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Brookings Doha chief: ISIS can be defeated in two years | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Salman Sheikh, director of Brookings Doha Center (Brookings)

Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center (Brookings)

Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center (Brookings)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As well as heading the Brookings Doha Center, a branch of the famed American think-tank, Salman Shaikh is an expert in conflict resolution, Middle Eastern geopolitics, and a fellow of its Center for Middle East Policy. As such, he has paid a great deal of attention to events in Syria, both developments on the ground and the international attempts to broker a peace deal between the warring factions. Now, with the involvement of US and Arab air power in the fighting in Syria and Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a peaceful end to Syria’s crisis seems even more necessary and yet further away than ever. During a recent research trip to Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Mr. Shaikh about where he thinks the conflict in Syria is going, the prospects for a peaceful outcome, and the efforts of the US and its allies to destroy ISIS.

Asharq Al-Awsat: What are you doing in Istanbul?

Salman Shaikh: I am meeting with various Syrians to discuss what is going on, including some military aspects, which is very interesting, especially at this time.

Q: Who is responsible for the significant deterioration of the situation in the Arab region and the swift expansion of ISIS?

In my view, first and foremost, it is the leaders of the countries where the war is taking place, particularly Iraq and Syria. There has been a complete breakdown, as a result of either conflict or as a result of bad policies, a breakdown of these societies, which over a long period of time has created more and more anger.

But also, there is a second side to this, which is the international community’s response. The international community has made many mistakes. In the case of Iraq, we did not pay attention to what Maliki was doing until it was too late. And in the case of Syria, the simple failure to protect civilians, to provide even the kind of moral and humanitarian support the suffering people of Syria needed, has meant that, slowly—the people of this region are not extremists—but slowly, they have had no choice but to go to such extremists as ISIS and to, even if they are not very happy with some of their ways, they feel that in many ways, they have to do a deal with the ‘shaitan’ (the devil) in order to deal with their immediate problems, and this I have been told over a number of years.

Q: Do you think Obama was right when he said the US had not recognized how powerful ISIS had become?

I’m surprised that he is surprised. Since the start of the Syrian crisis, many people, especially Syrians themselves, have been warning that if there wasn’t a greater effort to support the Syrian people both the combination of the regime, even what was going on in Iraq, even the actions of the Iranians, were slowly bringing these kinds of elements which we have seen in Iraq to Syria. So this is a process which has been unfolding for two or three years, and we should not . . .be surprised at the pace at which ISIS has managed to gain territory in Iraq, especially we should not be surprised after three years of neglect we have this kind of support for ISIS, and the fact that they have been able to establish real roots inside some of these territories, that’s what makes it so problematic now.

In the north-east of Syria or in parts of Iraq, this is a process [underway] that didn’t [all] happen today, roots don’t grow in a few weeks, it has taken more time than that, and we should have recognized it, especially because we should have devoted more resources [to it].

Many of us were warning two years ago we have to study this very carefully, what is going on, and I believe that not enough time and resources were spent on really understanding this phenomenon.

Q: Will ISIS, headed by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, resemble a modern state or one from the seventh century? Will it survive, as its supporters claim, or will it vanish by the end of this year?

I think it aspires to look like the seventh century state of Arabia, but of course it is not, it is built on very wrong perceptions, even of that time and certainly I don’t think it’s a state that represents many Muslims at all. In fact, most Muslims don’t even consider Baghdadi and his caliphate to be an Islamic state. There are many respected, much more learned people from the Muslim umma who have spoken out against this, and I think most Muslims would take their guidance from them, including in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt, and in other learning centers in the Muslim world, so to describe it as a Muslim state is, I think, wrong.

Whether it can survive, well, that depends whether we are able to really win the confidence of the local communities where ISIS has now established itself, because without the support of these communities, or with the total rejection of these communities, ISIS, like Al-Qaeda before it, will shrink and shrink. But this also depends on, of course, the actions of those who are willing, who want to destroy it.

Q: How long do you think it will survive?

I think this is, as has been described, a long-term problem, but it can definitely be degraded to a large extent within, maybe, a couple of years. But it will take a serious effort, and the right kind of effort, involving the international coalition, the Arab and Muslim world, and most importantly involving the communities in which they aspire to live. But these guys exploit a vacuum, so whilst in Syria and Iraq, if we get the policies right there may well be a reduction and degrading, as they say, of ISIS over a couple of years. We have to be careful that this kind of poisonous ideology does not go to other places where there is a vacuum, especially in the Muslim world, whether it is Pakistan, whether it is the Sahara, whether it is other places in Central Asia, this is something we have to be vigilant about. And this is why good governance, dignity, the kind of things that we have talked about before is as important in the future.

Again, let me say, I worry about a country like Pakistan, it’s a very proud people and country, but there is lots of political breakdown, there are social problems, there is lack of economic opportunity, and then we even have natural disasters. So, this is the kind of thing that this kind of poisonous ideology will try to exploit.

Q: In your opinion, can the US intervention in the form of airstrikes against ISIS halt the Islamist group’s advance? Or will ground troops be needed?

