An important op-ed article by former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin in the Washington Post this week raises the point that repeatedly comes up in discussions about the Middle East these days: Could the Islamic State win? And how could it win?
His analysis is that the Islamic State (ISIS) would effectively have “won” and could remain with us for a long time if it consolidates its hold on its territory in Syria-Iraq because a large ground force of troops is not mustered to attack it; it surrounds or enters Baghdad; Iraq remains politically disjointed; and Iran does not play a bigger role in defeating it. I doubt that this scenario will play itself out, because when confronted with a strong combination of Arab, Iranian, and Western military forces on the ground and in the air, which I expect to happen in the year ahead, ISIS will be rolled back and probably shattered. That’s actually the easy part.
The hard part, which McLaughlin touches upon but does not fully address, is the parallel political steps the Arab world must take to defeat ISIS and prevent any future versions of such movements from plaguing our region. He notes two essential actions among others to defeat ISIS. “First, we must render hollow the Islamic State’s claim to a ‘caliphate’ by taking back substantial territory. Second, a way must be found to achieve what has so far proved most elusive: an end to the alienation of Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria, the most powerful engine of attraction for Islamic State recruits. This latter goal would require a combination of military pressure, suasion and diplomacy of heroic scale.”
He touches exactly the core underlying reason why tens of thousands of Arabs have either supported ISIS or have not opposed it when it rolled into their town, and why we see occasional photographs of disgruntled citizens in Arab provincial towns across the region raise the ISIS black flag in a show of defiance, or of something else. That “something else” is the crucial sentiment that must be analyzed, understood and acted upon by anyone who wishes seriously to defeat ISIS and prevent its reappearance in mutated forms in the future. This requires acknowledging the many bad things that repels young Arabs from their own societies. Defeating ISIS by trying to interrupt its flow of recruits will not work, as long as conditions in Arab societies remain so offensive and distasteful that they push some of their own citizens to leave and join ISIS. So ISIS is not just a wild, Jihadi cool fantasy ride for theological extremists. It is a practical, attractive alternative to the lifelong poverty, misery, alienation and humiliation that are the birthright of millions of newborn Arab men and women every year.
McLaughlin is absolutely correct to note, “The alienation of Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria, the most powerful engine of attraction for Islamic State recruits.” An even more widespread version of such alienation drives otherwise normal Arab citizens to see ISIS as a viable alternative to their present life conditions. Those thousands of young men from many Arab countries that join ISIS and engage in its criminal activities are the shredded shirts, broken bottles and rotting food of the Arab garbage heap of modern citizenship that has built up over the last half century or so of domestic Arab governance systems that have been, to a large extent, incompetent, inequitable, corrupt, or brutal, and almost totally devoid of credible political and human rights.
We know from polls over the past decade that nearly half of all young people in the poorer Arab states see their government institutions as lacking credibility or even legitimacy, but most of them do not join ISIS or undertake an equally desperate action. The bottom line is that so many of these people see ISIS as a viable, if desperate, last alternative to their current life—or at least they use ISIS as a means of taunting and challenging their governments. ISIS offers them, in their perceptions, everything that they lack in their lives today—order, moral certitude, righteous living, a sense of community, a job, empowerment, basic rights, reliable access to basic human services and needs, social justice and equitable treatment of all citizens, and a higher purpose in life.
That ISIS in the eyes of its adherents is an attractive alternative to existing Arab systems is the latest red flag warning sign that those Arab systems need radical reforms and wholesale restructuring. Achieving integrated social, economic and political restructuring of Arab societies is a critical requirement—but it is also very difficult, takes years to achieve, and clearly is beyond the capacity of all existing Arab regimes and power structures. The longer we wait to walk down this road, the more difficult it will be to do this, and the more entrenched and popular ISIS will become.
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 ©2015 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global