A Few Thoughts About ISIS and the Rest of Us
Until the recent, horrific events in Paris and in other locations, and the attack on the Russian airliner, many of us thought that ISIS was a regional problem and one that was being beaten down in a deliberate, albeit slow manner. The implication was that we were safe and could take advantage of time to the point of ISIS’ demise. And it may well be that ISIS recognised that it was losing the battle and decided to lash out in the brutal manner it did. In either case, it seems clear now, to quote the characterisation of David Brooks, “time is no longer on our side.”
I have begun to think more about this issue, as I would imagine many of you have, from a perspective of not being a military expert or a Middle East regional expert at all. I recognise, therefore, that my observations may not be completely sound. But as a thinking citizen of this world, I want to offer them nonetheless.
First, while ISIS is clearly barbaric, to a manner that is almost incomprehensible, its recent savage actions in the West suggest that it perhaps believes that the West will not raise its stake in the battle and take the fight to ISIS on its home ground in the form of increased ground troops and operations. It does seem clear that should the West indeed form a directed, comprehensive military campaign there is certainly the firepower to defeat ISIS quite soundly and perhaps even more quickly than we think, the political will and considerations notwithstanding.
Second, and I think more likely, perhaps ISIS does think that the West will react by escalating the conflict, and that is precisely what it wants. Apart from the obvious reason here to turn this into a broader war between the West and Islam, we should not forget that ISIS has a completely different respect and value for human life, including its own. If ISIS radicals are not only prepared, but predisposed to die for their cause, then it would seem we are at an enormous disadvantage in terms of direct military confrontation. Under this logic, their goal is a drawn-out battle on their territory which leads to significant casualties that they are only too happy to see and to trade off, while using the conflict to draw in many more converts.
Third, given the above points, and the complex and deadly divisions within the region, the aggressive approach of some, led by Donald Trump, to “bomb the sh-t out of them” seems tone deaf and ignorant. Apart from the points above on ISIS’ motives and capabilities, one needs to understand and account for the fragilities in the region, and to recognise that only the people in the region itself can ultimately remove and replace ISIS. The plan by Hilary Clinton takes many elements into account and perspective and rightly recognises the critical importance of factoring in Syria and Assad, as only moderates in the civil war can ultimately change the landscape in a sustainable manner, i.e. Assad cannot stand any more than ISIS can for there to be a real chance at a balanced, sustainable future.
Fourth, the rhetoric that bends towards a “war on Islam” is very dangerous, and an obvious objective of ISIS is to heighten tensions to the broader Muslim community and thereby engage more converts. With this issue there is tremendous potential for misstep and unintended consequences. It is not surprising that President Hollande would invoke these words and sentiments in the face of such brutality and, it must be said, political pressure. But there are many others jumping into the debate and feeling the flames of divide and the perceived, large-scale “clash of civilisations.” This is very dangerous, as the broader battle for the hearts and millions of the Muslim community is essential, and the key to longer term stability and understanding.
Fifth, the United States has become a large forum where this rhetoric is playing in various insidious and dangerous ways. This begins with the refugee crisis, that predictably has been connected by many with the issue of radical terrorists. In labelling all Muslims as potential terrorists and classifying them as undesirable and/or dangerous, the group of opinion leaders on this is doing a disservice to US citizens and making things worse rather than better. In effect, they are massively broadening the conflict. This begins with the numerous governors, who are fuelling this fire in full knowledge they have no legal basis to deny refugees entry to their states once the federal government has allowed them safe passage in to the US, and further that they cannot enforce their stated policies in any way, Chris Christie’s declaration not to allow refugee children is especially alarming here, as it would help ensure that future generations grow up hating the West, exactly what ISIS wants and needs to continue to exist and flourish.
Sadly, the rhetoric continues with members of congress, who do have a legal basis to make a big difference in defining and authorising the appropriate military response, but choose to skirt their constitutional responsibilities to enact laws and ensure that the country gets a proper debate that can lead to a proper mandate for action. One notable exception here, though not the only one, is Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia, who has been tirelessly fighting to get congress to accept its constitutional responsibility to debate and legislate on this conflict, and others.
Sixth, and lastly, the one thing that seems certain, again sadly, is that the overall situation will get worse before it gets better, as there are likely future attacks and as the refugee crisis becomes more serious and acute. If, indeed, ISIS wants this escalation and to see the rhetoric escalate as well, we need to think carefully why and how best not to play into their wishes.
We can only hope that informed and thoughtful minds can prevail in the West to find the right mix of shorter term military and political actions, while keeping the longer term needs in mind in terms of the roots of the problem and the overall Muslim community.
I would be very interested in your reactions and thoughts on these issues.