The independent resource on global security

International responses to ISIS (and why they are failing)

Tank in Erbil, Iraq. Photo: Mohammad Miro Hasinyani.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has dramatically undermined stability in Iraq, Syria and the broader Middle East and poses a global risk to peace and security. The international community has struggled to find consensus on an effective response to the threat posed and too often falls back on simply intensifying current measures, which are incoherent and largely ineffective. In order to fight ISIS more effectively, it is necessary to evaluate why the current measures are not working and look at potential alternatives.

ISIS has flourished in ungoverned or weakly governed areas of countries affected by conflict or political instability. The complex environments within Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, the Sinai Peninsula, Syria and Yemen provide ISIS with resources, recruits and safe havens. In addition, large numbers of ISIS recruits have come from relatively stable countries, such as Tunisia, further clouding the picture. Overall, however, combatting ISIS in most of the affected countries needs to be part of broader and longer-term efforts to restore security, tackle political injustices, increase economic output and promote effective governance.


The military toolbox


So far, external military operations against ISIS have focused largely on airstrikes. By the end of 2015 over half of the United Nations membership was part of this militarily driven approach: although membership of coalitions is fluid, there are over 60 countries in a United States-led coalition, 34 in a newly announced Saudi-led coalition and 4 in the Russian-led coalition. The USA and its coalition partners had carried out 3162 airstrikes in Syria and 6217 in Iraq by 9 December 2015, on a total of 18 388 targets. The air campaign has had mixed results, with critics arguing that it has done little to undermine the appeal of ISIS’ ideology and could in some cases have strengthened that appeal. Almost every air campaign against terrorists causes civilian casualties and the destruction of infrastructure, and ISIS operates almost entirely among civilians in cities such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

Military support to allies

Some countries are contributing to the US-led military operation by providing arms equipment, training or advice. Interventions have a long tradition of arming allies. However, every time military hardware is given to allies, there is a chance it could end up in the wrong hands. Amnesty International, for example, has catalogued more than 100 different types of arms and ammunition originally sourced from at least 25 countries being used in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. While training and advice appear safer alternatives, the US ‘train-and-equip’ programmes in Syria and Iraq (like those in Afghanistan and elsewhere) have either failed or are riddled with deficiencies. In Iraq, for example, the USA spent about $25 billion between 2003 and 2011 on training the Iraqi security forces, although they quickly collapsed under the ISIS assault and have struggled to take back key cities such as Mosul and Ramadi.

Boots on the ground

Since the effectiveness of airstrikes is limited, there are some calls for ‘boots on the ground’. While private citizens, including a number of US veterans, have volunteered to fight against ISIS, there is currently little political appetite in any Western capital for the deployment of ground forces. Even if there was such an appetite—perhaps to support the 70 000-strong anti-ISIS forces that British Prime Minister David Cameron claims exist—there is no purely military solution to defeating ISIS.

Moreover, increasingly, voices are saying that Western military intervention plays into the hands of ISIS and can lead to unintended consequences such as the creation of more terrorist groups; ISIS, for instance, was born out of the Iraq war. However, the military toolbox is just one front in the battle being waged against ISIS and there are other, arguably more effective ways for states to deal with the threat.


The non-military toolbox

Economic sanctions and cutting off supply chains

Like all organizations, money matters to ISIS, and so cutting off its sources of funding is a possible alternative. For example, oil sales to local intermediaries are a crucial source of income for ISIS, although air strikes on oil-related infrastructure in 2015 reduced that income. In February 2015 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2199, which reaffirmed and clarified the applicability of UN sanctions on ISIS-related individuals and entities that provide active and passive financial support to the group. But implementation is easier said than done. ISIS deals mainly in cash and operates outside legitimate channels. This often means that the most common counterterrorism financing policy tools are inadequate in the case of ISIS, while new counter-financing responses remain largely embryonic and need to be balanced with the risk of damaging local economies and services and exacerbating humanitarian crises.

Preventing the travel of foreign fighters

International efforts to prevent the travel of foreign fighters also face major difficulties. A US task force on combatting terrorist and foreign fighter travel concluded that ‘there is currently no comprehensive global database of foreign fighter names. Instead, countries including the United States rely on a patchwork system for swapping extremist identities, increasing the odds foreign fighters will slip through the cracks’. The UN Security Council has outlined a range of security, legal and intelligence measures that are needed, and it has stressed the need to provide a counter-narrative to radicalization and to address root causes.


Whether or not one should negotiate with ISIS is a controversial question. Those who argue against negotiation fear that it gives legitimacy to terrorists and their methods, while those in favour claim it is inevitable and point to a number of past conflicts where negotiations played a role, including with the IRA in Ireland, Eoka in Cyprus, FMLN in El Salvador, PLO in Palestine and the Farc in Columbia. While ISIS may indeed be of a different order of magnitude and depravity than earlier armed groups, it is still hard to ignore the conclusion that any political strategy will ultimately require negotiations with ISIS’ leaders.


ISIS uses social media for recruitment, communication and spreading propaganda. A recent ISIS slogan, ‘half of jihad is media’, is an idea borrowed from the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said: ‘More than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.’ Countering ISIS propaganda is crucial. If ISIS loses its followers, it loses its strength. In the arena of digital counterinsurgency, there is still much room for improvement.


Towards a complex recipe for peace?

How to conduct an effective international intervention against ISIS is a question at the very centre of global politics today. An optimal intervention strategy does not exist; instead, the international community needs a combination of many smaller measures including, crucially, cutting off ISIS’ supplies of both finances and supporters. ISIS operates across three dimensions: (a) the areas under its direct control in Iraq and Syria; (b) as an international terrorist network or franchise; and (c) as an ideological movement of jihadist extremism. Therefore, the recipe for true peace needs to address these three dimensions in a coherent and sustainable way—and it will not be easy.



Manjana Pecht is a Research Assistant with the European Security Programme.