Containing ISIS: A Dream Too Far?

Author:
Stefan Antić
Research Associate at CIRSD and Associate Editor of the English-language quarterly magazine Horizons.

The past 25 years have marked a period in which the West had taken upon itself to serve as the guardian of international peace and stability. The assumption of such a responsibility has often meant assuming the role of global firefighter. And over the course of the post-Cold War period, the flames of conflict have indeed engulfed disparate regions including the Horn of Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia and terror attacks have targeted cities throughout the world. Even though time had been of the essence, and waiting had often brought the risk of further conflict escalation and large-scale humanitarian disasters, the vast number of U.S.-led interventions since the end of the Cold War had always involved comprehensive case-building. And sooner or later, Western intelligence officers and policymakers would gather enough evidence and political momentum to unleash unrelenting responses to actions they perceived as threatening. 


However, with the rise of the Islamic State over the past few years, this trend has somehow been reversed. The West and the international community as a whole are now facing a group that seems to be gathering all the required evidence for them. Undoubtedly proud of their horrific crimes, Islamic State fighters have come to be known for their extensive uploading of public stonings, beheadings, and immolation on social media. The unprecedented broadcasting of hubris and brutality has thus far helped the terrorist group instill fear among its opponents on the battlefield, whilst also providing useful tools for the expansive recruitment of the like-minded radical Islamists from abroad. To make matters worse, we have already seen this “campaign” produce results. The Islamic State now controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, with several of its cells gaining ground throughout North Africa and the infamous Boko Haram—a terrorist group holding Nigeria’s north firmly in its grip—pledging allegiance to the Middle East’s latest branch of Salafi Jihadism. Furthermore, the latest ISIS attacks carried out over Sinai, as well as in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris, left over 400 people dead—reminding everyone that ISIS capabilities are far from diminished.

Yet, despite clear evidence that the Islamic State is an ever-growing threat, no international actor has come up with a coherent, much less comprehensive, strategy to promptly annihilate ISIS. A great many debates have been held between policy analysts, military strategists, and prominent Middle East experts worldwide in an attempt to determine the best way to move forward. Despite the evident lack of consensus on how to proceed from the existing deadlock, one particular term has been put forward more often than all other options combined: containment.

The option of containing ISIS would mean preventing the organization from further expanding its territory, incentivizing (by various means) the region’s actors to carry the full operational load of ground combat, ensuring that ISIS is cut-off from its available supply routes, and essentially hoping that the strategy would work well enough to induce the organization’s implosion. Still, as straight-forward as the strategy may sound, it leaves considerable space for a number of “what ifs.” Moreover, virtually nobody has been so bold to argue that containment provides the perfect solution to the ISIS threat. But regardless of whether one favors this course of action or not, it is critical for one to account for a range of factors that, when put together, appear to have tipped the scales in the favor of containment in the eyes of those in charge of policymaking.

So why does containment seem favored to all other alternatives? Whenever there is a “least of all evils” argument to be made, one usually needs to come up with a variety of reasons as to why all the other options are likely to make the situation drastically worse. Sadly enough, whatever Middle East policy is put to such a test, there will always be many ways in which things could spiral out of control. The two rival options, namely direct military involvement or complete abandonment, speak to this point and will be examined in turn.

Ground War: Lessons Learned

Taking a closer look at some of the complexities that a full-blown ground war would leave unaddressed, and examining just how costly similar past practices have been, clearly indicates why another ground invasion is broadly considered implausible. Even though it deployed a mighty military force to topple Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime in 2003, the United States has, regretfully, struggled to maintain peace, let alone foster sectarian reconciliation and democracy for more than a decade. The years it spent trying to get Iraq back on its feet gave rise to a tumultuous era in Iraq’s history, one permeated with frequent change of government—at least in the wake of the occupation—and the country’s perpetually grim security outlook. Post-2003 Iraq has also failed to produce inclusive representation in governing structures, thus deepening longstanding sectarian divides. The new Shia-dominated political climate paved the way for hardliners’ rise to power, the most notable of whom was Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014. Despite having continuously received support from the United States to uphold a “unified and democratic Iraq,” Maliki was seen in the eyes of many in the region as having been nothing more than yet another Shia strongman. He did very little to consolidate Iraqi society, marginalizing Sunnis to the point of initiating a major uprising—something that Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq, later the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, knew how to use to its advantage.

