The recent carnage in Brussels underscores the horrific consequences of ISIS (also known as Daesh) spreading around the globe. Such attacks will likely continue so long as ISIS flourishes in its territorial bases of Iraq and particularly Syria. To stop ISIS’s machinery of global terror, Washington, in concert with the international community, must stop the machinery of the Syrian war. And a diplomatic approach, rather than bombing raids, must take center stage.
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Make no mistake: Bombs can and do kill ISIS fighters. But like ripping off a starfish’s leg, the bombs can’t stop ISIS from recouping its loss. ISIS derives its power from overlapping layers of political and financial support. While many of these layers include recruits and other actors far from the ISIS ideological core, the layers are bound together by resistance to both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s mass killing and foreign military intervention.
In short, to get to the heart of the ISIS crisis, we must press our elected officials and other policy makers to treat ISIS like an artichoke. The most promising way to deal with ISIS is to strip off its overlapping layers of recruits, weapons, and political and financial support. Those layers have to be carefully peeled off, rather than beaten by a club into a mushy mess.
Peeling Off ISIS’s Support
The artichoke metaphor might bring to mind Adil Shamoo’s insightful 2014 piece calling for the United States to “Treat ISIS Like an Onion.” The artichoke metaphor may function better than the onion metaphor. The fact of the matter is that brute force is often the only way to go with an onion bulb, and the sharper the knife, the greater the chance of staying tear-free.
On the other hand, brute force is no way to deal with an artichoke. The only real strategy for handling an artichoke is to remove the stem that binds it together, and to carefully peel it apart.
The basic concept, however, is the same. Shifting from an almost exclusive focus on militarism to inclusive diplomatic and non-military solutions holds the best hope for peeling off ISIS’s layers of recruits, weapons and financial support.
Extremism cannot be bombed out of existence. ISIS, one must note, was bombed into existence.
Washington cannot unpeel these layers alone, but must do so in cooperation with the international community. Rather than lead what Phyllis Bennis has rightly called a “coalition of the killing,” the United States needs to work with other countries to convene a coalition willing to skillfully unpeel the layers of ISIS.
Even in a Pentagon fantasy world in which all ISIS fighters are killed off, that wouldn’t prevent the emergence of groups even more destructive than ISIS. Extremism cannot be bombed out of existence. ISIS, one must note, was bombed into existence.
Eventually, the wars in Syria and Iraq will end through diplomatic settlements, and the power of ISIS will diminish in the region. The question is: How many men, women and children will be killed before those settlements are reached, and what resources will remain for the Middle East to build a new future?
What follows are six steps the United States can take to support the peeling off of ISIS from the Middle East.
1. Stop the Bombs: US Military Force Is a Force Multiplier for ISIS
Just a few weeks after the US air war against ISIS began in August 2014, the Pentagon estimated that ISIS had between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon announced in January 2016 that the ISIS fighting force in Iraq and Syria was estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters.
That means that according to the Pentagon’s own estimates, more than 10,000 airstrikes, over 28,000 bombs, $8.8 billion in US taxpayer dollars and some 4,000 US military advisers and ground forces later, ISIS has the same manpower it did when the US launched its war against ISIS.
With the Pentagon also estimating that US forces have killed some 20,000 ISIS fighters, these numbers tell a larger story. Killing people — ISIS fighters and especially civilians — in the quest to destroy ISIS assists the group in recruiting additional fighters.
2. Stop the Slippery Slope for More Ground Troops
The New York Times reported last December that ISIS political leaders and strategists have been plotting how to drag the United States deeper into war, since US military escalations swell the organization’s ranks of volunteer fighters and unify extremists to the ISIS cause.
To peel off ISIS’s layers of support, we need to stop feeding into its recruitment bonanza.
While President Obama previously ruled out sending ground forces engaged in a combat role in the ISIS fight, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter admitted last December that US forces are on the ground in Iraq and Syria. As Middle East analyst Tamara Cofman Wittes notes, “the war against ISIS is the slipperiest slope of them all.” She writes, “In under two years, the administration has moved from airstrikes, to 475 military advisers in Iraq, to over 4,000 troops on the ground including US special-operations forces in both Iraq and Syria.”
To peel off ISIS’s layers of support, we need to stop feeding into its recruitment bonanza: We must halt our slippery slide toward an even more massive US ground invasion and permanent presence in Iraq and potentially even Syria.
Members of Congress can signal their opposition to sliding down the ground troop slippery slope by co-sponsoring H.J. Res 30, which prohibits funding for deploying ground troops to fight ISIS. This resolution also supports a comprehensive diplomatic approach to peeling off ISIS from the Middle East.