It will need ground troops. First and foremost, as I said, it needs local troops. There have been many, many people on the ground in Syria, for example, who have been fighting against ISIS, and we can talk about at least 7-8,000 Syrians who have been killed before anyone was giving them support. But, you know, these people now need more support, and they need support which is not just about defeating ISIS, but you hear in equal measure that “we have two enemies, we have ISIS and we have the regime, which has created the conditions for ISIS,” and if there is not a parallel effort, and if there is not joint cooperation with these elements, because so far we are hearing from the fighting groups on the ground, —and I am speaking to you from a place where I have been speaking to these groups—they say that this will not work.

There is also one thing. The international community is still allowing Bashar [Al-Assad] to use his aircraft to bomb the moderate rebels and the civilians in these areas. This is undermining the coalition as well, because they are saying “what is going on? How come Bashar Al-Assad and his air force are allowed to fly and bomb civilians and the rebels whilst the rest of the world is looking at ISIS?”

Q: The number of foreigners fighting with terrorist groups such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front has raised fears among Western capitals that they will return home as dedicated terrorists. From your perspective, what makes Muslims of Arab origins join these groups?

I am originally a British-Pakistani Muslim from London, I grew up with some of these people. I used to watch, from a distance, even in the Friday khutbas (sermons) at our universities in the UK, some of this poisonous ideology being discussed. So, it is a deep-seated societal problem which is not just a problem for the Muslim world, it is a problem for those authorities and it is a problem for those societies.

As to why it is that some of those individuals in their search for identity, and their search for certainty and confidence in their lives go in this direction, and so far, unfortunately, we have not been able to find all the answers. But there needs to be a renewed effort, but it cannot just be one of security, it has to be a societal effort, and of course it has to involve the people of those communities which, also, we are seeing. There are many, many community voices which are being ignored most of the time even if they are speaking moderately, now we are seeing some of this being explained, and this is good. Then there has to be also a security response—we have to stop these people traveling in the first place. Whether it’s from London Berlin, Amsterdam or elsewhere.

Q: Despite the fact that we see members of ISIS beheading people on TV and so on, young people are still joining them.

Yes, because there is a sense that these people are achieving some sort of success and victory, and this tells you how desperate some people have become in their search for this kind of success, unfortunately. This is again why it is so important that it is those communities that turn and reject this kind of behavior. But again, we must all stress that this is very small, most communities are revolted by this kind of behavior and you see the outpouring of the communities of Muslims and non-Muslims in many places that have spoken out against this kind of methodology and it’s important that we highlight this as much as we do, the small minority which is somehow celebrating this.

Q: Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron was one of the world leaders who has warned about the threat posed by ISIS militants. Do you think his warning came too late?

It’s the big question, as to whether ISIS is actually looking for this kind of publicity and looking to provoke the Western powers. We have to study and analyze more whether this is a purposeful policy of theirs—to provoke the rest of the world, including the West into making certain, what they consider to be moves or strategic mistakes—or whether they don’t care, they are so focused on their ideology.

Certainly I think the West’s response has to be very much more smart in dealing with this phenomena, and that also means not ignoring the fact that what is going on in Syria, for example, is not just about ISIS. It should be seen as a choice between decency and barbarism, the barbarism of ISIS but also the barbarism of barrel bombs, or the barbarism of bombing civilian areas . . .as well as of course by ISIS itself, in contrast to what should be the universal values that we all support of freedom, of rights, of living together.

I want to emphasize one thing: it is important now, because we have a situation after one week or so, it is clear that the Assad regime is bombing civilian areas with aircraft that we do think about a no-fly zone and other ways to protect civilians in this situation. Fighting terrorism and protecting civilians has to be two sides of the same coin. Otherwise we will not be achieving the same objectives, either in fighting ISIS or in terms of providing the right kind of path to resolve this issue.

Q: How do you think the Syrian war will end?

It can only end . . .in some sort of a political process which leads to a much more inclusive dialogue than what has taken place [up to now]. I don’t think we can talk just about a regime and opposition dialogue, we have to involve a much broader group of Syrians and Syrian personalities, in my view. It also of course needs, initially, an agreement that is guaranteed by the main powers and the regional powers. On ISIS we have seen the outline of what people say is an unlikely coalition, which includes the Gulf states, the United States, Russia, and even the Iranians.

Well, we have to also learn from what happened in Iraq, you need not just a security response, you need a political process in order to be able to fight and to realize our interests, and with this coalition it now has to work on the political process, which means of course getting the Assad regime to finally agree to a serious political dialogue, and for there to be some sort of a political deal, maybe like we have seen elsewhere, where the core of the regime has to move to one side and we have a broader dialogue involving Syrians. The problem right now is that there are certain people in Syria, particularly on the regime side, who are stopping any of the main elements from taking part, they are too fearful, whether it is Alawites, whether it is Christians, whether it is the tribes, whether it is businesspeople, and these are all the kinds of elements which have to be involved in trying to design a new national dialogue process. In the absence of this we will continue to have a situation where unfortunately the fighting will continue and ISIS will look to capitalize on this.