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With US led airstrikes underway against ISIS, questions remain over how best to define and influence ISIS and their supporters.
There is no denying the atrocities being perpetrated by ISIS. It is an organisation that is more than a band of terrorists/insurgents, but less than a state. By labelling themselves a caliphate, they occupy a twenty-first century grey area. Informal institutions, loosely bound by tribal, sectarian and ethnic allegiances and clothed in religion usurp legitimacy from Iraqi state institutions. They are perceived by its supporters as having failed because of incompetence and rampant sectarianism.
ISIS’s propaganda emphasises the ‘peacefulness of this alternative’ – visually promoting images of territory under its control that are untouched by war as an Islamic alternative to the chaos of Baghdad and the utter destruction and devastation of Aleppo. ISIS pitches itself as a haven for oppressed Sunnis – an alternative to social chaos and rampant sectarianism (through brutal violence and repression). ISIS has created a popularly resonant niche for itself on the ground, amongst disaffected Sunnis, who feel persecuted from the West by an Iran backed Syrian regime, and under real threat from the East, by an Iraqi state which they say has become a puppet of Tehran.
Questions for Both Sides
So how will air strikes stop the progress of ISIS? Is this really the solution? It is likely that air strikes on ISIS weapons dumps, centres of activity, and infrastructure will have a concrete impact on their operational and tactical capacity to gain new territories from Kurdistan in northern Iraq and lessen any threat of a physical capture of Baghdad. It will furthermore at worst delay, and at best prevent, the real and present threat of an ISIS invasion of Jordan or Lebanon. At the same time the air strikes will have forced a series of decisions on the ISIS leadership as to what is now the best strategic direction for their activities, decisions that are undoubtedly tricky.
Should they consolidate the territory that they hold at the moment through massing and dispersing conventional forces? Should they mount a ‘hybrid-warfare’ campaign in which they cede territory, melt into local populations, and create such bloody attrition that the West and its allies will quit? Should it send back foreign fighters to try to create domestic fronts for Amman, Riyadh, Tunis, London and Ottawa? The major question for ISIS is to address the fundamental meaning of holding territory to dispense power – and how much blood are they willing to shed for it?
At the same time that ISIS faces these kinds of strategic choices, the same is true of this American organised coalition. The physical delivery of air power to destroy capacity and infrastructure is the easy part – but it is the tip of the iceberg. There are still many more activities which must be done, simultaneously, in perfect unity and sequence to achieve the most effective impact. ISIS, as neither a state nor purely a terrorist group, will be inherently resilient to targeted attempts to disrupt what are, by definition, amorphous and informal sets of institutions and political, social and economic arrangements. How will airstrikes erode this resilience, and how much is necessary to do so? As ISIS’s infrastructure and capacity is degraded, it is likely that they will use this as evidence to prove and further inflame their narrative that this is an unjust war by the West against Islam. This is likely to entrench commitment amongst its current supporters – so how is this coalition planning on convincing ISIS supporters that this isn’t the case?
Influencing ISIS Supporters
Showcasing Arab partnership in the operations is one part of this. But it is a small part, as many ISIS supporters fundamentally dispute the Islamic legitimacy of the coalition’s Arab partner states to begin with. So is the message in this coalition about Islam? Or a better Islam? Or even, less Islam?
These will be the kinds of questions which are important for ISIS supporters and sympathisers. Furthermore, the ideas espoused by ISIS in the territory that was Iraq and Syria are clearly resonant and perceived as viable by its supporters. What credible alternative is the West and/or Baghdad and/or Damascus trying to sell to ISIS supporters moving forward? In current military parlance, what will the human centric approach – the influence piece be sitting at the heart of any endeavour to degrade and destroy ISIS moving forward?
One of the main lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan was that the message, the influence strategy, should sit at the heart of strategy and operational planning. Before committing British blood and treasure to the fight against ISIS, it is important that we have a clear vision for this aspect, rather than act first and consider this piece after the fact. It is essential to get this aspect right now, rather than find ourselves muddling through, again, in four or five years time.
Jonathan Githens-Mazer an Associate Fellow at RUSI and an Associate Professor in Ethno-Politics Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies University of Exeter.