Newsflash: Time Is Running Out to Defeat ISIS

August 21, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: ISISTerrorismDefense

Newsflash: Time Is Running Out to Defeat ISIS

"A brutal battle against nationalist identity is being waged by ISIS, and a response is needed before it is too late." 

Turkey’s recent decision to permit American warplanes to use the Incirlik base to launch air attacks is a much needed shot in the arm for the Obama administration’s battle against ISIS. But alone it is unlikely to be the game changer the United States hopes for. Any strategy is doomed to failure if it ignores that ISIS is not merely killing people, but also killing the ideas that have served as the region’s defense mechanism against Islamic extremism for the past several decades. While the U.S.-led coalition is focused on rolling back ISIS from territory it has captured in Iraq and Syria, it is missing the fact that this group’s strategy is to systematically destroy the idea of the nation and nationalist identity as the organizing principles for the Middle East. And ISIS is playing out this strategy in Syria and Iraq, currently the soft underbelly of the Arab world, where national bonds have already been weakened by colonial legacies and civil wars. Unless ISIS’s strategy is countered, it is quite possible that the ideological carnage could spread more widely throughout the region, weakening even stronger countries with more coherent national identities, like Turkey and Egypt. While the United States can’t fight the ideological battle directly, by using military and diplomatic means it can buy the time necessary for regional leaders to marshal a response and launch a more effective ideological counterattack. If this doesn’t occur, it is possible that the ideological damage inflicted by ISIS could become permanent, even if the group itself is eventually defeated.

What is striking is that ISIS’s strategy comes right out of the playbook used by the West nearly one hundred years ago. At the highest level, ISIS’s strategy is to reverse the historical turn that occurred when the Ottoman Empire, the last recognized Islamic caliphate, was brought to its knees in part by the rise of Arab and Turkish nationalism, and the exploitation of this new phenomenon by the British and French. It would be fair to say that nationalism was one of the most potent weapons used to bring down an already decaying Ottoman Empire. ISIS is now turning the tables, using political Islam and the lure of a new caliphate as weapons to undermine the current weakened nationalist order in the Arab Middle East. It is tapping into a belief that the pre-nationalist Islamic era represents the glorious halcyon days for the Arab world, while the later era in which secular nationalism flourished was one of decline and foreign domination. And these ideas aren’t just propagated through ISIS’s slick communication strategy, but are also integrated into a military strategy that is aimed at destroying any vestiges of nationalist identity. And by so doing, it is leaving large swaths of the region ideologically defenseless against the ideas and depraved practices of ISIS.

To fully grasp the significance of what ISIS is doing, it is important to unpack how the battle this jihadist organization is waging is different from earlier rivalries between Islamic groups and secular nationalists in the Middle East. In the past, political Islamic movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, competed vigorously with their secular-nationalist counterparts over which group had the legitimacy to spearhead the struggle for self-determination and independence from colonial rule. The Brotherhood attracted followers starting in the 1930s, not by challenging the idea of Egypt as a nation-state, but by positioning itself as more authentic and uncompromising in opposing foreign interference than its secular-nationalist competitors. Followers didn’t necessarily view support for the Brotherhood as a repudiation of nationalism, but rather as a tilt towards a purer expression of nationalist principles. The competition between nationalism and political Islam wasn’t won or lost primarily on the basis of ideology (religion vs. secular nationalism) but rather by which was the best receptacle for political ambitions.

In contrast to these earlier Islamic movements, the ISIS phenomenon is more ideologically menacing in that it isn’t just competing with nationalism for legitimacy, but is actually waging a regional war against it. Given the Arab world’s ambivalent relationship with nationalism historically, ISIS has some comparative advantages in this ideological battle. In other words, it isn’t just ISIS’s strength, but also nationalism’s vulnerability, that is allowing it to flourish.

