The world community stands aghast at the lightning speed with which the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS) has taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq. World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, decry what they call the “terrorism” of the Islamic State and its ruthless methods -- from forced marriages to ethno-religious cleansing to public beheadings. Last week, Obama finally took a firm stand against the Islamic State, calling it “evil,” and authorized U.S. air and naval forces to attack.
What is the solution to the Islamic State? One must adequately address the nature of this threat and then prescribe solutions, including identifying the Islamist components of the conflict, recognizing an independent Kurdish state, and getting Arab states to go beyond air strikes and put boots on the ground.
But the Islamic State is not a case of terrorism. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a civil war for the hearts and heartland of Arab-Sunni Islamic civilization. And until strategists and leaders realize that this is a civil war of unusual proportions, they will never develop a strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Air strikes are not enough. The only way to win the Arab civil war is to get leading Arab states to take the lead and empower local actors, including our Kurdish allies.
The Islamic State’s goal is not simply to take territory, but rather to re-establish a certain type of society. Their ideology calls for the imposition of shariah with little tolerance for other faiths, the empowerment of men and the disempowerment of women and minorities, and the legitimization of violence by its adherents against all perceived enemies. In practice, this means purification of the land of all undesirables.
Some suggest that the Islamic State is just the latest iteration of localized jihadism, like Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Mali’s Ansar Dine, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah, Somalia’s al Shabab, and the Philippines’ Abu Sayyef. This is not the case. The Islamic State is unique in that it is clearly Arab, not African or Pashtun or East Asian, and it is not relegated to the geographic fringes of Islamic civilization. Islamic State is fighting for its own version of the soul of Islam. This is a civil war: Sunni Arabs fighting and killing Sunni Arabs in their heartland.
Who does the Islamic State really threaten? First, Arab states in the region: the Islamic State is challenging the political and religious legitimacy of the states in the region, especially the political legitimacy of “secular” states like Jordan, Syria and Egypt, as well as the religious legitimacy of Saudi Arabia. The second group threatened by the Islamic State is any and all infidels in its path: Syrian Alawis (including the Assad regime), Yazidis, Shia Iran, and the Jewish state. Finally, the Islamic State threatens all who have an interest in the region and have taken a public stand against it, including the United States.
So, what can the West do?
First, stop pretending that this is not about Islam. Obama’s disavowal that the Islamic State has anything to do with Islam is ridiculous. Instead, recognize that this is a multi-dimensional war of ideas between factions in the Muslim world: violent Sunni Islamists vs. their Sunni neighbors as well as Sunnis vs. Shia (Syria, Iraq). What the West can do is amplify Muslim voices that vilify the Islamic State, such as Britain’s Quilliam Foundation, which produced a fatwa against Islamic State.
Second, as I have argued earlier, the West should push for Sunni Arab boots on the ground in Iraq to destroy the Islamic State. Egypt, with its 450,000 active duty troops, and Saudi Arabia (the world’s fourth-largest defense spender last year), should take the lead. Jordan should also participate. This would help Iraq’s military regain its footing. The West can provide important logistical, intelligence-gathering, and operational assistance -- from airlifts, to communication and coordination, to air strikes.
A man uses binoculars as smoke rises after a mortar shell land in the city center of Kobani in Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State, seen from Mursitpinar near Suruc, Turkey, Friday, Oct. 3, 2014. Turkey's parliament approved Thursday a motion that gives the government new powers to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq and to allow foreign forces to use its territory for possible operations against the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Third, it is time to recognize a Kurdish state. Baghdad coldly pushed the U.S. out just a few years ago and did not want assistance until its army disintegrated in the face of the Islamic State. The West cannot really partner with the Assad regime or Iran, but we do have one somewhat reliable partner on the ground: the Kurds. It is time to recognize a Kurdish state, carved from part of eastern Syria and the existing Kurdish Regional Government portion of Iraq (Turkey and Iran would keep their existing borders). With more than 40 million Kurds worldwide and millions on the ground in the region, it is time to accept them into the community of states and incentivize them to destroy the Islamic State within their territory.
The current strategy of fly-swatting from the sky is not a long-term solution to the Islamic State problem. It is a war for hearts and minds -- as well as a war for territory and the land -- and the hearts must be won and then held by those who live there.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Government at Regent University and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. He is the author or editor of 11 books, including "Ending Wars Well" (Yale UP, 2012).
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