Is the Islamic State invincible?

The war on Iraq was a misconceived strategy that is in part to blame for the spread of Islamic militancy

Islamic State is not invincible. It can be driven, stripped of its attraction to recruits if a proper political strategy is put into place
Islamic State is not invincible. It can be driven, stripped of its attraction to recruits if a proper political strategy is put into place

The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime might have been justified on the basis of atrocities committed by the Iraqi dictator, often referred to as the dictators’ dictator. His was the first of the old Arab regimes to be overthrown. Saddam’s attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, where 5,000 children were killed, the hundreds of Kuwaiti families who disappeared during Iraq’s occupation and the thousands of Iraqi dissidents tortured in Saddam’s prisons are documented atrocities. But former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent statement that the Iraqi war made the world a more peaceful place is insulting. The war on Iraq was a misconceived strategy that is in part to blame for the spread of Islamic militancy. 

From Iraq to Syria

It has often been argued that the British thought that their colonial experience would help them do a good job at managing Shia Muslims in Iraq after the invasion. It clearly did not. The British and the Americans lost control the moment they removed Saddam Hussein and never got it back.

There is today widespread consensus that that the invasion of Iraq was a military success but its occupation a disaster. Even if they had good intentions, they went badly wrong. The damning report released earlier this month confirms the lack of proper strategy, pre- and post-invasion, by the coalition forces in Iraq. Their lack of knowledge of Iraqi history, culture and society was equally shocking.

The breakdown of Iraq and now Syria has created a space in which Islamic State can flourish. ISIS’s top brass is made up mostly of former Saddam-era army and intelligence officers. The Blair-Clinton administration, and the Bush administration to a larger extent, based their policy largely on military operations. Saddam was removed, but what followed initiated a new period of instability. The US-UK occupation was poorly concluded. The same mistakes are now happening in Syria where Islamic State has flourished. Islamic State thrives in chaos, and Syria is now the epitome of chaos. IS and Al-Qaeda are training up a new generation of jihadists in Syria. Some of them will go back to their towns and cities in France, Germany, the UK and the US, Egypt and Tunisia, or any of the other 69 nations they are estimated to have come from, and kill innocent civilians. They are already doing so. 

Foreign jihadists

It is unthinkable to reach out to Islamic State for stability – but that is precisely what many are doing in the failed states of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State strategy is to take advantage of a state’s failures, and impose its rule on the people living there. The sheer lack of effective administration in post-war Iraq and in Syria, has given IS fertile ground, providing it with a huge reservoir for recruits.

According to a report carried by the BBC online news portal (5/7/16), in the first 18 months after the declaration of the Islamic State, “the New York-based security consultancy Soufan Group estimated that 27,000 foreign jihadists had made the trip from 86 countries, more than half of them from the Middle East and North Africa”, and that “from the declaration of the caliphate until early 2016, some 70 terrorist attacks were either carried out or inspired by IS in 20 countries around the globe, from California to Sydney, with an estimated 1,200 victims killed”. Failed integration and multiculturalism policies in major European cities, too, produced what today are referred to as European jihadists – young Muslims and non-Muslims brought up in the ghettos of Brussels and Paris, ignored by politicians who took the direction of ‘jihad’, found refuge in Salafism and hate European values.

Guns and ideas

Despite having a strong foothold in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is not invincible. Guns are needed but so are ideas. People’s trust in Syria and Iraq needs to be regained and the US has failed miserably in this regard. Law-abiding Syrians and Iraqis need to feel assured that they have the support of the international community; especially those minorities who have been stripped of their rights in both Iraq and Syria. Syrians and Iraqis must be given all the support needed to include them in the decision-making process of their countries. The West cannot expect to impose solutions. It just doesn’t work. Some degree of intervention is always inevitable – especially targeted bombings, but military intervention on its own is not the solution. Hearts and minds must be won over. 

Politics before guns

All religious and ethnic communities need to be engaged, not sidelined as happened with Sunni Muslims in post-war Iraq. The solution is political rather than military. If Syrians and Iraqis feel that there is hope – that the international community is truly on their side, if they feel confident that there is a plan and strategy – and that the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is not part of the solution, people will have less reason to flee their country in droves and absolutely no reason why they should turn to ISIS to provide them with basic public services and security. Islamic State can be driven out of business and stripped of its attraction to recruits if a proper political strategy is put into place. ISIS can be defeated, it is not invincible – and its collapse can be engineered from within. 

The ‘War on Terror’

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s – ‘Emir’ of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden before him, until he was gunned down in 2011 – desire to murder their way to salvation has, and shall continue to arouse widespread disgust amongst law-abiding honest Muslims. That would eventually be ISIS’s downfall. However, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has so far failed in many respects. Islamic State’s attacks in Europe are probably in response to the European participation in military operations in Iraq and Syria. As for the sanctions imposed on the Assad government, they only served to his advantage – Assad’s narrative being that Western powers are intent on destroying the lives of Syrian families and businesses whilst the Islamic State makes the most of the misery caused by these sanctions to impose their rule in failed regions. 

The US and its allies’ lack of strategy in Syria and Iraq needs to be broken. Ideas are needed. If Western leaders are driven solely by economic interests, as did Bush and Blair with their war on Iraq, we shall continue to pay a heavy human price. There is no silver bullet. Military interventions alone have only brought chaos and radicalization. Islamic State is trying to draw the world into a global confrontation and provoke an escalation of violence. Well-meaning Muslims are best suited to defeat the jihadists. Playing Muslims against each other, as the US and the British did during their occupation of Iraq, will simply make things worse. 

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