Beating ISIS in the Battlegrounds of its Birth

Unless and until the Arab world’s political and socioeconomic dimensions are addressed and significantly improved, the Islamic State group or other movements like it, or even worse than it, will continue to emerge from Arab societies.

Events on the ground in several countries are proving correct what many of us have been saying publicly and privately for the past two years: The Islamic State (Daesh) is not a serious military force or a credible or legitimate sovereign entity, and once confronted seriously on the three battlegrounds where it operates, it will fade away as surely as an early morning mist. As this becomes more obvious and the existing “state” or “caliphate” that the Islamic State group operates in parts of Syria, Libya, and Iraq soon disappears, the critical element in the years ahead will be to recognize the relationships among those three battlegrounds that define its life and, ultimately, its death.

Only in the past six months or so has foreign air power combined with serious ground troops from half a dozen local sources (Iraqi, Syrian, Kurdish, Libyan, and Iranian or Iranian-supported) to seriously attack towns held by the Islamic State group in Syria, Libya, and Iraq; not surprisingly, IS forces were defeated and retreated. The purely military dimension of this criminal group is the easiest to address, as we now witness.

The other two dimensions that shape its life are political and socioeconomic conditions primarily in the Arab world. It is critical to recall that the Islamic State group emerged from these three contexts—military, political, and socioeconomic—in pockets of Arab and a few other countries (especially Afghanistan) that shared a few characteristics: autocratic and large dysfunctional and corrupt political systems, serious internal and sectarian strife, widespread socioeconomic disparities that created a huge, marginalized underclass of vulnerable and increasingly desperate people, and a shattered landscape that was always a consequence of both local and foreign, especially American, militarism.

The Islamic State group was born because these conditions created its two most important birthing aids: masses of disgruntled and frenzied citizens who sought any alternative to their difficult lives, and hollowed, inept governments that were unable or unwilling to fight back against IS once it set up shop amidst them. Changing the military equation is relatively straightforward, as we see these days, but changing the other two dimensions is what will achieve long-term victory, and, more importantly, offer a decent life for the citizens of the countries.

Continuing analyses by political scientists and pollsters within the Arab World, who intimately understand the workings of our fractured societies and whom I respect highly, suggest that active popular support or even just acquiescent understanding for the Islamic State group among Arab populations ranges from 5 to 20 percent of populations in different countries. In other words, of the 400 million or so Arabs today somewhere between 20 and 80 million people support or understand IS and its ways. The actual number of hardcore supporters, financiers, admirers, members, and logistical facilitators of IS in the Arab World is probably no more than a few hundred thousand—but the pool of prospective adherents or sympathizers must realistically number in the millions.

The really worrying aspect of this is that these people mostly do not embrace the Islamic State group because they buy its ideology; they do so mainly because it is the most available alternative to the miserable lives they suffer, a misery that they see as the lifelong destiny for their children and grandchildren. These political and socioeconomic dimensions of their lives and their societies offer them mostly poverty, pain, exclusion, discrimination, suffering, and other bewildering, degrading realities that grind the humanity out of them over time.

So while it is comforting to see coordinated military action by local and foreign parties pushing back IS, this in itself will not be enough to rid our region—and the world—of the spillover effects of these kinds of extremist criminal movements that essentially are outcomes of our political and socioeconomic deficiencies. Neither Arab governments nor major international actors like the United States, Russia, Iran, the UK, and others have offered any sign—not even a little hint, or just a passing whisper, or an acknowledging wink—that serious efforts will be made to radically improve the underlying conditions that breed this kind of desperate, criminal militancy and ideological extremism.

Governments in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, and many other Arab lands are more threatened by the Islamic State group than anyone else; yet they are the ones that show the least ability or willingness to embark on the radical changes required to defeat IS at its roots. Their foreign backers in the United States, Iran, UK, and elsewhere seem happy to keep selling them billions of dollars of weapons, without seriously nudging them to start the hard political and economic reforms they know are needed to win this war.

Unless and until these political and socioeconomic dimensions are addressed and significantly improved, the Islamic State group or other movements like it, or even worse than it, will continue to emerge from our Arab societies as naturally as the early morning mist.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global