The Master Plan: How to Stop ISIS

Here is a hint: It is not all about a military solution, but a shared Arab identity.

This coming December will mark the fourth anniversary of the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. This event ignited the revolution in Tunisia, and then sparked similar uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. While Bouazizi’s desperate act was the event which sparked the uprisings, the underlying cause was smoldering resentment against oppressive, illegitimate Arab governments and economic privation. What was stunning about these demonstrations was that in most countries, they were conducted in the spirit of nonviolence, secularism, justice and unity of purpose. What is seldom commented on, but no less profound, was that at some level, the viral spread of these revolts across the Arab world spoke to a shared political identity that cut across state boundaries. While it would be a stretch to interpret this as a sign of an Arab nationalist revival, it should be viewed as an indication that at least at the subliminal level, a shared Arab identity was part of the political consciousness of the region.

Four years later, the spirit of the Arab Spring has been lost, hijacked by Islamists like former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi who initially masqueraded as a pragmatic leader, but proved to be an Islamic ideologue, and radical groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which claims to be reversing the injustice done by the colonial powers at the end of the First World War, while imposing its own injustices on religious minorities, women and secular Muslims amidst the civil wars raging in Syria and Iraq. ISIS has clearly been the most flagrant in breaching the spirit of the Arab Spring by using brutal tactics that make even Al Qaeda wince, and exploiting the civil wars to impose a Sunni based Caliphate that further threatens Iraq, Syria and the broader region.

The question being asked in Washington, in the capitals of Europe and across the Middle East, is what will it take to vanquish or at least seriously hobble this organization? The answer coming from the Obama administration is that a combination of surgical airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, military support for the Kurds, and political reform in Baghdad is what is needed. The hope is that the incoming Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will be less blatantly sectarian and more inclusive of the Sunnis than outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who, it has been argued, bears primary responsibility for driving many Sunni leaders into the arms of ISIS.

These military and political steps are in fact necessary to staunch the advance of ISIS, but they are likely to be inadequate. While under Prime Minister designate al-Abadi some Sunni tribal leaders have expressed a willingness to shift support away from ISIS, the window for wholesale co-optation and reconciliation has likely closed. Despite some setbacks, such as the loss of the Mosul Dam to Iraqi and Kurdish forces made possible by U.S. airstrikes, ISIS still continues to show momentum. It is expanding its ranks of jihadist fighters through impressively sophisticated and successful recruitment campaigns in Syria, Iraq, the broader Middle East, the Caucasus, Europe and even the United States. Moreover, it is trumping the once formidable Al Qaeda in terms of attracting resources and recruits to its cause.

Furthermore, ISIS’ main base of operations is in Syria, rendering an Iraq-only solution ineffective. This puts Washington in a bind. While the United States has entered the fray in Iraq to help battle ISIS, it has been unwilling so far to extend that mission to Syria, partially because of its stated policy that the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad lacks legitimacy and must go. The conundrum for policy makers is how can the United States actively oppose ISIS in Syria when it too is committing forces to the fight against the Syrian government?

So given this, how can ISIS be defeated and further destabilization prevented? In addition to the much-needed military and political measures already taking place, the most effective way to defeat ISIS and prevent the further disintegration of Iraq is to tap into a latent Arab identity that admittedly has been drowned out by narrower, more sectarian layers of identity in Iraq and Syria, but remains the best hope for breaking the spell of the extremist ideas propagated by ISIS. While Nasser-style Arab nationalism as a political movement is a relic of the 1950s and 1960s and a nonstarter today, Arab identity as a part of the political consciousness can still be a powerful unifying force that can combat ISIS in the future and perhaps pave a positive way forward for Iraq and even Syria.