How can ISIS be defeated? This question has been raised in recent days during which the world and the region, given a general sense of neglect of the issue, quietly marked the first anniversary of the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
This anniversary came and went in ISIS-held territory without festivities or military parades. I do not know if their governing council met one night and discussed whether or not they would celebrate the occasion and designate a “national day” for it. However, it was presumably decided that such a celebration was heresy, incompatible with their interpretation of Shariah law.
This aside, ISIS is a problem to which we still haven’t found a solution after they spent a whole year governing the largest country in the Fertile Crescent and controlling the lives of more than six million citizens. They marry, divorce, buy, sell and judge one another according to their legitimate jurisdiction. Children learn curricula established by ISIS and citizens travel with documents issued by the body. They have their own currency and they are calling on our sons to flee and join them so the latter come back to us as “conquerors.”
ISIS will fall in the end as it does not have the essential constituents of a state and has isolated itself from the region and the worldJamal Khashoggi
We have therefore formed an alliance with the United States, or should we say it formed an alliance with us (as there is a difference), to eradicate ISIS but we did not succeed, failing even to stop its expansion as it occupied Ramadi in Iraq last month and Palmyra in Syria and finally approached the capital Damascus in full view of the coalition, its aircraft and satellites. Not a day passes without an official from the region or a Western country rejecting the “Islamic State” and calling for its eradication. So what can be done?
What is to be done
It is clear that the countries of the region agree to reject ISIS, which in turn does the same. U.S. President Barack Obama has seemingly admitted more than once that he doesn’t yet have a complete strategy to stop ISIS, most recently at the G7 Summit.
So, given that we are apparently unable to eliminate ISIS, can we ignore it until it collapses from the inside like Albania under Enver Hoxha which isolated itself from the world and survived only few decades after collapsing with the fall of communism? I believe so, but this only applies to the Iraqi branch of ISIS and not the Syrian branch and the terrorist organization as a whole. What difference is there between the three?
Splitting ISIS apart
There are three ISIS states and each one of them must be dealt with according to its characteristics. Let’s start with the easier one: ISIS, the terrorist organization which strikes in stable countries like Saudi Arabia and Tunisia and can only be confronted with force. This is because it engages in terrorism to lead those countries toward a state of brutality and chaos, allowing itself to expand and gain control, such as the case in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, a firm war against ISIS is a means of prevention and eradication as if a virus is left alone, it will breed and spread.
The second state is the Syrian branch of ISIS which cannot be defeated without isolating the cause that led to its expansion: the Syrian regime. Even though they look like enemies, there are striking similarities. The Syrian regime knows that its real enemy is the revolution that is based on pluralism and co-existence. While on the other side, ISIS, is a justification for the regime’s existence and its war against the revolution. Unlike in Iraq where the Sunnis’ only alternative to ISIS is a sectarian government and the Popular Mobilization units marked by sectarianism and oppression, the Syrian branch of ISIS lacks a popular base that has no other alternative. Those under its jurisdiction will not hesitate to welcome other revolutionary factions if the latter can free them from the regime’s tyranny and recklessness.
After the regime’s fall, the future nascent Syrian state will not find external support in order to stabilize and unite an alternative other than inevitably confronting ISIS. May Damascus not fall into ISIS’ hands before other factions so the task doesn’t get harder. The war between Islamists will be harsh and dogmatic. Only steel can break steel. On one side, there will be the rebels championing moderate Sunni Islam and on the other side an external takfirist Islam.
The Iraqi branch of ISIS is the one that will be most difficult to defeat unless there is massive destruction of all that is left intact in the Sunni areas of Iraq and a series of consecutive sectarian massacres under Iranian patronage as well as a spate of U.S. bombing. The Iraqi Sunnis deserve better but how can the Iraqi government be convinced of that after it succumbed to the ugliest sectarian intolerance? Sectarianism and ISIS are here to stay so it is better for the countries of the region to stay away, avoid any partnership with the local people and put pressure on them and the common U.S. ally to replace the confrontation with a siege that will keep ISIS confined to Iraq, and more specifically to Mosul and its surroundings.
ISIS will fall in the end as it does not have the essential constituents of a state and has isolated itself from the region and the world. Meanwhile, the world may agree on a project to divide Iraq, one that will put an end to the government’s transgressions and give hope to Iraqi Sunnis that there is in fact an alternative other than ISIS and Baghdad’s sectarianism. A coup or a rebellion might take place as not all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s followers believe in the promise that the Islamic State will reach Rome.
For now, we will focus on the first two forms of ISIS and wait for the third form to implode from within.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 20, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi