The attacks in Paris a few weeks ago brought to the front call from a variety of people to change the strategy with regards to operations against ISIL. The calls are understandable given the number of people killed by the terrorists; however they are misguided on several levels. For one, the calls for more troops and airstrikes are really just calls to use different tactics, while the focus on ISIL at this time is totally disproportionate to the threat it represents to the world. What is missing from these discussions is the actual long term successful strategy that deals with ISIL or their successor organization which will inevitably spring up.
What is ISIL?
The first problem with our current strategy is that we really don’t understand what ISIL is. The generic tendency among both press and analysts is to describe ISIL as a terrorist organization, while the reality is much more complex. The problem is that we do not get to the root cause of what ISIL truly is. It is true that ISIL uses terrorist tactics to advance its goals. However the tactics should not define them exclusively. ISIL is a Sunni Muslim state. To deny them that label is to misunderstand what they truly are.
Right now ISIL run government controls on millions of people. It runs education, collects taxes, and provides healthcare. To gloss over these things and to focus only on the terrorist acts is to skip over the most important parts of what ISIL is. It is a functioning state and as such any strategy that deals with ISIL has to take that into account. It is also very important to remember that ISIL is a Sunni Muslim state, along the lines of Gulf Monarchies and Saudi Arabia. Another thing that gets overlooked is that the religious beliefs in the ISIL controlled territory are also very similar to the Saudi Arabia propagated Wahhabi belief system. They are actually so similar, that it is no surprise most of the support ISIL gets is from Saudi Arabia, both in terms of personnel and money. Of note, both Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram are also Wahhabi Sunni organizations.
ISIL did not spring into existence out of nowhere. It was the logical outgrowth of a number of factors. First, was the decades long effort by Saudis and other Gulf Monarchies in spreading their puritanical version of Sunni Islam across the Muslim world. Millions of kids were indoctrinated in the Saudi supported madrassas to belief in the Wahhabi version of Islam. As such, it is not surprising the barbarity displayed by ISIL towards non-Sunnis; it is what the Wahhabi version of Islam is all about. The second factor that helped create ISIL is lack of true institutions of state in the Middle East. There is no upward mobility possible to someone born in the wrong tribe or family. The current social and political systems stifle any possibility of upward mobility, while at the same time ISIL offers a different way forward.
Lastly, the invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war both provided a cause for Sunni grievances to develop. In Iraq, the Sunnis lost the dominant position they held since the founding of the country and became a minority block, dominated by the Shias. While in Syria, the Sunnis, long second-class citizens to the Allawites, were no longer content with their status. The Sunni grievances both against current Iraqi and Syrian government are why ISIL is the strongest in the Sunni areas of both Iraq and Syria. So when you combine long term indoctrination, with lack of future in the current political landscape, and add disaffection, the result is ISIL. A Wahhabi Sunni state located within the borders of Iraq and Syria, which draws the disaffected Sunni Muslims from across the world.
ISIL threat to the Homeland
How much then, is this Sunni Muslim state a threat to the Homeland? The answer is, very little. Every year thousands of Americans die in auto accidents, falls, suicides, drownings and other instances that we accept as a daily fact of life. While at the same time ISIL has had very little success in targeting US citizens. It has been estimated that Sunni Islamic terrorism has been responsible for about 20 deaths in the US since 9/11. And while every life is precious, 100 Americans die every day in car crashes. You actually have a higher change of getting struck by lightning, then dying in a terror attack. Therefore as stated before, despite the breathless reporting and panicky pronouncement, ISIL is not a threat we should really worry about.
Every point of access to the Homeland we control. Hypothetically, what can ISIL do? Build an aircraft carrier and then try to fight their way thought the US Sixth Fleet, land on the beaches of New Jersey, defeat the US Army and Air Force, backed up by the National Guard. Go through Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies to cause Americans harm. Of course not. The only way ISIL can get into the US is by using a mode of transportation available commercially. We control not only all points of access that, but also have procedures in place to safeguard against terrorists coming through. Does that mean that there will be 100% guarantee that no terrorist attack will ever occur in the US? No. But the odds of that are so small, that it is not even worth talking about.
So while ISIL is not a threat to the Homeland, it is a state that has to be dealt with. We can tactically defeat ISIL within a very short time, but then what? Without dealing with underlying causes of ISIL another Sunni Wahhabi group would just take its place. The strategy to deal with ISIL long term should be focused on containment. ISIL at its core, as mentioned before, is based on the ideology of Wahhabism. As such, the first step of such containment has to deal with our “allies” in the Gulf that propagate that ideology. To stop the indoctrination, the source of the Wahhabi funding has to be cut off. Most effective would be sanctions against oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, unless they stop all financial support of Wahhabi religious establishment. While it won’t eliminate the damage already done, the lack of finances would stop the future spread of Wahhabism.
To address the lack of governance across the region, the US should support all democratically elected governments, even if they disagree with us. Policy of supporting autocratic regimes in the interests of short term stability comes at the expense of long term US interests. It doesn’t mean that we should cut ties with every regime in the Middle East, but it does mean no support for countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt just to name a few. Without this dramatic change in policy, ISIL-like states will continue to spring up in response to the failure of Arab governance.
Lastly, strategy should address dealing with ISIL threat and the territory they control. The old borders set up after WW I should no longer be kept sacrosanct. The people of Iraq and Syria, given their ethnic and religious composition, do not want to live together. And we should not force them to do so. We were able to accommodate the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and can do the same for Iraq and Syria. To pretend otherwise only perpetuates the conflict. Syria and Iraq did not exist as nations 100 years ago and there is no reason they should continue as countries. Right now the Shia and Sunni divisions are too great to allow for peaceful co-existence, therefore separation is the only option.
Once that is accomplished and we deal with ISIL as a state, there are more steps we can take. As mentioned previously, ISIL is a Sunni Muslim organization. As such, their biggest foes are Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. We should use that to our advantage. Iran, the world’s preeminent Shiite power is our natural ally against the Sunni Wahhabi extremists. They are the ones that should be leading the fight to contain the Sunni threat. We can also rely on Kurds to provide a buffer against ISIL in northern Iraq and Syria and for that reason they should also be supported, up to and including the creation of a Kurdish state. Both Shiites and Kurds will not defeat ISIL decisively, but that is really not possible anyway. As described before, ISIL is an idea, born of the Wahhabi ideology and Sunni grievances. Until they both wear themselves out, the best we can do is containment with Kurds and Shiites as our partners.