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How the West's campaign against IS lets the region off the hook

Ultimately, the West’s strategy against IS - which asks little of regional power players - may make it more difficult to displace the group or the sentiments that feed it

The decision by US president Barack Obama to assemble an international coalition and launch air strikes in Iraq and Syria in response to the rise of the self-named Islamic State group (IS) makes him the fourth consecutive US president to embark on military action in the region. The track record so far is hardly encouraging, as the success of IS so stunningly testifies. The rather rapid assembling of more than 60 countries, including many from the region, behind the coalition might have suggested a shared vision and prioritisation of the threat posed by this new and particularly rabid strain of extremism. 

But any such assumption was probably naive to begin with. IS has mostly been viewed in the region as a re-enforcer of existing narratives and policy predispositions. Rather than acting as a game changer, IS is being used to entrench status quo approaches behind established geopolitical fault-lines and unrepresentative domestic political dispensations. When it comes to the war raging in Syria, in particular, the response to the IS factor has seen all sides double down on bets they already placed, while underscoring their respective claims of being the indispensable partner in confronting IS. This applies as much to the local protagonists as it does to the key regional actors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

In part, the blame for this can be laid at the feet of Western intervention which, by assuming central ownership of the response, has relieved regional actors of the main burden of responsibility. That is the moral hazard inherent in US leadership of the anti-IS struggle – enabling regional allies to scale-up the taking of risks without repercussions and thereby transforming IS from a common threat to a manageable opportunity, making its ultimate demise harder to secure.

Perils of a military-led response

The threat posed by IS is a real one, not least to those living under its domination. IS is expansionist in its nature. It has actively and effectively recruited foreign fighters, some of whom will potentially pose a threat should they return to their native countries including those in Europe. IS represents the apotheosis of intolerance but has also learned and adapted from the failings of previous extremist group incarnations; it has partly stabilised governance and order in areas under its control, and is winning pledges of allegiance from jihadi groups in the Egyptian Sinai, Derna in Libya, and elsewhere. It thrives in the ever-more disputed, dysfunctional and chaotic politics of the Arab world.

The ability of IS to advance in Iraq and Syria has certainly been dealt a blow by the military action taken against it. IS also bumped up against something of a natural barrier - the exhaustion of the group’s military and ideological capacity to expand beyond Sunni dominated areas. The attempts to weaken IS by targeting its financing and access to resources including oil exports will also take a toll.

However, several months into the armed strikes, it is clear that the existing approach can only go so far in countering IS. Western political leaders, thrown into a state of panic by the mesmerised media coverage of the beheadings of western hostages, launched military action against IS without having developed a coherent political strategy. Already doubts are surfacing among the US-led coalition on the impact that military strikes are having on the core dynamics underlying IS’s rise. In Iraq, to the backdrop of a faltering attempt to shape a more inclusive polity, Shia militias associated with government actors are mobilising and taking advantage of US air power to launch a wider sectarian campaign. In Syria, air strikes, which have extended to include other non-IS extremist groups, are playing to Bashar al-Assad’s benefit.

In both countries, military action risks the unintended but predictable consequence of mobilising wider Sunni support behind IS and fuelling anti-Western sentiment, possibly more than compensating for its degrading of the group’s assets on the ground. Ultimately, the current strategy may make it more difficult to displace the group – or at least the sentiments that give it life. It could also make IS even more of a threat to Western interests than is currently the case – partly by making this about us, the West – which apparently was at least in part the intention behind anti-Western IS provocations.

Focusing on the politics

While IS indisputably uses terrorism as a tool, and any attempt to meaningfully degrade the group will necessitate a military dimension, it should be clear by now that the forces driving IS run far deeper. But while there was an initial recognition by the coalition of the centrality of a broader political approach, not least through the insistence that a new inclusive government be formed in Iraq, this track is looking increasingly perfunctory – stuttering forward at best in Iraq and essentially non-existent in Syria.

IS’s emergence is a symptom of the profoundly broken politics afflicting the Middle East today (for which the West bears considerable responsibility given the role of the 2003 Iraq war in triggering a cycle of state collapse and sectarianism that has fuelled the rise of extremism). A region already in profound discord was thrown into chaos by the war in Syria and the intensified regional competition to which it gave rise.

