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." 


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.