Apart from a series of sectarian conflicts that took place between 2006 and 2008, which some have dubbed the Iraqi Civil War, the United States has battled various forms of insurgencies in the country. These included organized hit-and-run attacks by Ba’athists (loyal to the pre-2003 government) in the initial phase, a varied number of Sunni militias, radical Sunni Islamists including al-Qaeda-affiliated factions, and even groups of Shia militias that the Iraqi federal government was unable to control. In many ways, it was this constant imperative of having to deal with immediate threats that ultimately prevented the United States and its allies from developing a long-term strategy for sustainable peace. Speaking in terms of cost, the U.S. involvement in Iraq since 2003 is estimated to have cost American taxpayers over $1.7 trillion, with other funds devoted to Middle East policies amounting to even more. In addition, the United States, combined with the rest of the coalition countries, has suffered roughly around 5,000 casualties since the commencement of hostilities in 2003. And according to some data published in 2013, the Iraq War had already taken more than 500,000 civilian Iraqi lives.

I note that most of the aforementioned data was collected before what we have come to know as the territorial expansion of the Islamic State. Furthermore, one cannot help but notice that the prior statistic covers Iraq alone, not even touching upon the horrors happening in neighboring Syria—where the Islamic State has established its heartland. The current state of play in Syria, though not having thus far involved a larger U.S. presence, represents a whole new level of complexity. An astounding number of militias are reported to be entangled in the Syrian conflict. The vast majority in the West still stands behind the policy line proclaimed in the very first days of the bloody civil war, saying that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad must go. On the other hand, both Russia and Iran seem equally adamant in their support for the Alawite leader, at least at a tactical level. Finally, with major international actors not appearing to agree on such basics, it becomes virtually impossible to imagine a prospective Western, or any other ground intervention being agreed upon in the UN Security Council, and therefore in the context of international law.

At a time when such views were not only dominating expert policy papers, but were also making their way onto the headlines of Western mainstream media, it should had come as no surprise that the ground war option found little support among policymakers and the general public before the infamous Paris events. Truth be told, the tide has since turned in favor of greater military engagement—at least in terms of public support. Nonetheless, as the roar of outrage in the West declines, so will public support for ground war, thus making such trends unsustainable. And as in all liberal democracies, the obstacle of having no public backing for a particular policy would prove itself to be one of the most difficult, if not insurmountable.

Committing ground troops to eliminate actors that pose no immediate military threat has always been a largely unpopular endeavor. With all of this in mind, it is worth noting that ISIS remains predominantly focused on the expansion of territory on which it wishes to establish the foundation of its caliphate. By spreading fear among those who oppose it and summoning those drawn by its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, ISIS has thus far proven itself capable of inducing a large-scale exodus of the affected population. In that sense, ISIS has achieved its goal of causing problems to the West in general, and Europe in particular. However, it has come nowhere near to achieving its territorial expansion to the point of reaching the physical borders of what it defines as the West. Following this logic, the Islamic State as such does not pose a direct military threat to the United States or, for that matter, its Western allies. At least, this seems to be the case for the time being—although the attacks in Paris may signal that ISIS is more than capable of inflicting significant damage upon the West by other means.

