On the face of it, the Islamic State is already in retreat. Over the past year, the militant organization lost territory and key bastions in Iraq and Syria, and is being squeezed out of its greatest prize, the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Its ranks are dwindling, its access to illicit smuggling networks have shrunk and its viability as a rogue political project is evaporating. But its capacity to launch brazen terrorist attacks around the world and inspire extremists through the Internet means that it is far from finished.
Even if the Islamic State loses all or most of its territory, suggests a new study, “ISIS would still be able to exploit Sunni discontent and foment sectarian tension over the next five to ten years in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and potentially beyond.” The report, titled “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Beyond,” was published Dec. 12 by the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan, federally funded organization based in Washington. (ISIS is another name for the extremist group.)
President-elect Donald Trump signaled throughout the election campaign his intent to wholly destroy the Islamic State. But as the study reveals, truly quashing extremism would require a level of engagement in the region and policy nuance that Trump has so far not demonstrated.
“Eliminating an extremist group physically does not defang its ideology or change the underlying circumstances that allowed the group to gain traction in the first place,” the report concludes. It was co-written by journalist Robin Wright and a who's who cast of Washington's leading experts on the Middle East. “Reconstruction, rehabilitation, and particularly reconciliation are just as important as any military counterterrorism campaign in building societal resilience against the appeal of extremism. Failure to carry out these steps has been a recurrent problem.”
At a speech in North Carolina last week, Trump decried the “destructive cycle of intervention and chaos” triggered by the United States in the Middle East, most notably following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” Trump said. “Instead, our focus must be on fighting terrorism and destroying ISIS.”
It's not clear yet how Trump's policy in the region would mark a real departure from that of the current administration. President Obama has hardly “raced” to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose imploding nation became fertile ground for Islamic State activities. Despite tepid support for a number of Syrian rebel factions, the White House staked its hopes for peace in Syria on a fitful and largely unfruitful process of diplomatic talks. Meanwhile, it has waged a withering air war on Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria.
Trump's desire to detach from the geopolitical intricacies of the Middle East — and focus purely on a military solution — ignores the circumstances that gave rise to this extremist insurgency. In both Iraq and Syria, shoddy governance and deepening sectarian divisions in societies where coexistence had largely been the norm fanned the flames of Sunni extremism.
“Marginalizing extremism requires creating a political environment in which jihadism has less and less appeal over time,” the report says. It also warns that we ought to expect more, not less, Arab political instability in the years to come: “Virtually every type of government — including the new democracy in Tunisia, the military-based government in Egypt, the fragile republic in Iraq, and dynastic rule in the Gulf — is vulnerable.”
Instead, Trump and some of his top advisers have harped on the ideology of the militants, linking their rise to pathologies within Islam, writ large. They speak less of the complex range of social factors outlined in the report that drive extremism, including youth unemployment and growing disillusionment in societies with flagging economies and asphyxiating politics.
The Islamic State's “propaganda specifically outlines a strategy to destroy peaceful coexistence within diverse societies,” says the report, nodding indirectly to anti-Muslim rhetoric among nationalist politicians in the West. “Increased hostility towards Muslims in the United States, including refugees fleeing wars in Muslim countries, could fuel radicalization or push those who are already radicalized to act violently.”
The report also suggests that a heavy-handed military approach — Trump's proverbial “bomb the s--- out of them” method — could backfire.
“In the future, the militant agenda is likely to be heavily defined by where and how — and how much — the outside world intrudes,” it reads, as was the case in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. “The larger the intervention, especially by the West, the greater the reaction.”
Trump is right in arguing that the crises of the region are not for the United States to solve alone. But in his messaging about the Middle East, he has yet to communicate an appreciation of the tangled rivalries that frame its conflicts.
A different report put out last week by the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank, warns that pushing too hard against the Islamic State in eastern Syria could trigger a new conflagration involving the Syrian regime, Turkey and rebel Kurdish factions backed by Washington.
“The United States has little choice but to fight Islamic State with one hand and, with the other, try to avoid a confrontation that could destabilize Turkey and provide a new opening for Islamic State,” writes Sam Heller, a fellow at the Century Foundation.
As the conflict rumbles on, the United States will have to reckon with the ongoing humanitarian calamity in Syria and Iraq, which could spawn untold havoc in years to come.
“Syria’s war has already deformed Syrian society and the broader Middle East. Many of the war’s destructive effects — in particular, the physical and psychological damage done to the Syrian people — are impossible to fully reverse,” Heller writes. “But what is done to alleviate and mitigate them will be hugely important both in human terms and for the future stability of the region.”
That's a challenge that Trump — who has reacted to Syrian refugees far more out of fear than empathy — may be unwilling to meet.
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