The West Shall Not Repeat Its Mistakes in a Battle Against ISIS

So here we go again. After failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, that left those countries in tatters and strenghtened all kinds of Islamic radicals there and throughout the Muslim world, the West (with United States behind the steering wheel) started another intervention in the Muslim lands. Intervention that, again, has no clear objectives and no planned finale. As president Barack Obama explained, the aim of current intervention is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State). But what does it mean? Let’s make it crystal clear – one cannot bomb ISIS out of Iraq or Syria.

Decisively Failed Approach

I have never heard of anything productive that came as a result of airstrikes or bombing raids, and they are currently being employed against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Bombs cannot substitute sound policy. What kind of policy do the West have for Syria and Iraq, or the greater Middle East or the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions? It is very easy to drop bombs and wipe out ones opponents, but one has to build something or at least help to build something on the remaining rubble. After observing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq one can clearly say, that the West has absolutely no idea on how to make a successful effort at nation-building in the Muslim world. However, Westerners seemed to have taken this lessons and decided to stay away from Libya’s internal politics after they destroyed Gaddhafi’s regime with airstrikes in 2011. Strikingly, the effects of interference and non-interference are pretty similar, with chaos, violence and rise of Islamic radicals and terror groups serving as major examples of West’s failure.

External interventions seem to make more harm than good in the Muslim world. There are too many conflicting and overlapping interests of Muslim actors, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran or Qatar, for any external intervention to be successful. ISIS shall be beaten, if this is its fate, by regional forces. But those forces serve as a fig leaf for another Western military campaign, supplying few fighter jets to conduct bombing raids. The West is also keen on training and arming local forces, such as Kurds, that would provide boots on the ground. War against ISIS is going to be a proxy war, as the West refuses to send its own soldiers. There are many risks associated with this strategy – proxies armed, trained and bankrolled by the West and its allies (so-called broad coalition). How to be sure that arms are transferred to the ‘right’ groups? How to, if at all, coordinate and control them? As Syrian rebellion against president’s Assad dictatorship had shown, the rebel groups may ultimately decide to fight each other rather than focus on Assad. It is difficult to believe that the West would be able to vet sponsored groups with 100 percent certainty that they stay on course. Moreover, regional players (Saudis, Qataris, Iranians) are not going to resign from supporting groups of their choosing. They are there to stay and have to protect their interests.

As it is almost impossible to successfully operate in such an environment, no one shall be enthusiastic about the final outcome of a battle against ISIS. Even if the group is defeated (prepare for a long discussion on a definition of defeat here), problems in Syria and Iraq, just as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, would not vanish. So are we doomed to observe a never-ending story of chaos, mass-murders and ethnic or religious cleansing in Syria and Iraq? If one looks at Libya, that is something that hangs as a Damocles sword over Syria and Iraq. There is an urgent need to bring those countries into order, but it is easier said than done. The West is not going to change its mind on Assad regime in Syria and still wants to supply rebels that would fight him. That would ultimately lead to a clash between the West and the Saudis vs. Iran and Russia. The end effect of this is a status quo from which ISIS rose to prominence. Iraq, too, is not an easy task to handle, as the internal balance of power is shaky at best and only a threat of losing Baghdad to ISIS prompted Iraqi politicians to create new government without a divisive figure of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Do Not Make Things Worse

That way we came back to the starting point, which is a strategy for the West’s involvement in destroying ISIS. Another war effort, even if justified by most noble causes, is not going to bring relief to Syria and Iraq. Moreover, it is not going to make the West safer, as what is currently known as ISIS would probably splinter into numerous smaller groups. With so many battlefields for radical Islam (Libya, Nigeria, Yemen – to name just a few), such groups may pose a threat for the West for a long, long time. And airstrikes or bombing raids provide no answer to this threat. In the contrary, they magnify it by directing the mounting anger against the West. With anger coming from a mix of failed hopes of disgruntled populaces and frustration of followers of radical regimes imposed by groups as ISIS or Boko Haram.

So is the West helpless and powerless and would better do nothing, just not to make things worse? Maybe, but we did not have a chance to check it out. As the West already started meddling, it would be wise to understand a simple truth – ISIS consists mainly of local people. Sure, there are also some foreigners, even from Western countries, but ISIS is not a foreign or alien force. ISIS learned a lesson from a failure of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that was driven out of its safe havens by so-called Sons of Iraq during a surge that brought fame to gen. David Petraeus, and it is eliminating domestic opposition on seized territories, but it only has a dozen or so fighters. That is pretty nothing in comparison to numbers of local tribes. So it is obvious that those tribes shall be the target of the West and have to bargained (or simply bribed with money and political pledges) to change their allegiance. They have done it in 2007 and 2008 in Iraq, effectively killing the insurgency in Sunni provinces of the country.

What is missing in the whole ISIS equation is Turkey, regional superpower with great interest in a peaceful future of Sryia and Iraq. Not so long ago Turkey pursued zero-problems-with-the-neighbors that called for making business instead of wasting time on differences of interests. It worked well for a couple of years and ended ubruptly with the Syrian revolution. One might expect that Turkey would be much more active in ISIS case as it has a long border with what is called an Islamic State. Could Turkey live with radical Islamists just at the other side of the border? Should it not act to destroy safe havens of radicals and terrorists? It was perfectly understood why Turkey stood aside during invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the case is entirely different right now. It would be a fools errand for Turkish leadership to assume that Ankara may have a normal and productive or even neutral relations with Islamic State. For the time being ISIS may not be posing a threat to Turkey, but ISIS is expansionist in its nature and does not respect any borders. Turkey shall not let the threat at its borders to grow and threaten it in the future.

With Turkey or without it, the effort against ISIS would probably prove long and costly. As not only people but also ideology is at play, bombs and airstrikes are of a limited value. That is why every move has to be thoroughly considered. So once again we come to the same conlusion – strategy is vital for a battle against ISIS. And strategy begs for positive approach, much more than a famous quotation from Barney Ross, main character of the Expendables movie, ‚Track ’em, find ’em, kill ’em.’

Piotr Wolejko*

*Piotr Wołejko is Warsaw based analyst, Polish voice on international affairs & security, lawyer, University of Warsaw graduate. BlogDyplomacja.pl is the only place where the author publishes his articles. The blog operates since December 2006

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