Walk Away and Ignore: Why it Does Not Work

Picking the option of simply abandoning the region to the mercies of ISIS is of equal, and possibly even greater, concern. Although such a policy certainly would not cause excessive spending and Western loss of life in conventional military conflicts, it would leave millions in the Middle East at mercy of the self-proclaimed caliphate. The majority of the population in ISIS-held areas in Iraq and Syria has already seen more executions since the onslaught of the jihadists than in all previous years put together. To this day, Islamic State affiliates have not stopped inventing new methods that shed light on a whole new dimension of sadism. While stoning, beheading, and burning of their captives have made for the majority of mainstream ISIS executions, the group has since gone further by killing their victims by drowning, tying explosive necklaces around their necks, and even firing rocket-propelled grenades on locked vehicles with people inside—none of which are methods they could have learned from the Quran. In the social order envisioned by ISIS, no one should be allowed to read contents of their own choosing, play music except for nasheeds, or have women walk freely in the streets, while popular vices like smoking or drinking are beyond imaginable. Irrespective of our cultural differences, one can reasonably assume that very few Muslims in the world of the twenty-first century would truly enjoy living in such a society. While capacities for comprehensive retaliation may arguably be limited, the barbarism of ISIS certainly calls for some form of action.

As an organization aiming to capture as much new territory as possible and impose its draconian “values” on the population remaining under its control, ISIS has no intention of resting on its laurels in the captured lands of Syria and Iraq. For this reason, June 29th, 2014 carries a degree of meaning that transcends mere symbolism. On this date, ISIS officially declared a caliphate, renaming itself the Islamic State or al-Dawla al-Islamiya. As of that particular date, the Islamic State immensely increased its chances of having something of a global outreach to like-minded jihadists.

This strategy has since shown concrete results. As soon as March 7th, 2015, Boko Haram—the notorious Salafi terrorist organization of northern Nigeria and Cameroon that is known to have killed as many as 30,000 people in the last six years—pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. ISIS affiliates have also repeatedly taken advantage of the failing government institutions in parts of North Africa. Militant groups claiming to belong in one way or the other to the caliphate now control parts of Northeast Libya and Egypt’s Sinai, whilst its cells have been reported to operate as far as Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan, and as we have seen recently, Europe. Having such a vast network at its disposal throughout the Islamic world is without a doubt one of the Islamic State’s proudest achievements. Hence, ignoring an organization whose primary goal remains territorial expansion could prove both unwise and costly. Doing nothing about ISIS now could result in having to deal with a transnational terrorist-run caliphate tomorrow.

After more than a decade of engagement, the United States has not only sacrificed much blood and treasure in rebuilding post-invasion Iraq, it has also (one hopes) gained invaluable experience and knowledge of the country. There are at least three reasons I believe are good enough to keep the United States involved as the leading actor in the Middle East, to one extent or the other. Firstly, abandoning Iraq now would amount to a clear admission that Washington’s entire effort was for nothing—a potentially strategic blow to its ongoing ability to project smart power in the tumultuous region. Secondly, by acting as a distant and impartial bystander, the U.S. could easily see its allies in the region entangle themselves in the very same quagmire in which Washington once was. And thirdly, having certainly made some mistakes in Iraq, Americans now feel some responsibility to act against ISIS and put their past experiences to good use. Although there have not been many American official statements confirming the last of the three reasons I offered, their principal ally in the Iraq War, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, gave a telling October 25th, 2015 interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, admitting that one “can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.”

In addition, the Islamic State has risen to power thanks to their unforeseen propagandist abilities in mastering social media and considerable know-how in carrying out cyber-attacks. And this threat could affect just about any country in the world. However, with almost its entire economy and security systems invested in the cyber sphere, no country has more of a reason to tackle this threat head on than the United States. In the end, be it in the cyberspace or anything else, it is virtually unimaginable that the caliphate will allow itself to be ignored.

The Seemingly Appealing Image of Containment

What is immediately apparent about the containment strategy is its modest, “middle ground” approach. While the advocates of containment denounce the option of simply walking away from the raging fire that is ISIS’ activity in the Middle East, their argument is equally distant from the approach suggesting another long war that no actors in the West are willing or able to sustain. What containment suggests instead is limited military involvement: a combination of comparatively uncostly airstrikes, provision of weapons and ammunition, as well as adequate military training to local partners. But perhaps the best thing about the strategy is that it is already under way.

