ISIS exploded on the Mideast scene with some quick victories supported by unrelated factions with their own agendas. Now Washington is throwing stones at the hornet’s nest, inefficient at best, sure to transform ISIS in the eyes of many into the “defender of Islam,” and also likely to consolidate support for ISIS in those quarters those quarters that happen also to land in Washington’s very blunt crosshairs. Addressing the causal dynamics and splitting the ISIS “coalition of the jihadi willing” would be the wiser course of action.
How did ISIS get so powerful, so fast? Answer that question, and you will have the key to wresting that power away. Instead, ISIS is obviously baiting Washington, and Washington is tripping all over itself, despite Obama’s well-founded qualms, in its rush to stick its neck into the trap’s teeth…again. Brain-dead, self-styled tough guys (who never see a battle) scream for blood (to be paid for by the blood of other Americans). But ISIS is a gang being empowered by a slew of factions with a wide variety of temporarily overlapping goals–a coalition of the sort-of, at the moment “willing.” Persuade them to turn “unwilling.” Bombs, especially when tossed around in civilian areas, are as likely to infuriate those bombed. So can we find the patience and wisdom to consider the aspirations of the various factions supporting ISIS in order to figure out the degree to which we might manage to find common ground…and isolate ISIS?
One might start with a simple model of political behavior in the Mideast that considers three factors: conflict resolution strategy, level of ideological commitment, and the nature of the physical environment. Many Mideast groups, obviously including ISIS, have a militant conflict resolution strategy and are ideologically committed. Everyone in the Mideast is faced with a tough physical environment, where food surpluses are hard to come by and competition for water is constant. According to the model, then, political behavior in the Mideast will, no surprise, tend to be rough and nasty, more specifically, zero-sum and warlike (i.e., centered in the red quadrant). And indeed, such is the standard assumption in Washington, from which an equally militant U.S. policy seems almost automatically to follow. But even this simple model makes perfectly clear that numerous alternative options are theoretically available. How might they be evaluated?
One can hardly get such a question out of one’s mouth before being accused of being “naive,” but in fact the naive position is the blind faith in simplistic solutions to complicated problems. There may be no need to debate the extreme nature of ISIS, but where was that little militia before Iraqi soldiers walked away from Mosul? Where would ISIS be today if Baghdad had not enraged Sunnis with its discriminatory policies? The ISIS coalition of the jihadi willing really doesn’t look so solid beneath its flashy military exterior. Iraqi Ba’athist ex-officials would find a genuine offer to share political power hard to resist. Unemployed young Iraqi Sunni men might well be persuaded to desert ISIS in return for jobs. A concerted effort to find a Syrian political compromise that would remove Assad and share power might satisfy Ankara to the point that it would stop facilitating the flow of funding to ISIS.
To be found, solutions must be sought. Throwing rocks at the ISIS hornet’s nest will certainly scatter the hornets and upset their tactical plans for a time, but if the broader problem is an extremist coalition composed of factions with widely varying needs, ideologies, and goals, that jihadi coalition structure offers opportunities for genuine solutions. The red quadrant, above, represents political behavior of factions that are highly militant, ideological, and facing stiff non-political conditions (an intentionally vague phrase that may stand for economic deprivation or resource shortages). ISIS has gained enormous financial resources, but the degree to which Iraqi Sunnis generally are benefiting remains very much open to question. The degree to which a restructured financial policy by Baghdad might persuade Iraqi Sunnis to abandon ISIS and become supporters of the national regime remains an opportunity as yet unexplored.
A second obvious opportunity is to address the concerns of marginalized senior Ba’athist figures seeking political access. These relatively secular former officials have little obvious ideological affinity with ISIS fundamentalists and may well find themselves forced uncomfortably deep into the red quadrant of military solutions to conflict when they might be more comfortable negotiating with Shi’i officials across a table in Baghdad…if only given the chance. Obama stressed the need for Sunni-Shi’i reconciliation after the fall of Mosul, but it is probably Tehran rather than Washington that holds the key to persuading its Shi’i allies to share power…and, indeed, Tehran clearly has understood this point.
A systematic review of the graphical landscape of political possibilities may well focus attention on additional opportunities for breaking apart the ISIS coalition. Consider the gray quadrant (lower front left), representing factions that are ideologically committed but dedicated to peaceful conflict resolution. Are such Sunnis more natural bedfellows with Sunni jihadis or Shi’a sharing their dedication to peaceful conflict resolution? Perhaps more to the point, what impact might a new coalition of Kurds and Sunnis seeking negotiated solutions have on sectarian rivalry in Baghdad? Might the need to defend themselves against ISIS jihadis provoke the rise across Iraq of a more civilized political culture?