The highly proficient and well-funded Islamic State group is steadily being dismantled thanks to US-led Coalition airstrikes, regional security forces, tightening financial roadblocks, and the inability of the Islamic State to govern the self-proclaimed “caliphate” it created out of seized territory.
Mounting victories against the group do not, however, mean the Islamic State organization is being destroyed. Efforts to tackle the Islamic State are certainly breaking down the operational capacity of the organization, but this simply means it is transitioning back into a traditional terrorist group.
Just as the Afghanistan Taliban ruled the territory of Afghanistan before US-led efforts degraded the extremist entity into a militant insurgency then further undermined its operational capacity to give the fledgling Afghan government a chance at surviving, the Islamic State is seeing the same regression back to its original form. Consequently, the campaign against the Islamic State must transition as well.
Because terrorist organizations do not need to defend “territory,” they can become highly mobile and function in isolated cells. Operating as a military attempting to defend its “caliphate,” the Islamic State is no match against Coalition military might. Operating as a terrorist group, the Islamic State becomes increasingly difficult to target while successful missions can only be expected to eliminate a handful of Islamic State fighters and a small amount of its capacity.
In accordance, the campaign against the Islamic State can only be expected to grow increasingly expensive in terms of financial costs, manpower, and collateral damage. Unfortunately, this means the Islamic State will see several opportunities for victory in the coming months to years. In the long-term, however, the greatest threat to the campaign against the Islamic State will be the resolve of those fighting the Islamic State.
Where Western countries are willing, for now, to bear the financial costs of air support and weapons for fighters on the ground, there is little desire to provide ground troops. Although the Obama Administration has been willing to deploy an increasing number of “trainers” and other advisers on the ground in Iraq, the American People do not want to see a repeat of the disastrous, economically devastating War in Iraq under the Bush Administration.
To boot, international and regional allies seem to share that same reluctance. With that in mind, the campaign against the Islamic State began with the hope that Iraq’s own troops could be retrained in a reasonable amount of time while training and supporting the Syrian Free Army could help prevent the Islamic State from seeking shelter in Syria.
Regrettably, estimates from US commanders suggest a minimum timeline of three years for Iraqi troops to be trained, though there are no guarantees as their training throughout the decade-long Iraq War bared little fruit. The Free Syrian Army also has its own organizational challenges. As with Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq, there are serious concerns that extremist elements within the Free Syrian Army pose a greater long-term threat than the Islamic State.
Sadly, the only consistently reliable ground force in the region able to fight the Islamic State seems to be the Kurdish Peshmerga. Because Kurdish territory spans across multiple countries, the strengthening of the long disenfranchised Kurds sets in motion a conflict between Kurdish forces and regional governments while extremism within Sunni and Shiite ranks points to a regional sectarian war.
That said, the governments and militaries of Iraq and Syria are likely going to be far too weak to assert their dominance over Kurdish territory for years to come. Depending on what leadership within Iraq and Syria do, they may well collapse further into weakly governed territories in need of strong support from more stable neighbors.
If regional Kurds can organize effective political leadership, they could become a dominate power in their neighborhood. Should Turkey with its increasingly oppressive President Erdogan decide to treat the rise of the Kurds as a burgeoning threat, the ensuing conflict would eliminate any stability within the vicinity of Turkey. In turn, groups like the Islamic State would take advantage of such chaos to reassert themselves.
Fortunately, Middle Eastern countries are beginning to recognize the value of the nation-state and the need to provide for regional security. If regional efforts to tackle the Islamic State are truly sincere and sustainable, there may well be enough willingness on behalf of regional leaders to keep the Turkish government in check.
Given the Kurds appear to be the best chance of providing stable governance in the Iraq–Syria neighborhood, governments of Muslim-dominated countries may well even be persuaded to support the rise of Kurdish political influence. Iran, of course, is unlikely to tolerate the loss of its Kurdish territory, but a unified Middle East supporting the Kurds could help subdue Iran’s response to a Kurdish uprising.
Considering many of the problems within the Middle East are rooted in discontent among the populous, governments willing to support efforts to tackle terrorism and extremism in general is not enough. The People in the region need to see value in supporting their governments, i.e. do their governments serve them, and fighting extremists.
With the Islamic State transitioning back into a transitional terrorist organization, government efforts to combat the Islamic State will grow increasingly reliant on the support of average citizens. Boldly exemplified by the Arab Spring protests, the governments of the Middle East have too often failed to serve the interests of their Peoples.
At the same time, the Middle East is plagued by sectarian conflicts and ongoing grievances. Israel, which serves as a clear-cut example, has a powerful and highly effective military that could do a lot to degrade the operational capacity of the Islamic State as a military force and terrorist organization.
Due to Israeli’s conflict with Hamas, which often features an extremely heavy-handed, indiscriminate use of force against the Palestinian People, Israel’s involvement in the fight against the Islamic State could rally support for the Islamic State. As it is, the Islamic State has recently managed to assimilate three groups of Syrian rebels as they move closer to war with Israel.
Consequently, leaders of the region need to put aside ongoing disputes and deeply entrenched grievances with other countries in order to prioritize the true threats to their national and regional security. In turn, they must rally support among their People by addressing their grievances.
For Israel, this means focusing on its broader security threats and seeking reconciliation with the Palestinian People, so regional powers can treat Israel as an ally against extremism instead of a leper assured to drive public outrage. For governments like the Assad regime, this means giving up power, so terrorism can be the only objective of war. For other nations of the region, it means focusing on broader regional concerns and human needs rather than cultural and other traditional divisions.
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