Washington has managed to assemble a coalition of over 60 countries to aid in the fight against the Islamic State, many of which hail from the region most affected by its actions. This all means that while the United States is again taking upon itself to lead the action, it now seems to be sharing the burden with a broad range of allies. The airstrikes that the coalition has been conducting over the past year have been effective in destroying the terrorist group’s key training centers, strongholds, and supply depots, lest we forget killing some 10,000 ISIS militants. Despite the inability of the aerial campaign to ultimately force the terrorists on a run, it has been somewhat successful in bringing their offensives to a halt, whilst even coercing them into tactical retreat in some places. Furthermore, the coalition’s close cooperation on preventing ISIS from generating revenue by selling oil and historical artifacts has had crippling effects on the jihadists’ ability to efficiently run their territories. Now that France is looking to fully commit to all of the mentioned aspects of the strategy, the blows it inflicts on the terrorists will certainly cause more disarray. Nevertheless, as coordinated as the anti-ISIS action has been, its longer-term effects are far more likely to prompt the terrorists to act with more caution than to bring about their ultimate defeat. It should be noted that airstrikes, intelligence exchange, and cutting off some of the group’s finances, together make for merely one part of a grander containment strategy.

A crucial portion of the strategy rests on the provision of necessary support to a number of local partners. Naturally, in states as seeded by sectarian and ideological divides as Iraq and Syria, the list of potentially reliable partners can be long. It involves the moderate Sunni and Shia militias of Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish militias in both Iraqi Kurdistan and the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava, and various elements of the moderate Syrian opposition—to name but a few. Dispersed across a wide geographical area surrounding the ISIS heartland, all those actors could theoretically prove capable of recapturing large chunks of the occupied territories, provided they received proper training and weapons. The U.S. has already made such commitments and delivered on at least some of its promises. As the representative of a major (if not the key) state actor in the region, the ISF has benefited from continued support of American military advisers in the field. Similarly, the U.S. has been arming the Kurdish Peshmerga, while many of the successful Kurdish combatants of northern Syria are reported to have received their training from the British armed forces. Combined with the aforementioned substantial coalition air support, all these efforts have resulted in some victories on the battlefield, most notable of which are the recapture of Tikrit in Iraq and Kobane in Syria. In addition to this, the U.S.-trained Iraqi units presently find themselves in the midst of a major counteroffensive around the city of Ramadi, having already succeeded in recapturing the city’s western parts on November 9th. Also, the Kurdish Peshmerga retook Sinjar, and U.S.-drone strikes in Raqqa eliminated a group of ISIS foreign fighters on November 13th, most notable of whom was Mohammed Emwazi—a 27-year old Brit of Kuwaiti descent, better known internationally by his nickname Jihadi John. This immediately prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to declare that the strategy has been a success and that ISIS was contained.

Unfortunately, as promising as some of these developments may have sounded, they did not come anywhere near reducing ISIS’s capabilities to carry out well-coordinated terrorist attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. Furthermore, none of the containment-driven actions has an immediate effect as would a Western invasion of ISIS-held territories. Still, another U.S. or Western invasion would be exactly that: an invasion. For this reason, an advantage of the actors currently involved in ground combat operations lies with their local character. They are being prompted to fight on their lands and liberate their fellow countrymen from an immediate threat they all face. After all, who should the Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians welcome more as liberators of their respective lands than troops representing their own ethnic and religious groups and communities? Having suffered through much of the ISIS-caused turmoil in the region, it is ultimately the locals who have the most motivation to keep on fighting and finally defeat the jihadists. Meanwhile, the advice, arms, and training they are receiving from the West seem to work in the best interest of all parties. Even if they may not agree on ultimate goals, the involved parties can assemble around the tactical aim to contain ISIS. All the necessary training might delay the military progress, but if done properly, can make things more sustainable in the long-term. Moreover, it provides something of a long-sought-after “exit strategy”—one allowing the U.S. and its allies to leave a legacy of stability behind.