Nationalism in the Arab World: A Checkered Past

A quick trip into the past will help illuminate how nationalism as a political idea has become more vulnerable over time, creating an opening for political Islam generally and for jihadist groups like ISIS specifically. There have been three phases in the development of nationalism in the Arab world. The first could be described as resistance nationalism. Arguably the best example of this was the Egyptian Wafd party in the early twentieth century under the charismatic leadership of Saad Zaghlul. During this period, the secular Wafd party resisted British rule and attracted an impressively large mass following, demonstrating that nationalism could be a powerful weapon against colonialism. The problems started when the nationalist Wafd, which had successfully brought formal colonial rule to an end, had to govern in an environment in which Britain continued to meddle in Egyptian state affairs. The upshot of this was that disillusionment grew, with many supporters (particularly the youth) defecting from the nationalist Wafd party to the Muslim Brotherhood, which had positioned itself as more authentic and resolute in its resistance to outside interference in Egypt. While the Wafd nationalist party still maintained part of its following, its legitimacy was tarnished and it became increasingly challenged by an emboldened Brotherhood, the legacy of which Egypt contends with to this day.

The second phase was populist nationalism as interpreted by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1950s-1960s.  In this phase it wasn’t state-based nationalism but the more regional notion of Arab nationalism which captured the political imagination of Egyptians and other Arabs across the region.  Nasser’s formula was to fuse his brand of populist Arab nationalism together with an authoritarian state, which allowed him to spread his message throughout Egyptian society and across the Arab world, while keeping detractors like the Muslim Brotherhood at bay. This enshrining of nationalism in the machinery of the modern state lasted until 1967, when the Arab world, under Nasser’s leadership, experienced a traumatic defeat in the war with Israel. Arab nationalism, and to some degree even state-based nationalism, became the victim of this historic defeat. That left a political vacuum creating an opening over time for political Islamic groups.

The third phase, which extended up until the Arab Spring of 2010-11, saw nationalist participation wrested from the hands of the populace and appropriated by authoritarian states. While these states failed to establish true legitimacy, they were successful in suppressing the forces of political Islam. In Mubarak’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria, and Hussein’s Iraq, political participation of almost any flavor was suppressed. During this period, nationalist sentiment was experienced by the populace only vicariously through the actions of the state. This formula was an effective bulwark against radical Islam, but unfortunately also suppressed secular nationalist groups.

By the time of the onset of the Arab Spring the third phase had run its course. Authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, who saw themselves as the vanguards of nationalism, presided over ossified regimes which collapsed under the weight of a sudden surge of mass political opposition. But this opposition was aimed at the leadership of the state, and was not a rejection of nationalism or the idea of the nation-state. In fact one could interpret the Arab Spring as a populist attempt to reclaim nationalism from the state, not as a move to undermine it or destroy the state. In Tunisia and Egypt, where the state apparatus survived but the leadership succumbed, nationalism shone through strong enough to keep political Islam from completely overtaking the historic moment, even though Islamists governed in both countries for a period of time. In Syria the opposite happened in that the state collapsed but the leadership survived. And the victim of this collapse of the state was nationalism. Having been ensconced in a praetorian state for so long, hermetically sealed and inaccessible to the populace, any nationalist sentiment that was still felt collapsed along with the state. With the state and nationalism broken, sectarianism which had always lurked just beneath the surface in both Iraq and Syria, was unleashed in the form of a violent civil war.

ISIS’s Strategy to Destroy Nationalism

This is the place in the story where ISIS enters center stage. ISIS neither created the political vacuums nor invented sectarian violence in Syria or Iraq. But it did fill the political vacuums already created by the collapse of the state and, particularly in Iraq, added fuel to the fires of sectarian violence by attacking Shia communities and holy sites. Both Syria and Iraq have always had a more tentative relationship with nationalism because of their provenance as European creations. By severing these already weakened nationalist bonds, ISIS has cut off almost all pathways to a future other than its self-proclaimed caliphate. The intent is to use this as a wedge with which to expand beyond its base in Iraq and Syria and weaken secular nationalist bonds in Lebanon, Jordan and in even more innately nationalistic countries like Egypt.

Much attention has been given to ISIS’s communication prowess and how its dogma is attracting recruits to its populist ideology. But what has been emphasized less is how ISIS’s assault on nationalist identity represents not just rhetoric, but a core part of its strategy. Nationalist identities are built on narratives, or in some cases myths, about a shared past and a promising future. ISIS’s strategy has centered on debunking the past in Syria and Iraq and portraying the caliphate as the inevitable future. A cursory examination of the two main pillars of this strategy will illuminate how its communication and military efforts are integrated and mutually reinforcing in trying to annihilate all forms of nationalist identity by attacking both the past and the future of nationalism as a social construct.

