Jack A. Goldstone, George Mason University and Woodrow Wilson Center. Member of the PS21 International Advisory Group.
It is remarkable that, in response to ISIS’s attacks in Paris, all kinds of remedies and actions are now being vehemently proposed: adding Western ground troops to the forces attacking ISIS, setting new restrictions on the movement of refugees from Islamic countries to the West; changing the rules for movement within Europe and even the rights of long-resident Muslims in western nations.
These proposals are remarkable not because they are extreme or poorly thought out (which they often are). Rather, they are remarkable because they burst into a vacuum of ideas for responding to ISIS or to a major terrorist action in a western capital.
Why have Western nations not had either a long-standing, widely understood and supported strategy for dealing with ISIS, which even a grisly terrorist act would not change, nor a plan for action in response to such an attack if that was believed necessary?
After all, it is certainly not the case that ISIS nor terror attacks in European capitals are new. ISIS has now been in the headlines for its brutal actions for years, and past terror attacks in Moscow, London, Madrid and even in Paris just a few months before should have prompted strategic plans for responding to another such attack.
Yet the response of Western leaders seems to have been an uncanny degree of denial. President Obama, just a day before the attacks, said that America’s strategy for dealing with ISIS was working and that ISIS had been “contained.” This was after a $500 million program to train Syrian fighters had to be abandoned for lack of success.
While it is true that some local tactical advances had been made in the fight against ISIS, in retaking the Baiji oilfields and the town of Sinjar, ISIS is also making tactical gains in other parts of Syria, around Homs and Edlib. Perhaps the biggest problem is that even if anti-ISIS forces retake land, there is no clear sense of who will govern it. In Tikrit in Iraq, a major town recovered from ISIS earlier this year, Iraqi army units and Shia militias still contest each other for control of the city, which remains a ghost town.
In Syria, when Kurdish forces recover land in northern Syria, who will run it? Turkey is dead-set against creating a Kurdish-run safe zone in northern Syria that could develop into an autonomous region or Kurdish state. Lands in Syria recovered from ISIS cannot be simply turned over to control of the Assad-led regime in Damascus; the Sunni population of most of Syria will not tolerate that. Yet there exists no Syrian “government in exile” with popular support to take over either. So how can a strategy to fight against ISIS be “working” if we still have no idea who will run any region that is recovered? Moreover, these tactical victories that nibble at the fringes of ISIS territory do not begin to broach the strategic issues that are vital to truly defeating them, namely how will they be driven from their urban strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul where millions of people live under ISIS’ rule?
If western nations lack an overall strategy for dealing with ISIS, they also lack a plan for responding to direct attacks on their citizens. Even after ISIS in the Sinai had brought down a Russian airliner causing hundreds of deaths, western leaders seemed to think that ISIS was only a local threat, aiming to expand in Iraq and Syria, and would not strike against nations outside that area. This despite evidence of ISIS sleeper cells elsewhere, and attacks by ISIS affiliated groups in Egypt. Libya, and the Sahel. So what reprisals did Western leaders have planned in the event that ISIS followed up the Charlie Hebdo attacks with another, larger attack on European soil? None, apparently, as the response has been a search for something between a knee-jerk response for the sake of “doing something” and doing nothing at all for lack of an alternative that would clearly be effective and not self-defeating.
Sadly, this lack of vision, and the lack of preparation it produces, is not just arising in the struggle against ISIS. For many years, scholars like myself have been arguing that fragile and failed states are the greatest potential threat to the international system, creating millions of refugees, thousands of aggrieved radicals, and multiple opportunities for terror groups to shelter and expand. We also noted that dealing with fragile and failed states required expertise, patience, and steady efforts, not dropping soldiers and tons of money in and then planning to pull them out. Yet instead of building capacity and developing plans to assist fragile and failing states, we were told that dealing with fragile and failed states is too costly and complex and that our errors in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that we could not respond to that challenge. Moreover, we were told that fragile and failed states weren’t really a threat to the international system or to US interests, that we had greatly exaggerated their risks, and that failed states were likely to be a minor and decreasing problem.
The result — when Ukraine failed, the West was caught flat-footed, while only Russia was prepared to act quickly. They did so by seizing Crimea and sending arms and troops to shore up separatists in Eastern Ukraine, thereby plunging Europe into its deepest crisis since the Cold War.
When Libya failed in the aftermath of the fall of Muammar Ghaddafi, as always seemed likely, the world had no standby plan to separate militias or restore order. When Yemen failed — a process that had been slowly unfolding for years and ignored in favor of just drone-bombing Al-Qaida militants — the result was a civil war that has drawn in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations to the point where they have little attention to spare for ISIS. When Iraq and Syria fell apart in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the former and the Arab Spring uprisings in the latter, and we watched radicals spread and entrench themselves in both nations, we had no thought of a quick response. Rather, we watched both nations descend from fragility to outright loss of territory to a radical group, and waited until that group spilled blood in Europe and sent millions of refugees westward before starting to take seriously the need for an international response.
At this point, the West may think that a strong response to the terror attacks in Paris is required. In fact, it is too late. States that have failed cannot easily be put back together from outside. The time for effective intervention is in the early days of fragility, before forces of disorder have seized advanced weapons and territory. At this point, blows aimed at ISIS without a strategy to drive them from their core strongholds will only increase their enmity and determination to strike back, and will not deprive of the means to do so.
So what course to take now, after so much denial and time wasted? First, it is vital to strengthen states that are engaged in struggles to create zones of order, but remain fragile. That means Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Ukraine, and Georgia. It is essential that they not become failed states and spread disorder further. These countries should be the priority for strategic measures to support these regimes with aid, expertise, trade support, and defensive weaponry.
Second, the forces that are actively fighting ISIS in Syria — Kurds and Syrian militias — should be given access to arms and air support to fight to contain ISIS and keep it busy with local defense.
Beyond that, Western forces should back away from active engagement with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Better to concentrate on dealing with the refugee streams that are being created. By giving those refugees a future and safe haven, even more ISIS supporters will be encouraged to try to escape from the lands controlled by ISIS. That will do more than any bombing raids to weaken ISIS and deprive it of resources.
In the meantime, let ISIS’s fury burn itself out against local Muslim populations. Eventually, when ISIS has weakened, and Turkey and several Arab nations are ready to commit major forces to driving ISIS out of its strongholds, western nations can provide support. But it makes no sense for the US and Europe to take the lead in a fight against ISIS when neither Turkey, nor Iraq, nor Saudi Arabia is willing to do so.
Still, NATO should develop stand-by plans for retributive strikes against ISIS and its leaders if they stage attacks against NATO countries. If we are already bombing all targets that we can identify, then simply dropping more bombs in response to an attack on the West will not have any effect and certainly not deter NATO from planning further attacks against the West. Yet if Western nations turn the main fighting over to local forces, and save massive bombing attacks for reprisals, ISIS and its supporters will learn that attacks against the West will cost it more lives in its population centers. The incessant ongoing air attacks that inevitably kill civilians and now help ISIS recruit followers are not effective; but attacks that are clearly reprisals for ISIS killing of innocent civilians can be framed quite differently and more effectively for the anti-ISIS cause.
The risk now is that instead of helping crucial fragile states grow stronger, aiding refugees, and limiting our actions to supporting local forces and reprisals, we will act in anger and do precisely the opposite — ignore other fragile states, turn against refugees, and waste money and effort in counter-productive military actions by western nations against ISIS. These are precisely the actions that will strengthen ISIS, not defeat it. Yet once again our lack of strategic vision and understanding, and our inclinations to act in haste and anger as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, threaten to make the defeat of Western interests more likely.