Finally, containment offers the most space for the U.S. and its allies to apply what appears to be their most effective tool: diplomacy. The West has spent the last quarter of a century virtually unopposedly fortifying its values as something to which the entire world aspires. Although exporting these values has proven to be immediately inapplicable in some parts of the world, Western diplomacy remains a crucial medium in state-building and enforcing the rule of law. In the case of Iraq and the Middle East in general, most problems have been tackled primarily by hard power. This time around however, containment advocates argue, the United States has the chance to foster political and social inclusiveness in order to help resolve pressing security threats. This would mean working with the majority Shia Iraqi government to help diversify representation in key institutions to more proportionally reflect Iraq’s sectarian picture within the armed forces. It would also mean ensuring that the Iraqi Kurds are not having their rights denied and that they have a strong interest in remaining within Iraq—which from the looks of it will not be an easy task. That way, should both the Sunni Arab and the Sunni Kurd population of Iraq cease being marginalized, one would likely see them become less susceptible to indoctrination by the Islamic State or similar radical groups. However unlikely indoctrination may seem in the Kurdish case, hundreds of Kurds from Erbil and Halabja have joined the ranks of the Islamic State after having been long subjected to both oppression and terrorist radical preaching. A similar national cohesion process is to be bolstered in neighboring Syria. Provided there is a political transition in the country, a good place to start would be to foster reconciliation between the factions of the Syrian opposition, and then move on to do the same between Alawites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Unfortunately though, with the current state of affairs surrounding the ongoing Syrian civil war, these prospects appear far-fetched.

Almost none of the mentioned processes within the scope of the containment strategy can be expected to wrap up any time soon. Sadly, as we are reminded by the victims of the latest ISIS attacks, time is of the essence. The strategy’s image therefore becomes appealing only if compared to the other two options at West’s disposal. Nonetheless, what containment opens up is a possibility for the coalition to come up with a series of cost-effective, long-term fixes whilst providing constant oversight and ensuring its vital interests are being upheld.

A Fragile Strategy for a Formidable Threat

Like it or not, containment is, after all, a strategy of limited involvement. And being partially involved sometimes means having to settle for partial success. Having worked hard to establish a wide network of local partners to implement the strategy, the United States has managed to achieve limited progress on Iraqi soil. Put mildly, this has not been the case at all in Syria—not for a lack of trying. The coalition has launched an astounding number of airstrikes against ISIS there too, though leaving many observers with the impression that it still lacked proper access in the country. The reasons for this are numerous. For one thing, the situation in Syria looks infinitely more complex than that in Iraq. Naturally, making partnerships in such an environment is ever more difficult. While the coalition members have been able to find a partially reliable partner in the Iraqi government, the removal of president Bashar al-Assad from power remains one of the primary U.S. objectives in Syria. And with the possible exception of the Kurds, who have made some territorial gains against the Islamic State, the Syrian opposition has repeatedly proven itself both unreliable and unfathomably divided. Forced to pick their favorites between roughly around 1,000 militias (vaguely called the Free Syrian Army), Americans have been struggling to even identify moderate currents among so many disparate militants. Worse even, practically all of the external actors monitoring the conflict are becoming increasingly unable to distinguish between the groups labelled as the “Syrian opposition” and other sorts of radical Islamists like the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Though this particular branch of jihadists is currently at odds with the Islamic State, it certainly cannot serve as part of the solution to Syria’s many problems, nor should it be favored to play a role in containing ISIS. All this is making coordination on the ground in Syria virtually impossible. With no formidable local allies to counter ISIS advances on Syrian soil, the entire containment strategy is left to hang in the balance. Having a clear plan for ISIS in Iraq and barely any plan in Syria is thus in many ways like attempting to fix a leak by plugging merely half of the holes.

On top of all of that, the situation in Syria’s airspace brings a whole new series of concerns—endangering amongst other things the very prospect of containment. On September 30th, Russia began conducting airstrikes against ISIS and other radical Islamic groups in Syria. This is seemingly good news since it involves yet another major foreign actor in the fight against the Islamic State. However, Russia and the United States have had opposing interests in Syria since the very beginning of the conflict in 2011. Unlike their American counterparts, Moscow has a vested interest in keeping Assad’s government in place. Since the onset of its engagement in Syria, Russia has been accused of primarily targeting the Syrian opposition and working to shift the war in Assad’s favor. In a likely manner, the Russians have accused the Americans of not recognizing the Syrian government as the only viable bastion of resistance to the Islamic State. Adding to mutual accusations, the aerial campaigns of all the parties in the contested Syrian airspace have been gradually moving the situation closer to the point of greater conflict—a particularly unwelcome development for the future outlook of the fight against ISIS.

