Beirut. Baghdad. Paris. Threats in Brussels and D.C., the metastasis of ISIS has alerted Western foreign policy leaders to the lack of a strategy to combat ISIS. Although the US State Department ostentatiously lists a coalition of nations which are supposedly working to combat this force, over the last two years the situation has only escalated as the Syrian civil war spreads, Russia’s direct intervention, and ISIS has expanded beyond the Middle East arena. Currently, the US and its allies have stuck to their traditional counter-terrorism techniques, like those used against groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but these do not suffice to combat the much more coordinated and advanced ISIS.
The first step to differentiating the strategies is to clearly outline the differences between the two groups, the “traditional” terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, and the relatively newer group ISIS. First, the two groups have different short term goals. Al-Qaeda is very focused on anti-Americanism and believes that ridding the Middle East of Western influences is a prerequisite to establishing a caliphate. This explains why Al-Qaeda’s strategy has mostly consisted of random attacks and its limited social media is focused on instructions for carrying out attacks on different targets; there is a lack of broader political strategy.
This is entirely different from ISIS. ISIS has focused on both state building and random attacks within the Middle East and internationally. It has mainly focused on attacking any groups in Syria and Iraq which do not share its goals, focusing heavily on Shiite and Yazidi ethnic groups and eliminating any competition for leadership of a new caliphate. Its extensive political agenda and strategy is published through its magazines (Dabiq, the English language version) which are not simply instructions for attacks.
ISIS’s extensive use of social media has created an expanding following around the world which has defied any characterization by demographics. This has not only inspired remote attacks without direct command from ISIS central (in the case of the the San Bernardino attacks), it has attracted increasing numbers of foreign fighters.
The number of foreign fighters in Iraq numbered about 5000 in 2003 when Al-Qaeda was the major security threat. However, estimates show that up to 30,000 foreign fighters have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq just since 2011.
Where ISIS has taken over, it has not only controlled supplies and resources but has actually become a governing body. The entire ISIS operation is funded by systematic taxes and the selling of oil from ISIS controlled oil fields in Syria. A smuggled out budget from the province of Deir-ez-Zor in Eastern Syria shows that money comes primarily from previously-government-owned oil fields in Syria (almost $2.3 million in just the month of January) and is spent mostly on military operations, although food and markets are still being opened.
Policy makers’ fears of legitimizing ISIS as a state have prevented them from extensively utilizing anti-state combat techniques. Cooperation with the Kurdish forces to re-capture Sinjar by blocking off routes in and out of the city was one such technique that could be used more frequently to start choking off ISIS strongholds. However, this becomes increasingly difficult with limited numbers of local trained troops, who are already thinly spread across the wide swath of ISIS controlled territory.
Another more anti-state move has been to attack the ISIS-controlled oil fields in an attempt to cut off a crucial source of revenue for the group, which now produces $40 million a month. However, ISIS has swiftly repaired their damaged infrastructure, continuing to produce oil at these targeted oil fields.
Currently, countries like the United States and France have been conducting drone strikes with little progress. The justified unwillingness to risk civilian lives has also eliminated potential targets such as transportation convoys and other items central to ISIS’s infrastructure.
However, simply targeting individual leaders or figures in ISIS is an ineffective overall strategy to take down a group which has an established political strategy and is less dependent on their leaders. ISIS functions like a state in that there is always a next in line, and there is no single mastermind of operations, unlike Al-Qaeda which was dependent on the inspiration and leadership of its central command.
Since combatting ISIS with actual troops has been deemed more successful, it follows that increasing ground forces is the next necessary step in combatting ISIS. With its metastasizing force, the US and its Western counterparts can no longer claim that ISIS is simply a regional Middle Eastern problem, and that only providing logistical support to their Arab allies will bring this conflict to a conclusion. This is not to say that the first step should be to put Western troops on the ground, but the West should be actively coordinating military action in the region rather than individually taking out targets.
One option includes restarting a rebel training program (previously withdrawn by the Pentagon) to unite the factions on the ground against Assad and ISIS.
A united fighting force will be able to more efficiently share intelligence and coordinate attacking ISIS at multiple locations at once. When supplies and resources are seized, it can also distribute them efficiently. This will also make sending Western supplies both military and humanitarian easier. When the West only allies with some groups, it makes it difficult for humanitarian groups to access citizens in areas controlled by other factions.
Fighting together will also give these groups some time to work together towards a common goal before having to sit down at the table to discuss the future of Syria. This provides for a better opportunity to work cooperatively and lessen some of the hardline stances some interested parties currently have.
Although Saudi Arabia recently hosted a conference where 65 representatives of political and armed groups (against ISIS and Assad) met, the major ground players such as the Kurdish peshmerga, the Nusra front, and of course, ISIS were not present.
If those who are doing the majority of the fighting are not present, the conference was unlikely to come to any real cooperative resolution which could have an impact on the fight. The political opposition which the West backs such as the Syrian National Coalition will be unable to play any major role until the fighting ends.
The administration has been touting its coalition for months and yet has achieved very little: this could be the start of a diplomatic and effective resolution, one which could truly bring an end to the terror of ISIS.