Defeating the Islamic State Militarily is Only Half the Battle

By Ross Harrison | Scholar - The Middle East Institute | Oct 03, 2014
Defeating the Islamic State Militarily is Only Half the Battle

In his speech on September 10 President Obama characterized the Islamic State (ISIS) as a terrorist group.[1] There were clear political benefits to using this label, not the least of which was to facilitate the formation of a broad-based military coalition against the organization.

Notwithstanding the president’s comments, ISIS poses not merely a terrorist threat but also represents an insurgency against the existing political order in the Arab world. With several bold strokes it claims to have resurrected a caliphate, promises to restore Sunni predominance in the Levant, and has erased what many see as illegitimate borders between Iraq and Syria. It has already shifted the battle lines from who will legitimately govern Syria and Iraq to what constitutes legitimate political boundaries and what type of political order will prevail in the Arab world. And it has expressed its intention to expand beyond the confines of Iraq and Syria using its signature combination of terrorist and conventional military tactics.

But how does casting ISIS as an insurgency—not just a terrorist threat—help us conceive of ways to confront it? It forces us to face the reality that degrading ISIS must entail more than a military defeat. Success means also defeating ISIS politically, debunking its audacious ideas and claims, and replacing them with something that taps into the political consciousness and economic aspirations of ordinary citizens across the Arab world generally, but particularly for the disenfranchised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. Challenging ISIS politically also involves offering better alternatives to the illegitimate governments that have been in power in Damascus and Baghdad, something that harks back to the demands of the original “Arab Spring” protest movements. In the absence of such a political response, a military defeat of ISIS could very well mean merely the strengthening and emboldening of other jihadi groups, such as al-Qa‘ida- backed al-Nusra Front and Khorasan, which are ready to pick up the insurgency (and terrorist) mantle. Failure to respond could also spawn the formation of new jihadi groups or new alliances between existing groups, which individually or collectively could pose an existential threat to Arab regimes across the Middle East.

Which countries in particular should be part of this political challenge to ISIS? While the military coalition fighting alongside the United States consists of over 60 countries, the burden for the political response for countering the ISIS insurgency should fall squarely on the shoulders of the Arab governments in the region, as well as on non-Arab regional powers like Iran and Turkey. While the United States and its Western coalition partners can act as conveners of status and help coordinate economic reconstruction efforts of embattled areas, ISIS represents an insurgency against the Arab political order. The political response to this challenge thus needs to come from the Arabs.

Some have argued that the necessary political response to combating ISIS is a more inclusive government in Iraq and a transition to a new government in Syria. While these measures are necessary, they are now woefully insufficient. A few years ago, when ISIS emerged as a byproduct of state failure in Iraq, reform measures alone might have worked. But now that ISIS has become a problem in its own right, posing a regional threat that extends beyond these two states, a broader regional Arab political response is necessary.

Political responses from Arab governments more broadly need to be both defensive and offensive. On the defensive front, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon need to be increasingly vigilant against infiltration by ISIS militants. Jordan in particular could be vulnerable to retaliatory measures by ISIS due to the country’s direct role in the military coalition and the fact that a number of Jordanians have joined the ranks of ISIS. But Jordan also needs to worry about its own Muslim Brotherhood, which on September 23 vociferously opposed the country’s use of air power in Syria and Iraq.

Though it has not yet provided direct military support for the coalition, Egypt is also vulnerable. This past summer Egyptian authorities reportedly captured ISIS militants in Sinai. Even more worrisome is the possibility that a militant cell of the Muslim Brotherhood could align with ISIS and escalate attacks on the state from within. While President el-Sisi has quashed the Brotherhood, he should be worried that more radical notions of an armed insurgency and a Sunni caliphate might be attractive to some Brotherhood members. Egypt, along with other Arab governments, also needs to encourage more mainstream Muslim clerics to speak out against ISIS, pointing out how the group's dogma and practice deviate from the precepts of Islam.