In case Russian involvement in Syria was not making containment complicated enough, Iran’s increasing involvement adds with it a whole new host of issues to the conflict. In July 2015, Tehran successfully completed negotiations with the P5+1 countries on the future of its nuclear program. The deal arguably slowed down Iran’s bid to develop nuclear weapons and laid the groundwork for greater regional stability. Many countries in the West—the United States included—committed to lifting their sanctions against Iran as soon as early 2016, which is supposed to help the Islamic Republic’s economy gradually recover. All such developments have given the Iranian regime newfound political momentum to achieve some of its longstanding goals in the region—not all of which are complementary with those of the West or a containment strategy.

Just like Russia, Iran has an interest in keeping Assad, or an adequate Alawite successor, in power in Syria, as well as aiding the militias fighting for the same cause. Failing to do so would result in shifting the regional balance of power that would not suit Iran or its faithful proxies. Unlike Russia, the Iranians are seen by many in the West as potentially reliable partners in resolving the ISIS problem and the Syrian crisis at large. In the wake of the nuclear deal, Iran was even invited to join the negotiations on the peace process in Syria. This makes sense given the relevance of Tehran to the region’s security picture. However, it will be more difficult for Iran to make any concessions on Syria now that greater prizes are within its reach. An economically empowered Iran—an endeavor already under way—is good news not just for the Syrian Alawite regime, but also for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, rebel groups in Bahrain, Hamas in the West Bank, and Hezbollah operating in Lebanon and Syria. The regime in Tehran has provided funding to all the aforementioned factions ever since the 1979 revolution, and with more resources expected to become available, one can only imagine the Iranians will continue to do so. U.S. allies and partners in the region—Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or even the moderate Syrian opposition—have no reason to look forward to the continuation of such funding, for it directly hinders their vital security interests. Unfortunately for the United States, its allies in the Middle East are the exact actors expected to play critical roles with respect to the containment process.

It is also worth noting that the United States needs a stable and unified Iraq. There is a belief among American policymakers that a stable, independent Iraq can contribute greatly to region’s security and help balance the power of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the rise of Iran has entirely different implications for the future of Iraq. Whilst Tehran’s rise empowers the Shia Iraqis, it hardly increases the prospects for an independent Iraq or its national unity. As before, this contributes to the marginalization of Sunnis, thus deepening the existing sectarian distrust. It should not be forgotten that such distrusting actors need to work together towards bringing down the Islamic State. With everyone trying to achieve their own goals rather than focusing on the imminent threat, there is virtually no way to produce a tangible short-term version of containment that will allow the main stakeholders to work effectively together. For the time being, the aforementioned developments in the region continue to make this strategy increasingly fragile. But for lack of a better one, containment remains the strategy in effect.

