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From the War on Terror to War on ISIS


French reaction to the November 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured over 300 has turned the War on Terror into a war on ISIS. France has stepped up its bombing raids on ISIS, aiming, President François Hollande has said, to ‘destroy’ the organization. Alongside these quickly decided military measures, other kinds of response have received much less attention. In this post, we look at both military and non-military options and the questions that still lie unanswered.

Military action

France has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq since September 2014 and started hitting ISIS in Syria in September 2015, all as part of the US-led campaign Operation Inherent Resolve. Now it has increased the intensity and frequency of its strikes against ISIS in Syria.

Hollande also appealed for European solidarity. The UK and Germany responded with parliamentary decisions taken on 2 and 4 December, respectively. British forces immediately started strikes on ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq, while Germany is deploying non-combat military personnel to Turkey in a support role. The Netherlands is also under pressure to widen its air campaign from Iraq to Syria.

While it is easy to agree on the need to eradicate the threat posed by ISIS in Europe, there is less agreement on how to go about it. The emotional and political case for firm action has yet to find a strategic counterpart argument that is similarly acceptable to the main proponents of military strikes against ISIS.

The limits of bombing

Many critics question the wisdom and effectiveness of bombing. A particularly telling case against bombing came from Jürgen Todenhöfer, the first Western journalist to be allowed extensive access to ISIS territories. He argued that a bombing campaign is exactly what ISIS wants because it will cement the narrative that ISIS is waging war against the West to protect Muslims.

Some do not oppose bombing as such but believe it is not enough. Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin argues that both a political and a military element are essential to success and, further, that the military element requires ground forces.

And there’s the rub: putting troops on the ground is a step considerably too far for most proponents of military action against ISIS. It is in trying to confront that political dilemma that British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that non-extremist anti-Assad, anti-ISIS forces in Syria had 70 000 fighters with whom the West could ally. Background briefings offer little confidence in the validity of this figure or the wisdom of citing it.

One approach is to set the strategic sights lower. Two American experts argue that Salafi jihadism cannot be eliminated any time soon and the USA should instead aim to ‘degrade ISIS’ so it is less of a threat to US interests. They conclude: ‘Defeat of ISIS may come. In the meantime, a good dose of degrade will be more than sufficient.’

Non-military measures

On the other side of the policy tracks, there have not been many propositions of alternatives to military strikes.  It is easier to state the obvious—that there must be a political settlement in Syria—than to sketch an outline that would be acceptable to most, let alone all, parties now fighting in Syria. And the settlement will have to include Iraq one way or another; there, after all, is where ISIS started.

If the difficult issue on one side is sending in ground forces, the difficult issue on the other side is that achieving a settlement implies talking with ISIS. This is the nettle Jonathan Powell grasps, based on experience of negotiating with one-time pariahs (in British eyes), the IRA.

But perhaps here too there is a case for reducing the scale of ambition. Rather than seeking a political outcome that does away with ISIS, measures could be taken to:

  • Stop the flow of finance, by monitoring monetary flows and clamping down on oil exports from ISIS territory;
  • Interrupt the flow of new recruits through better intelligence work in European and Arab countries and detain foreign fighters as they return;
  • Further address recruitment through cyber measures that take down ISIS on the internet;
  • Work with schools and mosques everywhere to counteract the appeal of jihadi preachers and ideology;
  • Counter the marginalization of large segments of Muslim youth in Europe, which will actually mean development strategies and social programmes to counter social and economic marginalization for all young citizens;
  • Address sectarian marginalization in the Middle East and North Africa.

In short, a viable goal might be to degrade ISIS by non-military means.

Doing all, something or nothing

Over Syria as over Libya, Western policy thus far has opted to do something, but not everything that either opponents or proponents of military action would want to see. In Libya, the consequent half-baked intervention has been disastrous for the country. There is no reason to expect much better for Syria. However, the full-on interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have almost equally problematic results so far. It would not be surprising, therefore, if there were to be growing support for doing nothing.

The problem with lofty non-involvement, however, is that Europe, the USA and many of the Arab states already are involved in multiple ways.

This, then, is the dilemma in which Western policy thus far has landed us: it is impossible to pull out, dangerous to go in deeper and exceedingly difficult to change course.

What success looks like

And in all the hurry to react, another aspect has hardly been considered: the indicators for success. How do you measure progress?

The War on Terror created the conditions for war on ISIS. If this war succeeds where its predecessor has thus far not, what will happen the day after? The killing of Osama bin Laden weakened al-Qaeda and out of the rubble came ISIS. After ISIS, what next?

There are no signs that Operation Inherent Resolve will end soon. British military authorities are reportedly estimating two years of operations. Looking at experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, in both cases with major commitment of Western ground forces, two years might seem an under-estimate. But if it is a reasonable forecast, then there is also reason to ask about the longer term. French and British armed forces are too small to reprise their old role of military occupier under an international mandate, while German political opinion is unlikely to support a major commitment of forces and the USA is likely to be even more allergic, but none of these four will be happy with a major Russian role. After bombing, what next?

The future remains full–worryingly full–of question marks.


Dan Smith is the Director of SIPRI.
Manjana Pecht is a Research Assistant with the European Security Programme.