3. Peel Off ISIS Political Support: Syria Diplomacy
Diplomacy to end the Syrian civil war has far more momentum now than it has had in five years of war. During the first week of the cessation of hostilities that began on February 27, 2016, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the overall casualty count decreased by an astounding 90 percent.
The cessation of hostilities did not cover areas controlled by ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, al-Nusra Front. However, de-escalating the violence in areas outside ISIS and al-Nusra control may be the most important step to weakening ISIS control where it does exist. If some measure of calm and stability can return to the majority of Syria, ISIS, al-Nusra and other extremist groups will have far more difficulty obtaining recruits.
The success — albeit exceedingly fragile — of the cessation of hostilities and the subsequent Russian pledge to withdraw from Syria demonstrate progress. When there is international political will, there is an international political way. Like the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, the success of the cessation of hostilities was made possible by US cooperation with Russia and Iran.
There must be pressure from the Obama administration, the next administration and Congress to persist in moving forward with the UN-led Syria negotiations, despite the efforts by naysayers to sabotage the process along the way.
4. Peel Off ISIS’s Political Support: Iraqi Political Reconciliation
With the United States’ triumphant claims about “success” in seizing Ramadi from ISIS (despite nearly demolishing the city in the process), the downward spiral of Iraq is increasingly out of the spotlight. But US officials are increasingly recognizing what human rights groups have documented for years: that Iraq’s security forces have become yet another network of sectarian militia in the violence ravaging Iraq. Various sectarian militias included as state forces by the Iraqi government may have even committed war crimes.
Systemic disenfranchisement of Sunni-majority areas has been a major factor in the rise of ISIS in Iraq. Yet rather than take action to reverse that trend through political reconciliation, the fight against ISIS is causing it to increase. As The Hill reported in December 2015, US officials have privately been concerned that the fight against ISIS “could unleash the same sectarian warfare that erupted after the US invasion in 2003.”
After the Iraqi government expelled large numbers of Sunni forces from the security forces in late 2015, one anonymous US official noted that “this isn’t rocket science,” warning that “we literally went through the same problem with the same people 10 years ago.”
It’s time to hold Iraq accountable, and, at a minimum, condition further military aid to the Iraqi government on its progress in advancing political reconciliation efforts that address the grievances of marginalized Iraqis, especially those in Sunni-majority areas. Washington must stop investing in the next sectarian war that ISIS will feed on, and stop risking an even greater regional conflagration.
5. Peel Off ISIS’s Weapons: Stop Sending Arms in ISIS’s General Direction
Amnesty International reported in 2015 that the bulk of ISIS weaponry is from the US-allied Iraqi government. When Iraqi forces flee from the advance of ISIS fighters, they often abandon weaponry that in turn increases ISIS’s firepower. The United States must rein in its flood of weapons to Iraq and Syria in order to prevent more weapons from ending up in the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups.
Amnesty makes detailed recommendations to implement far stricter controls on the transfer, storage and use of arms to avoid further weapons proliferation, and ISIS’s ability to loot these weapons for its use. With most ISIS weaponry coming from the Iraqi government’s stockpile, Washington should prioritize reining in its weapons to the Iraqi government immediately.
Ultimately, the United States must show leadership in moving toward a regional arms embargo, ending arms to all parties in the violence in Iraq and Syria. Steps taken to reduce rather than escalate arms can lay the groundwork for international pressure to persuade Moscow and Tehran to limit and ultimately end arms to the Assad regime.
6. Peeling Off Poverty Can Peel Off Extremism
Marie Harf wisely noted that “we cannot kill our way out of this war,” while she was serving as US State Department spokesperson. It is a sign of how toxic the discourse on ISIS has become that Harf faced a firestorm of ridicule when she mentioned that Washington must “go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups,” including “lack of opportunity for jobs.” But the fact of the matter is that indeed, for many of its recruits, ISIS is seen as a jobs program in many areas under ISIS influence.
Obviously, addressing poverty doesn’t address the whole of the ISIS problem and won’t stop all ISIS recruiting, and it won’t stop its fighting force from expanding from the fighters and laborers ISIS enslaves. There is no question that ISIS leaders and many of its fighters are wrapped tightly around an ideological core. However, poverty brings in many layers of recruits in a country like Syria with 80 percent of its people living in abject poverty.
What we need is a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, a massive investment in economic and development efforts to help the region rebuild itself from the ground up, as was done for post-World War II Europe. As a country that has been responsible for so much killing and destruction in the region, the United States has a moral responsibility to the world to lead this effort. A Marshall Plan will not only counter ISIS, but will also help lay the groundwork for a more stable Middle East — and a more stable world.