On a more humanitarian level, the containment approach overlooks issues that arise from prolonged encirclement of ISIS-held land. What is more, this strategy in many ways resembles the harsh sanctions that we have seen imposed on various state actors across the world. Despite their aim to cripple the nefarious leadership of numerous entities, sanctions have often had devastating effects on the general population. Meanwhile, sanctions allow the leaders on the receiving end to use them for political gain and further demonize the ones introducing the sanction policy. In the case of ISIS, containment does even more. If physically encircled for longer periods of time, the population of the occupied territories of Iraq and Syria will experience unprecedented hardship and scarcity of resources. Consequently, with very little chance of leaving the terrorist-controlled lands, they might resort to the only action to break the siege and secure some prerogatives for their families and themselves: join ISIS. Also, staying longer on a given territory will likely provide the terrorists with more opportunities for recruiting, not less. All told, ISIS’ ideological appeal and the resulting ability to expand and continue recruiting have never completely depended on the swaths of conquered territories. Where a containment strategy is truly needed is in dealing with ISIS’ propaganda; if the organization continues advertising its atrocities and conquests, then efforts to curb such activities in the future will likely fail. By targeting ISIS sympathizers and recruiters abroad, and scaling back their influence in social media, the international community would truly make a difference and reduce the constant influx of foreign fighters. If containment is by any measure a way forward, it should do so by depriving the enemy of the ability to gain new members. And ISIS’s propaganda mastery has proved to be a considerable source of recruitment. Quite recently, the hacker group “Anonymous” declared war on ISIS, claiming that it will “launch the biggest ever operation” against the jihadists. Welcoming as it may be that a group of hackers is bound to significantly reduce ISIS cyber capabilities, this form of action needs to come from a set of responsible state actors. When facing a threat such as ISIS, one should not rely on sporadic manifestations of “vigilante justice” to do most of the work.

Finally, containment will never work with large oilfields on the ISIS-held territory remaining untouched. “Where there’s oil, there’s money,” and with the right amount of it, some of the local “pillars of containment” might just be compelled to look the other way and let the terrorists get on with their business. Reasonably so, none of the coalition forces are ultimately willing to destroy the region’s most precious natural resources for the sake of containment. However, this inability to choke off some of the main sources of ISIS finances demonstrates a major flaw of a grander containment plan. This is why the U.S.-led coalition and its local partners need to enforce a strategy that would appropriately penalize those who are purchasing ISIS oil and facilitating its sale on the market.

Over the past couple of months, we have heard many debates on just how much of a threat ISIS poses to the Middle East, Europe, and the rest of the world. Some have even focused on the predictions of whether the Islamic State will remain a major threat in the coming years. This depends on whether the ongoing strategy will change. Some have argued that even if ISIS were to be immediately defeated, it would reduce itself to an organization of al-Qaeda’s abilities, strategies, and format of the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, who knows what kind of a new threat would rise to replace ISIS in the Middle East.

The recent actions of the Islamic State and its network of supporters in Paris have produced an outrage across the Western world. And in the days following the attacks, we have seen the outrage against ISIS translate into one against the containment strategy. Many have proposed solutions that urge the West to revert to one of the costly options examined in this essay. Again, I think that would be wrong. Nonetheless, it is uncertain whether containment with its many drawbacks will even outlive the terrorist organization it was designed to defeat. This, however, does not necessarily mean that the West will now commit to a new, more assertive plan for ISIS over the long-term. What might happen instead is a stronger assertion of the same approach. In the wake of the Paris attacks, we will likely see a considerable ramping-up of Western, particularly French, airstrikes against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria. And as long as there is no new strategy to defeat ISIS and the hesitation for involvement in another ground war persists, the West might start coming to terms with the fact that it could benefit from a compromise with other powers whose interests are at stake in the Middle East. These should primarily include Russia and Iran, both of which have an interest in fighting ISIS, and without which resolving the crisis in the region faces a dismal outlook. By working together in the scope of a comprehensive political process, both Western and non-Western powers could achieve much more. The political process could eventually result not only in reconciliation, but also in a better near-term alignment of the parties expected to retake territory from ISIS.

As of this moment, it certainly seems that the terrorists of the region will not be defeated as long as war is still raging in Syria. A conflict of such scale and involving the intertwined interests of external powers is, however, less likely to be resolved by conventional military means. Again, a much needed political process on Syria, which seems to have finally started moving in Vienna, is still in its infancy. That being said, the involved parties presently look reluctant to make major concessions. This will need to change, since both ending the Syrian civil war and defeating ISIS will require a broader and more inclusive international action. Though it might not appear as such to the main stakeholders, a compromise on both issues could end up being to everyone’s overwhelming benefit. Otherwise, they might as well get used to the grim realization that ISIS is here to stay—in the Middle East certainly, but also in Europe, as recent grizzly events have tragically demonstrated.


* The views and opinions expressed in the articles posted on this page do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of CIRSD

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