Daesh or ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any state except Syria and Iraq. It occupies and controls ungoverned space in the region between Iraq and Syria and in parts of northern Africa; and its self-proclaimed Caliphate has benefited from the seizure of some income producing assets in these areas. Daesh depends on the dynamism of success and expansion, both of which have been in short supply of late.
Daesh does represent a substantial international terrorism threat, as evidenced in Paris, Istanbul, Beirut and Sharm el-Sheikh. As my Princeton colleague Bernard Heykal has pointed out, it is Daesh’s increasing failure on the conventional battlefield that has driven it to adopt a different page from its playbook: to instill fear through international terrorism, to goad the West into a military onslaught, and to force the West to change its lifestyle and expend new funds in the counterterrorism effort.
Daesh has learned and assimilated the lessons of Al-Qaeda’s fleeting success. Since it does not depend on a state sponsor, as al-Qaeda depended on the Taliban-led Afghan state, Daesh’s setbacks have not yet forced them to retreat to the mountains and have not yet led to its fragmentation. Daesh has also benefited from advances in technology – better security of communications through encryption, better public relations, and better recruitment techniques – making it a more formidable challenge for the West and for its Arab and Iranian enemies.
The West’s response to the terrorism threat posed by Daesh needs to be carefully crafted to exploit the comparative advantages of manpower, resources, freedom of movement, and international legitimacy. Indeed, the most important element in any anti-Daesh strategy will be to avoid playing into Daesh’s game plan, to be smarter and wiser in what, how, where, and when actions are undertaken to degrade Daesh and reverse its gains. This will require a very long term commitment, decades not years, in order to provide time for complementary social, economic and educational actions among disaffected Arab and Muslim populations to dry up Daesh’s recruitment base, in conjunction with the degradation of its military and terrorism capabilities. “Defeat” cannot be the West’s realistic short term objective; rather the focus must be on degrading Daesh’s strengths and shrinking its reach.
Everyone is an armchair general, and thus there are scores of military strategies being bandied about. In thinking about strategy, it would be wise to consider a core conclusion from a “red team” exercise undertaken by the Atlantic Council, namely that Daesh’s most important objectives are survival and long-term relevance. Thus, the West’s response must be constructed to meet these challenges.
The most effective starting point, in my view, is to focus on the strategy developed by retired U.S. General John Allen, who until recently was President Obama’s special envoy to lead the international coalition against Daesh. Working closely with the Department of State and other U.S. government agencies, and coordinating with and assimilating recommendations from the large multinational coalition that he had helped to assemble, Allen developed a textured and comprehensive approach to the problem. He told U.S. lawmakers, during Congressional testimony, that there is an option of massive U.S. and allied troop deployment to the region, and that such a force would prevail militarily over the much weaker Daesh armed elements. However, he also made brutally clear that such deployment of forces would engage the United States and others in a very prolonged occupation, necessary to hold and ensure long term stability in liberated areas. For Allen, reflecting the policies of the Obama administration, this was a non-starter.
Rather, Allen developed over time a multi-pronged approach that sought to degrade Daesh’s military capabilities, reduce substantially the amount of territory and economic resources under Daesh’s control, impact Daesh’s finances, recruitment capabilities, and public affairs, and start working on underlying social-economic issues which created an atmosphere conducive to Daesh’s message. This is a smart strategy, and it remains the smartest way to conduct our approach vis-à-vis Daesh.
The elements of such an integrated, multi-dimensional strategy are known; and they are not easy. They include:
- Treat Daesh as a regional issue, not state by state. This means engaging as many regional states as possible in the coordination of this approach.
- Empower indigenous forces and build their capacity to act in their own interests. If the United States and the West are unlikely to deploy ground troops, this burden will continue to fall on regional parties, in coordination with U.S. and Western air power.
- Deny ISIS ability to operate within territory it previously controlled, i.e., keep encircling ISIS and pushing them back from whatever territorial gains they have made.
- Control transportation and logistics nodes. The importance of closing the Turkish border cannot be overstated.
- Target leadership (direct action) to disrupt operational effectiveness. Allen made clear in recent Congressional testimony that the killing of Daesh leaders has impaired their ability to plan, organize and act.
- Intensify information warfare, both to overcome new encryption capabilities and to disrupt Daesh’s ability to use social media.
- Hit at Daesh’s financial base and its financial flows, an arduous process of bringing international banking and financial institutions, as well as governments, in line with the effort.
- Create and fund a serious stabilization fund, particularly for Iraq, to ensure essential services in areas cleared of Daesh forces.
- Intensify the social media and public information campaign to impact recruitment.
- Keep plugging away in the Vienna process at a diplomatic pathway to resolve the Syrian civil war, so that international (specifically, Russian) policies and actions align with the international campaign against Daesh.
- Perhaps most importantly but also most challenging, focus more resources and efforts on the underlying social and economic causal factors that promote instability, frustration and radicalization, and which provide Daesh fertile ground to build support.