Can Anyone Actually Do Anything About ISIS?
Justin Vogt

“ISIS May Not Threaten Your National Existence at This Point in Time, But It Does Threaten Mine.”

A Matter letter series between Foreign Affairs deputy managing editor Justin Vogt and managing editor of NOW Hanin Ghaddar

Dear Justin,

I am glad we agree that ISIS cannot be bombed away, and that another war is not the solution. Yes, the U.S. coalition’s raids did kill a number of ISIS leaders and geographically contained the group, but ISIS is still gaining popularity.

That said, ISIS’s strength is based on three main layers: One, its legitimacy which comes from its fact that it has set up an actual state, with geographical territory, institutions, and structure. This makes it more concrete and valid than Al-Qaeda, which operated like an underground movement. Two, its economic sustainability, based on oil revenues, taxation, zakat money, and selling looted goods. Three, which is harder to contain or defeat, is its ideology and appeal of belonging to a grand and scared nation.

Also, ISIS is the combination of all our mistakes. The failure of moderate Islam to embrace change, the unfair immigration laws of Europe that led to integration challenges, the failure of Arab and Islamic states to treat its people as equal citizens, and the West’s endorsement of many dictatorships and monarchies in the region.

These are the underlying factors that impel people to join ISIS as an alternative potential authority. But ISIS derives all its laws and rules from Islam — particularly from the Quran. All of the horrific acts of ISIS — such as crucifixion, the tax on Christians, owning slaves, beheading — are all permitted by the Quran and were practiced by Islam during the early days of Prophet Mohammad.

Therefore, the first step is to acknowledge that Islam is the source of ISIS’s rule, and that we cannot expect Muslim scholars to contradict actions permitted by Islam. Of course, no one can abolish Islam as a religion, but weakening religious institutions that promote radical Islam is a must. It is not an as easy as throwing bombs on Raqqa or Mousel, but at least it weakens the core of radical Islam.

Weakening these institutions can only work if people are offered an alternative. People need to know that they also have the option to be citizens, and this can only be achieved if states in the region are pressured — through foreign aid conditions or civil society empowerment — to strengthen their justice systems and implement equality in all sectors.

This, of course, is a long-term goal — but if we don’t begin to realize that countering ISIS requires stopping the hateful and sectarian narrative in mosques, schools, and the media, all in the name of Islam, ISIS will continue to grow and expand.

On a more immediate level, we can fight ISIS all we want, but their drive and power is more or less built on the sectarian rhetoric and conflict spreading in the region like fire. Working on identity and belonging is a long and necessary process, but ignoring the other side of the coin; i.e. Shiite extremism, is not helping. Taking sides in a sectarian conflict — and I am talking here about the Iran Deal — the U.S. seems to have allied with Shiite Iran against the Sunnis in the region. At least, that’s how Sunnis here see it. So you cannot expect the Sunnis to help the U.S. combat ISIS if they feel they are fighting for Iran.

Also, we need to realize is that any settlement of Syria’s war that accepts President Bashar Al-Assad staying in power during the transitional period is not going to help with the ISIS problem. One of the main reasons Sunnis join ISIS in Syria — in addition to power, status, and money — is that Assad is still in power and killing their fellow Sunnis right and left. Assad staying is more reason for ISIS to attract fighters and suicide bombers who will now flock to the Islamic State to save the Umma from Assad and Iran. Assad has to go. And any compromise on this means more sectarian polarization, and consequently, a stronger ISIS.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry gave an ultimatum to the head of the Syrian opposition’s High Committee for Negotiations, Riyad Hijab, during their meeting in the Saudi capital. Kerry basically told Hijab that he either goes to Geneva under the conditions set by him and his Russian counterpart, or else the opposition could lose political and military support from the U.S.

Not only that. Hijab was also informed by Kerry that the talks would be to “form a joint government with the regime and work on elections within which al-Assad would be entitled to be nominated, and that there is no timeframe for Assad’s departure.”

If anything, this “warning” tells both the Syrian opposition, and their supporters in Riyadh and turkey, that the US accepted the Iranian and Russian conditions, and that Assad is no longer a problem. Here’s to another lost “red line.”

How do you expect the people in the region — most of whom want Assad gone — to read this? Yes, waging a crazy uncalculated war on ISIS is stupid. But ignoring the other kind of terrorism in the region only because Iran signed the deal does not make sense to those like me, who live in the region and watch people we know become more and more extremist every day.

ISIS may not threaten your national existence at this point in time, but it does threaten mine. And eventually, the majority of people in the region will see how the U.S. gave them false promises, and ignored their national existence. This — in the long run — is bad to the U.S., and will threaten its national existence.

Back to your letter. You mentioned that Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran oppose ISIS. Of course they say that all the time because Iran and Assad want to look like the “strategic allies” fighting the same enemy. We have discovered recently, although the Syrians have been saying this for a very long time, that Assad’s regime is the number one consumer of ISIS oil. You can say that Assad does not have another option to survive or that the war economy is complicated, but why haven’t we witnessed a single serious battle between ISIS and Assad’s army and its allies? Hezbollah, the strongest force on the ground, has never fought ISIS in Syria, although they had many close encounters.

Because they are frenemies. Each side survives on the existence and power of the other. Iran wants a strong ISIS so that Assad looks like a better option and the Shiite militias are given the green light to control the ground in Syria. And ISIS will not fight Iran’s militias because they are not the problem. There was never a confrontation on land or borders. People living in ISIS-controlled areas do suffer from ISIS rule, but never got hit by the regime’s barrel bombs or Hezbollah’s rockets.

Hence, we need to start talking about the elephant in the room — that is, Iran and its Islamist militias. The Iran deal, although that was not the intention, allowed the spread of Iran’s militias in Iraq and Syria, without giving the moderate Sunni rebels and tribes in Syria or Iraq any guarantees. The only boots on the ground that could actually fight ISIS and defeat it are the Sunnis from Iraq and Syria. You call it a “Sunni awakening without outside involvement,” and I agree with you that no one else can do it. I also believe that the majority of Sunnis in the region are willing to fight ISIS — just as the Free Syrian Army is doing as we speak. However, Sunnis need to feel that Iran’s hegemony and hunger for power in the region will be contained, too.

I agree with you, the solution is not racism against Muslims or more violence and wars in the region. We’ve had enough and we can’t take more death and blood. What we need is hope. So no, don’t “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion” because you will be killing innocent people while only making the idea of ISIS stronger. But don’t ignore Iran’s role as well.

Obama’s “strategic patience” could make sense to me if it was accompanied by two things: targeting Iran’s terrorism in the region, and empowering an alternative rhetoric of citizenship and liberal values. This total absence of the U.S. in the name of “strategic patience” is unsettling. It is creating a void that is being filled by two extremist Islamist states: A Sunni (ISIS) and a Shiite (Iran). Ignoring one only strengthens the other.

Last but not least, Islamist groups in the region did not really defeat themselves. They’re evolved into other structures and under different names. Al-Qaeda became Al-Nusra in Syria, and is acting in a more pragmatic and subtle way. In a sense, they are playing from Hezbollah’s book by trying to win the hearts and minds of the people. Looking ahead, Al-Nusra is more dangerous than ISIS.

But the point I am trying to make here, is that although some groups dissolve and other appear, this is all part of the same rhetoric/idea which is a result of our failures and mistakes. It is time to think outside the box and use knowledge (not violence) to act. Inaction, however, is not a solution. I know I don’t agree with you on the U.S. foreign policy, but I at least we agree that violence and war is not the solution.

Please let me know what you think, and let’s carry on with this stimulating exchange.

Best regards,


Photograph via Getty Images.

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