ISIS is being squeezed in its Middle-Eastern strongholds. It’s been driven out of Sirte in Libya; slowly but surely, Iraqi forces are tightening the noose around Mosul; Arab and Kurdish fighters are moving on its Syrian base in Raqqa. Yet the group has proved resilient. ISIS’s retaking of Palmyra, nine months after Russia claimed victory in the ancient Syrian city, was the most recent illustration of its ability to comeback from defeat.
Even if the military advance against it in the Middle East continues, ISIS will still be dangerous. Pushed out of Iraq and Syria, its operatives will look for other targets. Intelligence services fear hundreds of foreign fighters will return to Europe with murderous intent. The unabated carnage in Syria – including the looming defeat of rebel forces in Aleppo – risks a wider radicalization of Sunni Muslims, pushing more towards ISIS or similar groups.
What can be done to finally defeat ISIS? Is it time for the West to hold its nose and strike a deal with Putin and Assad to crush the group on the battlefield? Beyond the military advance, can its radical ideology be countered? How can the West win the war of ideals in order to thwart ISIS’ appeal to new recruits?
We had a comment from Sarah, who said the only way to stop ISIS permanently is to counter their ideology. She asked what was the best way to do that and we put her question to Scott Stewart, Vice President of Tactical Analysis of Terrorism and Security at Stratfor, a US-based global intelligence company. How would he respond to Sarah?
I agree heartily that the key is countering their ideology. Perhaps the greatest weapon against the Islamic State’s utopian ideology is to reveal the reality of what they’ve done after they have conquered territory and ruled populations. They realize this and have enforced strict controls on the ability of people to get information out of the areas they control. They have executed people found to have unauthorized cell phones and SIM cards. They have denied people freedoms and have enforced their draconian version of Islam on people using the threat of violence and death.
They claim they will create a peaceful and just society, but the reality of life in Islamic State-controlled areas is anything but – and not only for non-Muslims and non-Sunnis. They have been very brutal against fellow Sunni Muslims. Indeed, their treatment of fellow Muslims has even made al Qaeda appear to be moderate.
Marco from Italy suggested defeating ISIS will ultimately require the West to end support for the regime in Saudi Arabia and its backing for ultra-conservative Islam around the world. We put his point to Pauline Massart, Deputy Director Security & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, and Vice President of Outreach and Operations at Women in International Security (WIIS) in Brussels:
With a different perspective, Hrvoje from Croatia argued that the West should support Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and ensure strong, stable governments in the Muslim world in order to defeat ISIS. How does Scott Stewart respond to Hrvoje?
The Assad government was one of the leading causes of the Islamic State’s growth. That’s not only due to the atrocities they have committed against the Syrian people, but also due to the malicious manner they released a number of high profile jihadists from prison in order to strengthen their argument that members of the Syrian opposition were ‘terrorists.’ The Assad regime also intentionally targeted moderate rebel groups to the benefit of the Islamic State. The reluctance of the West to take action against Assad, even after he used chemical weapons on his own population – a practice his government blatantly continues today – also led many Syrians to turn to jihadist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State, among others. So, I’d argue that the Islamic State would not have achieved the power it did in 2014 if the West had intervened earlier in Syria.
Defeating ISIS will involve a long, slow process of attrition to cut off its money supply and access to arms, argues Julia from Cyprus. We asked Pauline Massart about her thoughts on Julia’s suggestion:
Can the World find the right mix of policies to destroy ISIS? How can the military push in the Middle East, counter-terrorism at home and political moves to confront ISIS’s ideology of hate be best combined? Who are the West’s best allies in the fight against the extremists? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!