The first pillar of the strategy is to make the collapse of the boundaries between Iraq and Syria a fait accompli. The capture of the al-Waleed border crossing by ISIS this summer means that all major border crossings between the two countries are now under its control. While there is military significance to this feat, this is also a huge symbolic victory in that it erases boundaries which were established nearly one hundred years ago under the secret (and duplicitous) Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France. Breaching the artificial boundaries between Iraq and Syria is meant to erode any possible nationalist ties by delegitimizing the two separate states of Iraq and Syria, and by conveying the inevitability of the future being with the caliphate. And to reinforce the narrative that these boundaries are artificial and illegitimate, ISIS is highlighting this through Dabiq, its slickly produced English language magazine, and The End of Sykes-Picot, a video of the bulldozing of border posts between these two counties. By killing any hope or dream of a return to the past, it is driving a nail in the coffin of nationalist identity.

While the first pillar of the strategy involves delegitimizing the past and blocking any alternative pathway to the future other than the caliphate, the second pillar of the strategy is less about optics and more about sowing divisions within society, sundering any nationalist bonds that might possibly have survived the years of civil war. It does this by stoking Sunni-Shia tensions, mostly by attacking Shia communities and religious sites in Iraq. The idea is to break any common nationalist bonds that in the past existed between many Iraqi Sunni and Shia, but also to destabilize the government, making it easier for ISIS to make inroads. They have done this repeatedly in Iraq, where the tensions between Sunni and Shia are already raw from years of civil conflict, but have expanded this strategy to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with fresh attacks on Shia sites over this past summer.

Skeptics could argue that ISIS isn’t killing nationalism in Iraq, as you can’t kill something that never really existed. While it is true that many Shia saw Arab nationalism during the era of Saddam Hussein as a cover for Sunni hegemony, this doesn’t mean that both Sunni and Shia didn’t see themselves as part of a larger Iraqi and Arab community. During the Iran-Iraq war, Shia fighters constituted 80 percent of the Iraqi fighting force and fought valiantly against Iranian Shia forces under the banner of Arab nationalism. While there have been historical tensions between the Sunni and Shia, it should not be forgotten that in Iraq, like in most Arab countries, state-based Iraqi nationalism, Arab nationalism, tribal and religious identities coexist in a sort of multi-identity stew. What ISIS has done by sowing sectarian tensions is try to systematically remove any secular identities from that stew that might bind Sunni and Shia Iraqis together.

Can Nationalism be Resurrected?

Is it perhaps too late to launch an effective ideological counteroffensive, given the damage inflicted by years of civil war and the depredations by ISIS?  Is it possible that the mental maps of the region already have been irrevocably altered and that there is no pathway back to any form of secular-nationalist basis for political community? Or are there still latent secular bonds that can ultimately challenge the perceived inevitability of an ISIS caliphate?

The best way to address these questions is to look at some outcomes that might be plausible. It is highly unlikely that a complete return to the status quo ante is possible in Iraq and Syria given the damage inflicted by years of civil war and the effects of ISIS. But while Iraq and Syria are imperfect receptacles for political identity, there are few good alternatives to the survival of these states. Ideas put forward by some that Syria will break up into rump Christian, Alawi, and Sunni states, and that Iraq will splinter into separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states misread the geopolitical realities of the region. First, this would likely lead to further instability and bloodshed in the region, as none of these identity communities fall neatly into homogeneous geographic regions.  Second, none of these groups are themselves politically homogeneous so statehood isn’t a guaranteed hedge against violence. Third, with the exception of the Kurds, none of these would be viable as stand-alone states in a neighborhood where weakness invites penetration from stronger regional powers. In other words, state fragmentation might lead to a competition for the spoils between the great powers of the region, which itself could be destabilizing. Fourth, it isn’t clear that the regional powers would support balkanization of the Arab heartland, given the instability that might ensue. So unless a better alternative can be found, the short-term goal should be to prevent a further collapse of these two states and to negotiate a settlement in Syria.

