The international, as well as the regional players in the Middle East need a more coherent plan of action to stop ISIS. The current status quo is not working well enough, quickly enough. It is important to defeat ISIS as expediently and soundly as possible. First, to prevent ISIS from carrying out more devastating and senseless violence in the West as well as the Middle East and secondly, to restore the Middle East to some semblance of stability wherein the next ISIS does not come to power.
A revamped strategy must be multi – pronged and led by the major powers: the US, UK, France, and Russia. They are the major international players in the region today and all have different levers of power that they can pull in order to bring an anti – ISIS coalition into line.
The current strategy of having the regional actors in the Middle East lead the way, while their international allies follow along is not working because the distance between the various actors in the Middle East is too far. Instead of working together, regional actors are pitted against each other, taking their respective international allies with them and creating even further division on a greater scale. A coherent strategy has to begin at the top, where organization and relations are the strongest. Such a strategy can then flow downstream to the various regional players who have a stake in defeating ISIS.
This strategy might seem counterintuitive as many Western powers have little appetite for greater involvement in the Middle East. Policy discussions often waiver between pro – interventionist camps and non – interventionist camps and the two sides apply their mantra to all situations. Foreign policy does not work like that and should not be approached with dogmatic views. That being said, more often than not it is best not to intervene, but ISIS is not one of those cases. ISIS has directly and repeatedly attacked the West and Russia, in their homelands. (Additionally, the US and UK had a hand in creating the instability that led to the rise of ISIS with their ill – advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That was not a valid case for intervention, but aside from defending themselves US and UK involvement falls under the “you break it, you fix,” mantra.)
A more conclusive strategy will need:
Central Planning – Decentralized Action: The relevant international and regional players must meet and develop a consistent battle and post war plan that is strategically and politically feasible. The planning itself should be centralized and top – down. However, once the divisions of labor have been allocated, the different actors must not be micromanaged and they must each carry out their duties under the agreed upon plan.
Part of the central planning will require various actors such as Syria, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US to understand how they can work together efficiently to defeat ISIS instead of propagating it or anything like it in the future. The political aspect of the fight against ISIS is one of the more challenging obstacles to overcome, but it is absolutely vital if the West and the Middle East want to defeat ISIS and prevent other groups like it from coming to the fore. It is important that the different actors do not use the fight against ISIS to further whatever geopolitical ambitions they have, lest they lose focus on defeating ISIS.
Planning is not just for the war either. There must be a coherent postwar plan that takes into account the needs and fears of the regional actors. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a fear of each other and from that rivalry stems fear between Shiite and Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East. Regional actors will still have sharp differences, but they must at least agree that rivalries cannot devolve into violent bloodletting by terrorist groups against each other’s civilians or civilians anywhere else in the world. While not part of the fighting coalition, Israel must be involved in postwar negotiations as well because there is little doubt that many alliances and violent movements in the Middle East are influenced by her fears and perceived needs.
It may seem unrealistic to have such a wide range of political actors unifying around one table (and indeed, it is unlikely that Israel and Iran will sit at the same table in the near future, but that their needs can at least be communicated clearly is important), but this is why the entire effort against ISIS must be centrally driven by the top international powers involved. The regional powers are simply too far apart to act without the creation of neutral space by the major international powers.
Boots on the Ground: Unfortunately, there is no way around this. In order to fully and soundly defeat ISIS, the Western powers will have to send ground troops. Like in WWII, it is important that there be a commander of all forces, but each country must pull their weight. It is not acceptable that the US carry out the vast majority of combat operations. The UK and France must share this responsibility. (Russia will likely carry its weight as will the US. Additionally, while Russia would be an integral part of an international coalition it would likely bring up a different front than the other powers as Russia has the political ability to work with certain regional actors that the other countries, especially the US, cannot work with as well.)
Troop levels need to be adequate to win. Sending a few hundred troops every few months and hoping that will turn the tide will not work. Let military planners develop the troop levels that are required, instead of having politicians decide what is politically expedient.
Regional ground forces will be integral to defeating ISIS, but trying to use only regional ground forces will not be effective because the fight will invariably devolve into battles against each other. This is part of the reason that progress has been so slow. Larger numbers of international ground forces must be involved in large part to keep focus on the objective.
Coordinated Intelligence and Law Enforcement: ISIS cannot only be defeated on the battlefield in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. Their supply lines bringing oil and fighters out and money and arms in must be disrupted. If it is not already being done, this will require countries that do not always see eye to eye working together with one goal, such as Iran and the US, but this is where Russia can provide a much needed diplomatic bridge. Plus, while the relationship between countries like Iran and the US is not great, it is today a working relationship.
Coordinated Postwar Plan: As previously mentioned, there must be a coordinated postwar plan that takes into account the perceived threats of the different regional actors. The most important division to cross is the Sunni – Shia divide. Defeating ISIS should be in everyone’s interest, but Iran and its associated paramilitary groups should not just bowl over Sunni areas of the Middle East outside of Saudi Arabia and Egypt while making Sunnis into an oppressed minority class. Saudi Arabia must be made to understand, no matter how difficult, that any and all funding and training of Wahhabi jihadist groups must cease immediately, even if indirect or benevolent.
Sunnis need some sort of protection, especially in lands that stretch from western and northern Iraq into eastern Syria. This form of protection will likely require some form of international peacekeeping in a similar vein to what exists in the Balkans. The commitment will have to be long term, but it should not seek to impose any given way of life or western style borders on the Sunni citizens that are given a protected space to live in. Western democracy, human rights, or women’s rights educations should not be part of the equation. The west must realize that it neither owns nor controls the people of the Middle East and they will do better and progress faster when left to their own devices to learn what works best for them. Indeed, all people in the world work better this way. The only thing that peacekeeping should provide is protection and stability that negates power vacuums and allows long term stability to grow.
The makeup of international peacekeepers should be comprised of the four major international players. The regional players are simply too close to the passions that often inflame tensions.
A coherent, organized, and disciplined plan is the only the way to defeat ISIS. The above plan is undoubtedly ambitious, and some might say unrealistic, but defeating ISIS and other radical Sunni, Wahhabi inspired groups like it will require a sea change in the Middle East and among the major international players. The description of the enemy that the world should be trying to defeat should be as narrow as what was just described because that it is the exact problem. It is not the Syrian rebels. It is not Hamas or Hezbollah or any other group deemed a terrorist group. The reality is that most groups in the world termed terrorist organizations are rational players using insurgency and terror to advance political goals. A group like ISIS represents nihilist and apocalyptic mayhem. It is quite different. Trying to sweep up every other terrorist organization that any given country deems a terrorist organization will make it almost impossible to have a unified plan to combat ISIS.
At this juncture, everyone including the major powers are still playing politics and that only continues and even encourages the problem instead of solving it. If the world is truly serious about defeating ISIS and the ideology behind it once and for all, everyone will have a part to play and politics will have to take a backseat to reality.