IS feeds off a powerful narrative of resentment against a perceived Shia-dominated regional order. The new military strikes have exacerbated this trend by feeding a belief, however misplaced, that the US is acting as the air force to an Iranian-led Shia ground-force. In Iraq and Syria, Shia-leaning powers (the Syrian Alawite regime is not Shiite, but is tightly tied to the axis) are effectively excluding, often violently, Sunnis from meaningful representation. A fierce battle of identity politics has been unleashed which IS is exploiting given an absence of effective Sunni regional leadership and endemic problems in the governance structures and lack of consensual social contracts of most Arab States.

Iran, as the chief backer of Damascus and Baghdad, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, is culpable for the destructive policies that have excluded and sometimes devastated Sunni constituencies. The perceived Shia-centric nature of Iranian support for these policies, including through the direct mobilisation of foreign militias on the ground, has directly fed the sense of Sunni sectarian marginalisation. The unpleasant dilemma for many Sunnis in Iraq or Syria is why they would necessarily prefer the defeat of IS to the alternative of Shia militia or Assad rule.

For their part, Arab Gulf States have deliberately supported Sunni sectarian mobilisation for their own geopolitical ends, seeing the conflict in Syria as a means of rebalancing the regional power order by pulling Damascus out of the Iranian orbit. They have willingly tapped into and fed Sunni disenchantment whether directly or by turning a blind eye to sectarian media, preaching and funding channels. Extremism has been viewed as a helpful and malleable tool for weakening rivals and advancing political agendas in the region (while concurrently channelling abroad the internal dissent generated by non-representative polities).

Turkey has placed itself in a similar position whereby extremist groups operating across its border were at least in part indulged as a means of weakening both Assad and Syrian Kurds who it fears are taking advantage of the conflict in a manner which could spur pan-regional Kurdish ambitions and undermine the existing Turkish government peace track with the PKK. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have encouraged a regional crack-down on moderate forms of Sunni Islamist political expression, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, closing the door on potentially more democratically-compatible and non-violent forms of religiously-inspired political expression.

Riyadh’s willingness to join the military campaign against IS can therefore be understood as part of a quid pro quo aimed at securing long-sought after US intervention in Syria, rather than a reflection of having made the weakening of IS a priority. Turkey is likewise unwilling to commit to the fight against IS without guarantees of action against Assad. Iran’s military push against IS preceded that of the western coalition and will continue regardless, but it has so far refused to countenance a meaningful political track in Syria that might defuse Sunni resentment.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran all claim, in their own way, that IS represents a force within a broader struggle the roots of which must be addressed before the jihadist group can hope to be defeated, but none are rectifying their own roles and responsibilities within that broader struggle.

The Lebanese anomaly

One country hesitantly bucking the trend is Lebanon which makes for an unlikely and imperfect model. Lebanon has though witnessed an unprecedented degree of regionally-backed power-sharing that has facilitated meaningful push-back against IS-associated extremism. Iran and Saudi, alongside the local protagonists they back in Lebanon, have moved away from zero-sum approaches to embrace a joint ownership of the struggle against IS, fearful of the consequences for stability and their respective influence if Salafi extremists were to gain a foothold in the country. The tentative lesson to be drawn from this positive, if very fragile, example is that where domestic and regional actors come together to back an inclusive approach, and when the West keeps its military at home, the fight against IS stands considerably more chance of success.

The perilous question now facing dominant regional actors and western policy makers, is whether it is possible, and if so how, to forge such consensus more widely. For the moment Lebanon represents an anomaly rather than the norm, and one that may not hold if escalation proceeds elsewhere. Given the far deeper strategic importance attached to Syria, it will be considerably harder to encourage a re-orientation of positions there.

Still, IS holds the potential to change regional calculations due to the threat it could eventually pose to them all. IS has made clear that it harbours ultimate ambitions on Saudi Arabia given its custodianship of Islam’s two holy mosques, its resources and the significant number of Saudis fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq who could eventually turn their focus back on the Kingdom. For Iran, IS poses a serious military threat to its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and is playing a central role in stirring up a regional sectarian war that, while manageable in the short-term, can only work to Tehran’s overall disadvantage given the minority status of Shias across the Middle East. IS threatens domestic peace in Turkey given its likely potential to carry out attacks there and that its ambitions to redraw the Sykes-Picot borders risk empowering Kurdish ambitions. Elsewhere, nearly all countries in the region are threatened by the rising number of their nationals joining IS and the risk that extremism and violence will spread.