Resurrecting the state might be the easy part. How is it possible to knit back together societies that have undergone such destruction, divisiveness and terror? One possible pathway would be the Lebanon model, where a social contract substitutes for an overarching national identity. The social contract established in Lebanon after decades of civil war didn’t arise because the claims and grievances between Maronite Christians, and Sunni and Shia Muslims were resolved or reconciled, but because the alternatives were unthinkable. Without some form of modus vivendi in Lebanon, the options would have been a continuation of civil war, or complete and permanent penetration by Syria and Israel. While tenuous and imperfect, this social contract has kept Lebanon reasonably intact, despite the civil war next door in Syria, and an influx of over one million Syrian refugees. In the case of Syria and Iraq, the alternatives in a post-conflict period wouldn’t be much better than they were in Lebanon at the end of its civil war, so the best we might hope for is some form of social contract. 

Since state-based identities may be irreparably damaged, the big elephant in the room is whether Arab nationalism could in fact be an antidote to the ideological war waged by ISIS. We can pretty much rule out a return to a Nasser-era populist movement that promoted regional political unity at the expense of individual states. This vision of Arabism as formal political unity frayed after the failed experiment with political unification between Egypt and Syria in 1961, and died completely in the wake of the disastrous 1967 war with Israel. But a resurgence of Arab nationalism manifested more in cultural terms shouldn’t be ruled out. In fact it could be argued that this was evident during the headier and more optimistic days of the Arab spring. The shared identity that bound the youth in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria in their protests could be interpreted as a strain of Arab nationalist sentiment. 

Paradoxically, by breaking through what were thought to be artificial state boundaries, ISIS may have paved the path for a resurgence of Arab nationalism. ISIS’s notion of a caliphate and Arab nationalism are both ideologies that transcend current political boundaries. Given the need for ideas that could challenge ISIS and underpin a new regional order, the time may be right for Arab nationalism to be a kind of palliative that could provide an alternative to the brutal, divisive ideologies of ISIS. A form of neo-Arab nationalism wouldn’t necessarily be a challenge to or negation of an Iraqi and Syrian state, but actually could relieve some of the pressure on reconstituted Syria and Iraq by eliminating the pretension that these states are perfect vessels for containing political aspirations. While from where we sit today this seems fanciful and implausible, as Lawrence Wright wrote in the New Yorker recently, “The great Arab civilization of modern time still awaits its champion.”

How does U.S. Strategy Need to Change?

What can the United States and its coalition partners do to end an ideological war against nationalism? While there is little the United States can do directly to restore or invigorate nationalist principles or shape the local dynamics of political identity, what the U.S. and its coalition partners can do is buy some time, which could create the breathing room necessary for local actors to marshal the resources and the will to challenge ISIS on the ideological front.

There are several changes to the U.S. strategy that need to be adopted. The first is to make one of the key military objectives the restoration of the border crossings between Iraq and Syria. This is not to suggest the current focus on the part of the U.S. to work with Turkey in creating an ISIS-free zone in northern Syria, or to prepare the Iraqi military for an eventual assault on Ramadi and Mosul, is wrongheaded in any way. Rolling back ISIS from these major strongholds is an imperative. But an additional emphasis should be placed on recapturing border crossings between Iraq and Syria which have fallen to ISIS. While on the surface this may not appear to be of militarily strategic significance for the U.S. and its coalition partners, it would be a strategic setback for ISIS because of the symbolic value attached to controlling these border crossings. Recapturing the border crossings deprives ISIS of the narrative that the caliphate has obliterated the two countries of Iraq and Syria, and their nationalist identities, by breaching the Sykes-Picot line. It sends a message that Syria and Iraq may not be mere relics of the past. While this doesn’t necessarily deal a body blow to ISIS’s military capability, it does represent a symbolic defeat and could help break the momentum of its recruitment capabilities. Moreover, it could be a necessary, albeit insufficient, step in restoring some semblance of sovereignty to Iraq and Syria.

