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Opinion: ISIS cannot be ‘contained’ | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Demonstrators chant pro-ISIS slogans as they carry the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul on June 16, 2014. (AP Photo, File)

By the time this article goes to print, the battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani, or Ain Al-Arab as it is known in Arabic, may have reached its logical conclusion with the collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) campaign to seize it.

The fate of Kobani has clung between two possible outcomes; the fall of the city to ISIS terrorists or the city’s defenders successfully repelling this attack. Airstrikes by the US and its allies have tipped the scales in favor of the defenders, in this battle at least. As for the war effort as a whole, there is still a long way to go.

Despite all this, ISIS continues to advance in parts of Iraq, seeking soft targets. The group is now pushing in the direction of Baghdad and expanding its assault on the less populated areas in the western governorate of Anbar. ISIS has no intention of laying down its weapons or surrendering. It will persist in its drive to consolidate and expand its positions in Iraq and Syria.

And it will continue to act as a model and an important source of inspiration for similar organizations that are working to achieve the same ends whether in Derna in Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula or elsewhere in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and the Western Sahara.

ISIS has managed to achieve all this not out of tenacity or tactical flexibility but rather because its adversaries have yet to agree on an appropriate strategy to deal with the group and the extremism that it is espousing. The world does not know how to deal with ISIS’s use of extremist ideology, violence and terrorism to spread its ideas across all quarters of the Islamic world.

Because ISIS’s objectives seemed so outlandish, hailing as they do from the Dark Ages, it was initially difficult to take them seriously. But this is not the first time in history that the world has been forced to confront what initially had appeared to be an implausible or strange idea.

When Nazism and fascism first emerged, international public opinion scoffed. As these ideas coalesced into organizations that did not bother to hide their racist intentions, the world continued to shrug this off with a smirk.

Even when these organizations began to flex their muscles in violent tests of their strength, the phenomenon was portrayed as a form of impetuous hot-hotheadedness. It was only later that the world woke up to the true nature of the threat it was facing and the murderous and genocidal motives that drove it.

While Washington did sense the danger from ISIS, it did not judge it with the required degree of severity and, therefore, it has restricted its approach to “limited” airstrikes, adamantly ruling out “boots on the ground.”

Accordingly, the international and regional coalition have undertaken a series of airstrikes targeting ISIS but left the ground campaign to the Iraqi army—which had suffered from years of attrition—and to the Peshmerga—in spite of many years of inactivity. Therefore, as praiseworthy as these steps may be, they are not enough to confront the threat.

This strategy shows an insufficient appreciation of the levels of savagery and barbarity that we have seen, and which we will continue to see over the coming days, months and years. One consequence of this strategic short-sightedness is the appalling position taken by Ankara. This was epitomized by the image of Turkish tanks standing silently along the border overlooking Kobani all the while ISIS forces massacred inhabitants of the city. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Kurds fled their homes for the border where Turkish forces screened them for affiliation to the party of Abdullah Öcalan.

Writing in The Washington Post, on 16 October, Fareed Zakariya argues that the idea of ultimately defeating ISIS is not possible in light of the realities on the ground. The only feasible alternative, he writes, is “containment”, acknowledging ISIS’s gains and preventing it from expanding further.

Containment was the policy that the West put into practice with the USSR from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But the Soviet Union was a vast empire consisting of 15 republics that had all revolved around imperial Russia during the Czarist era and that all subscribed to the universal ideology that took over central and eastern Europe, spread to East Asia and attracted minds around the world.

We should add that the USSR possessed nuclear arms. ISIS is a far cry from that. But it does represent groups from similar backgrounds and, hence, is best compared to cancerous cells that need to be cut out.

In this type of war there are certain matters that need to be taken into consideration when formulating a successful strategy. The first is the need to understand the nature of the enemy. If this nature includes a high degree of flexibility to shift from one front to another then it is important to strip the enemy of this advantage.

Perhaps, it is not ideal to launch a direct offensive against ISIS in this manner. By focusing on rapidly defeating other fronts it will be possible to cut off ISIS’s sources of manpower and its ability to open other new fronts in this multifaceted conflict.

Second, it is important to bear in mind that time is not necessarily in favor of ISIS. Time is in favor of the side that best exploits this condition. In this case, this entails putting paid to ISIS’s belief that the regional and international coalition against it will gradually peter out.

The third consideration is that, according to all criteria, the balance of forces is not in ISIS’s favor. However, ISIS will be able to overcome this issue if it manages to overturn the operational balances of forces in the field in its own favor. It is essential to prevent this scenario, not only by means of defensive battles to protect cities and villages under threat, but also through offensive battles to liberate territory under ISIS control. We must do this before ISIS succeeds in developing limited air power or seizes control of chemical weapons—both of which are available in Iraq and Syria.

Fourth, we should bear in mind that ISIS has been successful in capitalizing on the political situations in Iraq, Syria and other countries of the region, in a way that keeps the regional and international coalition in a state of confusion. Their aims have become contradictory: eliminate ISIS or eliminate the Bashar Al-Assad regime? Confront ISIS or confront the Shi’ite hold on power in Iraq?

Therefore, there is a need for more strategic thinking. In the final analysis, war is not a collection of separate and isolated battles but rather a comprehensive methodology used to break the will of and ultimately destroy the enemy.

This holistic approach is all the more necessary when your adversary has a nature that cannot be contained, that cannot be negotiated with, and is not open to compromise. If ISIS has made one thing clear during the recent period, it is that it is determined to fight until the bitter end.