Incentivising regional ownership

However the more that regional actors assume that the West will take care of IS, the more likely they are to duck their own responsibilities. The key regional actors will not make concessions, will not recalibrate their own policies, and will not make IS an absolute priority if they do not have to. President Obama's insistence on the limitations of his anti-IS campaign tends to be dismissed in the region, where the assumption is that the US can be sucked further into a military campaign.

That assumption is encouraged by the fact that Obama is already engaged in a war he would rather have avoided and that unintended escalation, particularly in Iraq, is already visible. Obama is also now in the fourth quarter of his presidency, allowing some to consider a two-year waiting game as the best alternative to immediate US action. All of which leaves America and its Western allies with some hard choices of their own. If the West does not intend to militarily reassume ownership of Iraq, as well as of Syria, (a move that would be unwise in the extreme), then it will have to be more insistent in its expectations of the roles regional actors should assume.

This represents the best prospect for pushing regional allies to transition from being petitioners to problem solvers.The West’s central focus should therefore shift to the question of the level and nature of regional responsibility it is encouraging. Part of this must involve embracing policies that force regional actors to meaningfully take ownership of confronting the threats they all face from IS. This will mean limiting the level of Western military intervention – to the extent that the broad military action now underway is curtailed - and pushing back against attempts by regional actors to use it for their own ambitions.

It must also include a recognition that taking on IS means taking on an idea – and that cannot be primarily accomplished by military means, nor can it be led by non-Muslim actors. IS undoubtedly feeds off resentment at Western policy – from support for dictators to drones and military interventions to complicity in the fate of the Palestinians – but it is not fundamentally about ‘us’. Western military intervention will not ameliorate the root ills which enable and fuel IS and will only make the West more of a target. A consistent feature of IS-like extremists is the goal of sharpening tensions and distinctions, precisely by provoking over-reaction.

The West needs to be prepared for a patient and long-term approach to the phenomenon of extremism. Misplaced interventions tend to extend, not shorten, that timeline. IS may burn itself out and may lose appeal as it nestles down to the less glorious task of local governance in areas under its control. Elements now aligned with IS may become amenable to a more rational and pragmatic form of co-existence in the region over time. But the longer game will have to be led from within the communities in which IS operates.

Acknowledging this still leaves much that can be done. From a narrow security perspective, stopping the flow of foreign fighters into the battle ground, primarily by working with Turkey and assisting them to better manage the border, would mark a significant step forward. There will be times when narrow military action will also be justified, including the limited targeting of IS groups if and when they are seen to be actively planning attacks on the West (of which there is very limited evidence to date). Moreover there is a legitimate case to be made for providing armed support to Kurdish groups – given that they are not directly implicated in the broader regional civil war. The continued provision of humanitarian assistance to the huge Syrian refugee population in neighbouring countries will be critical to preventing IS from spreading its radicalising message, as will support for the efforts of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon in hosting these refugees.

But by far the most important area of focus should be working on supporting efforts to resolve the crises in both Syria and Iraq, as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So long as these crises endure, fuelling radical identity politics and the spread of ungoverned spaces, there is little prospect of successfully dealing with IS. Air strikes and military action may help contain the group, but ultimately it is serving to take pressure away from regional actors to re-balance their geopolitical ambitions. A start on this front would be active support for the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recognising his pursuit of a ceasefire in Aleppo as one of the only available paths towards desperately needed de-escalation between all parties, both local and regional. Building on this the West should actively seek to encourage a convergence among the crucial triangle constituted by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

After a decade of escalating conflict across the region, it should be self-evident that the means to defuse these crises will not be through the facilitation of knock-out victories, which will remain elusive given the domestic, regional and international balance of power. Meaningful solutions will entail compromise-based, inclusive political processes that give local populations real stakes in self-representation. By leaning-out rather than always leaning-in and by encouraging regional actors to confront the threat that IS poses, first and foremost to themselves, Europeans and Americans could play a more constructive role in pushing forward this urgently needed re-calibration. 

- Daniel Levy  is the head of the Middle East and & North Africa programme at European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Ellie Geranmayeh is an ECFR policy fellow in May 2014, working on European foreign policy in relation to Iran. From 2011-2013, she worked at Herbert Smith Freehills LLP law firm where she gained experience in public international law, border disputes, international criminal law, and sanctions regimes. Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow for ECFR’s Middle East & North Africa programme and has worked as a journalist across the Middle East. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.  

Photo: Foreign ministers from Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and Lebanon join US Secretary of State John Kerry in Saudi Arabia last week to talk about defeating Islamic State militants (AFP)

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