I think it is safe to say that most reasonable people in the world would agree that some sort of action needs to be taken to combat the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIL and then ISIS) organization in Syria and Iraq.
While the organization has existed in one form or another since at least 1999, they have become a major concern for nations around the world due to their extremism, brutality, and rapid advances in Syria and Iraq. They have been implicated in massive atrocities by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations, including massacring civilians, summary execution of captured soldiers, the widespread and systematic use of sexual violence, ethnic clensing, and the use of cluster munitions (click here, here, here, here and here).
The group has even been repudiated by al-Qaeda, and that organization’s branch in Syria joined forces with more moderate groups to fight IS (click here). Outrage in the West recently grew after the beheading of American and British hostages held by the group. Since August the US has been carrying out airstrikes against IS targets to help the Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting them on the ground, and has been recently joined by France in carrying out bombings. The US, UK, and other countries have also been carrying out aid drops and providing other forms of assistance.
Given the US’s record of fighting terrorism in the Middle East through direct military intervention, we should definitely be concerned about how this campaign goes forward. Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and done little to stabilize either country. So far, this campaign is shaping up to be an almost entirely military effort: Obama’s strategy consists of: continue and expand air strikes in Iraq; begin air strikes in Syria; arm and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces and Syrian rebel groups; engage with other actors in the region like Saudi Arabia, but not Iran and Syria (click here).
This strategy presents a host of issues. While a negotiated solution to the crisis would be ideal to minimize further death and suffering, it seems unlikely that IS would be willing to negotiate on terms that most Iraqis, Kurds, Syrians, their governments, or the global community would find acceptable. Consequently, some military element is certainly required. History has shown, however, that a purely military response to an insurgency is bound to fail.
First, the most obvious issues with the strategy. Under international law, the US has no right to conduct air strikes on Syrian territory, except with authorization from the Syrian government (unlikely to happen given the Obama administration’s hostility towards the regime of Bashar al-Assad), or with a UN Security Council resolution (even more unlikely due to the veto power wielded by Russia and China). Obama’s legal justification for the bombing campaign under US law is also on shaky ground. He is using the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) from 2001, which granted the president broad powers to use force against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. However, it is a stretch to argue that this targets IS as well, as it was not affiliated with al-Qaeda when the AUMF was passed, nor is it affiliated with al-Qaeda now (click here).
A second obvious problem is avoiding engaging with the Syrian and Iranian regimes. While neither have good human rights records or are democratic, to say the least, both are threatened directly or indirectly by IS. This could provide an opportunity for the west to constructively engage these regimes, the Syrian Civil War, and Iran’s nuclear program in a way that would be palatable for Russia and China. While the perpetrators of the horrific abuses committed by both the Syrian regime and some rebel groups must be held to account, bringing a rapid end to the ongoing violence should be a priority. Cooperation in the fight against IS could provide leverage with the Syrian regime and rebel groups to declare a ceasefire and begin negotiations.
Similarly, it may present an opportunity to further nuclear program negotiations with Iran. This of course runs counter to another portion of the strategy, arming Syrian rebel groups. In either case, arming Syrian rebel groups that could turn out to be just as extreme as al-Qaeda or IS would be counterproductive, and there is no way to ensure that arms won’t fall into the wrong hands.
Airstrikes by the US and other western powers are not bad by default, but given our record with killing civilians in drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the US and its allies must be very careful in where they bomb to prevent civilian deaths that will turn popular sentiment towards IS. Turning the support of civilians away from IS is critical to their defeat, as lessons learned from successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgency efforts have shown. Not bombing civilians is obviously a good start, but it goes far beyond that: providing a secure environment in which to live, promoting the rule of law, establishing fair and impartial policing and judiciary, and most importantly ensuring that people have food, clean water, shelter, and employment.
People must view the government as legitimate and a source of benefits and protection, something sorely lacking in much of Iraq at present. Massive efforts in terms of development, humanitarian aid, and governance building and reform will be critically important to eroding support of IS and ultimately destroying it; more important than any military action the US and its allies can take. We have massive financial and technical resources that can be channeled through experienced development organizations, locally and internationally, that are currently not part of Obama’s plan to tackle the Islamic State.
This is a major gap in American strategy that in the long run will only harm the people of Iraq and Syria, the region, and the world. This will not be a quick and easy path, either. Perhaps the military components of the intervention can rapidly defeat the most obvious elements of IS, but it will take years or decades to aid people in Iraq and Syria in building a stable, prosperous society in which extremism cannot flourish.
Editor’s note: Dustin Johnson is a native of the Los Alamos area, and currently in the masters of resource and environmental management program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is pursuing a career in the international development field.