The military focus of this strategy for now should be on the Iraqi side of the border. Syria is obviously important, particularly now that Turkey has entered the fray, but Iraq should be the centerpiece of military efforts. While the U.S. backed coalition lacks significant ground assets in Syria and still needs to deconflict its policy of opposing Assad with its ISIS strategy, it already has significant assets on the ground in Iraq. The Kurdish Peshmerga force and the Iraqi military, both of which the U.S. is equipping and training, are the primary assets that will need to be marshaled to recover border crossings and achieve other military objectives. Moreover, U.S., Saudi and Iranian interests are for the most part aligned in Iraq, all backing the current government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. While not yet formally coordinated with U.S.-led efforts, Iran’s presence through the al-Quds force of the IRGC and its support for the Iraqi Shia militias further add to the ground power arrayed against ISIS. And in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, the prospects for greater cooperation in this area are improved.

The second pillar of the strategy involves working strenuously on the diplomatic front with both Iran and Saudi Arabia to break the momentum of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, which ISIS is stoking in an attempt to atomize societies and break nationalist bonds. It is true that the civil wars in Iraq and Syria have involved proxy battles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and that these two regional powers fed the sectarian strife that ISIS is now exploiting. But it is important to keep in mind that both Saudi Arabia and Iran were motivated to enter these proxy contests in Syria and Iraq more by a determination not to let one another gain the regional upper hand than by religious or ideological differences. And it should also be kept in mind that, these animosities aside, Iran and Saudi Arabia both recognize now that ISIS has stolen the initiative in these battles and that this organization has morphed into a regional threat.

While it is unrealistic to expect that as a result of U.S. diplomacy Saudi Arabia and Iran will somehow put their animosities aside in time to counter ISIS’s strategy, there have been some positive developments in this area. Recent meetings between Russia (which backs Iran’s efforts in Syria) and Saudi Arabia, and three-way meetings between Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States could point the way towards greater cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in countering ISIS’s strategy to disrupt the regional order.

One of the things the U.S. should push for is a public repudiation by Iranian and Saudi officials of ISIS’s religious ideology and the sectarian violence it is exploiting. Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has made conciliatory statements towards Saudi Arabia as of late, arguing that it is incumbent on the clergy in both countries to invite moderation as a way to counter the extremist messages of ISIS. Rafsanjani may be a lone voice among the ruling elite in Iran, and the Saudis have shown little proclivity to reciprocate. But nonetheless the emphasis of U.S. diplomacy should be on having top, influential Sunni and Shia voices from the region publicly and repeatedly repudiate the messages of ISIS. While the U.S. is currently involved with a strategy with the UAE to get moderate clerics to discredit ISIS, the power of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the two Islamic heavyweights, would be a far more legitimate and robust counterweight to ISIS’s ideological warfare.

The third part of the strategy will be controversial in many parts of the Arab world, particularly in Cairo. But eventual rehabilitation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could be an effective bulwark against the spread of ISIS. The danger is that if kept underground, certain cells of the Brotherhood might break away and align with ISIS out of desperation. If the Brotherhood could eventually resume its role as the unofficial opposition, it could close the space that was dangerously left open after the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and that ISIS hankering to fill. Before it is too late, the United States should be having discussions with the Egyptian government about using the more moderate Brotherhood as a bulwark against the more extremist and violent ISIS. While this is unrealistic today given the blood-feud between the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Brotherhood, further inroads into Egypt by ISIS in the future might just create an opportunity for a rapprochement.


A brutal battle against nationalist identity is being waged by ISIS, and a response is needed before it is too late. The United States can’t completely own the response to this ideological challenge. Through an adaptation of its military strategy and use of its diplomatic muscle, the U.S. can open up some of the political spaces closed by ISIS. But it cannot fill those spaces, as nation-building and rebuilding must be done by local and regional leaders. That much we have learned from Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. But a United States role is indispensable in helping restore border crossings between Iraq and Syria, and in enabling local ground forces to recapture major towns and cities, both of which will contribute to breaking the perception of the inevitability of the caliphate. And it can work to delegitimize the sectarian conflict created by ISIS through diplomatic efforts with Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Taken together, these moves can buy some time and open up opportunities for nationalists to challenge the extremist dogma of ISIS. Perhaps this space and time buffer might just be enough to empower regional leaders to challenge the significant threat ISIS poses to the regional order, and possibly to enable citizens to reclaim the original nationalist spirit of the Arab Spring.

Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is a nonresident scholar at The Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Ross is also on the faculty of the political science department at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in  Middle Eastern politics. Harrison authored Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books, 2013).

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Air Force/