Will We Attack Our Own Dysfunctions as We Battle Islamic State?

Destroying the so-called “Islamic State” is not enough.

Two years or so since the “Islamic State” (ISIS) declared itself and its caliphate in parts of northern Syria and Iraq, we are now finally approaching the moment when decisive, coordinated, pervasive, and sustained military force will be used against it to destroy its territorial enclaves in several countries. This will bring to the fore a series of critical non-military questions that shape the heart of the problem we face across much of the Arab World.

The Islamic State will be destroyed military without any doubt, but its military abilities and the territorial controls are not the main problem we have with ISIS. We have seen ISIS defeated in the last year in small, localized military attacks against it in different parts of Iraq and Syria (Kobani, Ramadi, Takrit, Mosul Dam area, Aleppo region), but it continued to grow and attack in other places.

The lessons here repeat those of the last twenty years in the fight against groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and others. Military action can wipe out the facilities and even top leaders of these groups, but military power cannot weed out the underlying sicknesses, injustices, and abuses of power in the societies that spawned these groups in the first place. Military power used by global forces along with local autocrats usually exacerbate the situation, by creating ungovernable zones of chaos and growing anti-government resentments among local populations—both of which only feed the expansion of the terror groups.

This dilemma will now rear its head high and quickly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where concerted military action includes the ongoing or planned assaults to liberate Fallujah in Iraq, Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa in Syria, Sirte in Libya, and eventually Mosul in Iraq, to mention only the most prominent areas of ISIS control. A fascinating aspect of these military campaigns is the mix of many fighting forces that work together, or at least in parallel, in their attacks against ISIS. These include the Iraqi and Syrian armies, local tribal forces, several different Kurdish armed groups, the United States, Russia, and other international powers using both air and special forces on the ground, Iranian-supplied militias in Iraq, assorted actions by regional powers like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and many Islamist and secular/nationalist rebel groups in Syria.

These players and hundreds of other local forces will find it very difficult to agree on how to rule the areas that will soon be liberated from ISIS control, so we should expect a period of mild chaos and intermittent clashes among the many actors who both facilitate the current wars in Syria and Iraq and also seek to destroy ISIS there.

Yet the bigger problem that will resurface is about the many underlying structural political and economic weaknesses in Arab societies that gave birth to ISIS and other militant movements in the first place. These have been clear, but also confounding to Arab establishments, for decades. They include citizen political, social, and cultural rights, economic growth and equity, environmental protections, quality education, decent access to basic social, housing, and health services, a fair and independent judiciary, freedom of speech and cultural expression, and the many other dimensions of a modern, decent, humane society that respects majority will and protects minority rights.

These realities led to the 2010-11 Arab uprisings, assorted civil and regional proxy wars, some fragmenting states, and the rise and expansion of IS, alongside the resurgence of Al-Qaeda. Defeating ISIS and curtailing its slow territorial expansion in several countries will not impact any of these negative underlying trends, especially employment, family real incomes, education quality, and fair access to basic human services like food, water, housing, health care, and electricity, not to mention political pluralism and citizen rights. Most of these key factors have worsened in the past five years for most citizens in most Arab states. They will worsen more rapidly in light of the new regional era we enter of economic belt-tightening due to lower oil income.

If the battles now being launched to defeat ISIS do not include equally coordinated and sustained campaigns to defeat the scourges of unemployment, poverty, political and economic marginalization, vulnerability and despair that afflict large numbers of the 370 million Arab citizens, then we will simply have to do this all over again in ten years—in the same way as we have had to keep fighting and killing Al-Qaeda personnel after 20 years, without seeing that organization disappear because we did nothing serious to address the underlying issues that gave birth to it.

You cannot militarily defeat the symptom of an underlying disease. ISIS is a terrible and haunting symptom of many decades of steadfast Arab governance dysfunction that has been strongly supported by major regional and global powers. When we wage war against that vicious and tenacious foe, we will finally see the path to better days.

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