances however, there seems to be no guarantee of success, and all attempts could very easily just exacerbate the situation, and send the region spiralling into even more violence and bloodshed.
To attempt to deal with ISIS seems like a daunting task, one that has more complications than previously imagined. With the situation so nebulous and convoluted, it seems like a lasting solution won’t be actualized anytime in the foreseeable future.
Featured image courtesy of www.huffington post.com