Lebanon is particularly exposed to the threat from ISIS, both because of the intrinsic weakness of its political system and the fact that it has been buffeted by the civil war next door in Syria. It is because of these vulnerabilities, not to mention Hezbollah’s support for the al-Assad regime, that ISIS has had its eye on this fragile country. In fact, this past summer ISIS briefly held the town of Arsal before it was liberated by the Lebanese Army.[2] More recently the group captured and then brutally executed several Lebanese soldiers.[3] The bad news is that unlike Egypt, and to a lesser degree Jordan, Lebanon lacks the political wherewithal to inoculate itself against these vulnerabilities. The Syrian conflict has led to dangerously high degrees of political polarization in Lebanon, something not seen since the country’s own civil war. This has sparked a concern that many Lebanese Sunnis will sympathize with, and even join, ISIS. The good news is that, at least for now, the Lebanese Army’s actions have earned it reasonably broad support and respect, and the hope is that it will be a viable bulwark against ISIS. In an effort to ensure that, Saudi Arabia awarded the Lebanese Army a $3 billion grant, and the United States has lent its support as well.[4] More stunningly, the head of Iran’s National Security Council recently revealed that it would also give the Lebanese Army a grant, something it would only be doing if it believed that an ISIS penetration of Lebanon would lead to further destabilization of the region.[5]

In addition to defensive measures the Arab states also need to be prepared for offensive, proactive political measures. These are more difficult to formulate because they require collective political action, of which there have been few precedents since the 1960s and 1970s. But Egypt, the largest Arab country, along with the wealthier Gulf Arab countries, needs to have a voice on what political rehabilitation and transition takes place in Syria, assuming ISIS is militarily degraded. This is particularly important since non-Arab stakeholders like Turkey, Iran, and Russia will likely be weighing in. Moreover, the Gulf Arab states need to make sure that their military participation in the coalition against ISIS translates into political (and economic) clout in trying to bring an end to the civil conflicts in Iraq and Syria. And Egypt and the Gulf Arabs need to have a voice in whether and how political boundaries between Iraq, Syria, and the Kurds get altered. It will not be easy achieving cooperation or agreement on any of these issues. But it is now apparent to Arab and non-Arab participants in these conflicts that ISIS represents a common threat that can only be countered through regional cooperation.

Arab states working collectively to politically battle ISIS is important for other reasons as well. Bringing an end to the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and preventing ISIS from expanding, does not just require government transitions and power sharing agreements. It also necessitates providing answers to questions about political identity in the Arab world. The threat of ISIS raises the question of what it means to be an Arab. Was the spread of protests from one Arab country to the next in the heady days of the Arab Spring a manifestation of Arab identity? Do Iraqi and Syrian state-based identities still have any meaning after years of civil war, assuming they ever were important? These are questions with which the Arab world collectively needs to grapple. The alternative is that ISIS gets to answer them. Its answer is that Arab and state-based identities mean nothing. For ISIS, the only legitimate identity is to be a Sunni Muslim. Shi‘i Muslims, Christians, and other minorities have no place in its world, even though these groups have historically been vibrant parts of the Arab political community. Even if ISIS is defeated, its legacy is likely to be that these questions about identity will linger for some time.

While a military effort by the West and its coalition partners to defeat ISIS is critically important, it is equally important that the Arab world galvanize itself to challenge the insurgency politically. This can be accomplished by answering the questions about political identity, legitimacy, and borders in a way that is consistent with the original spirit of the Arab Spring.




[1] White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 10, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/10/statement-president-isil-1.

[2] Hwaida Saad and Rick Gladstone, “Border Fighting Intensifies between ISIS and Lebanon,” The New York Times, August 4, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/world/middleeast/isis-lebanon-syria.html?_r=0.

[3] “ISIS Executes Second Lebanese Soldier,” The Daily Star, September 7, 2014,  http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Sep-06/269801-isis-executes-second-lebanese-soldier.ashx.

[4] Anne Barnard, “Saudi’s Grant to Lebanon is Seen as Message to U.S.,” The New York Times, January 6, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/world/middleeast/saudis-grant-to-lebanon-is-seen-as-message-to-us.html.

[5] “Iran to Give Military Grant to Lebanese Army: Official,” Reuters, September 30, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/30/us-iran-lebanon-military-idUSKCN0HP0MM20140930.