The lightning advance of the so-called Islamic State (IS) has taken many by surprise, but their sudden ascent does not necessarily presage a new order in the Middle East. Their success was built on the back of failed policies both from the region and the US, and the group's rise has, until recently, been tolerated by US regional allies and by many on the ground who simply see IS as a lesser evil. As discussions are underway in Washington about how to deal with the emergent threat, the West will do well to keep in mind that aggressive acts alone are likely to exacerbate, not reverse, the terror being carried out in Iraq and Syria. In familiar historical irony, many of the actors who either facilitated IS' rise or were responsible for the policies that led many to support IS are the ones tasked with rolling back all that the extremist group has gained thus far.
A discussion about ISIS must begin with the source of its support, both political and financial. It should be readily apparent where exactly ISIS was able to draw on immense capital, even prior to seizing oil refineries and dams. The frenzied donation of weapons and cash to essentially anyone who would take it by major Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar helped lay the groundwork for groups like IS to rise above Syrian opposition forces as the ultimate threat to the Assad regime. The intense hatred for the Assad regime by these Sunni states convinced them that anyone fighting against Assad was better than the regime itself, but in the process this allowed IS to consolidate its gains and enrich itself by capturing whole towns that effectively become a cog in their ever-growing machine. Their coveted status as essential US regional allies assured their non-punishment for planting the seeds for a problem the US must now respond to. Nevertheless, reports that Secretary of State John Kerry will be heading to the region to build a coalition against IS guarantees that its regional backers will play some role in rolling back the threat they in fact helped facilitate.
Despite its principles, IS has no qualms about doing deals with those its opposed to; IS is reported to have sold oil to the Assad regime, allowing it to make massive daily profits. With greater capital, territorial gains and terror "appeal," IS has turned heavily toward the symbolic to generate even greater interest in its antediluvian mission. A recent Vice News documentary on IS featured a surreal scene where fighters from the group proudly displayed their partial erasure of the borders imposed by the British and French following World War I, even name-dropping the agreement that set it all off (Sykes-Picot Agreement). They claim to represent a direct challenge to that colonial legacy, seeking to undo all the "hard work," according to Steven Simon writing in Foreign Affairs, of the former colonial powers. While a shift in the regional borders is highly unlikely, the very nature of the act goes beyond anything al-Qaeda claimed to accomplish, and IS is milking the scene to foster recruitment and bolster their claim of representing true jihadi resistance.
In dealing with IS, standard responses to such threats should be thrown out. As William J. Astore cogently points out in Le Monde Diplomatique, the "American cult of bombing" has become so pervasive in responding to events in the Middle East that "few Americans question the sanity or cult-like behavior of American presidents" who routinely believe solutions can be found when missiles meet pavement, and to hell with what comes after. This would be mistake #1 in responding to IS; the people of the Middle East have been tormented for decades by such policies, and adding yet another layer will only deepen hostility and resentment. Considering that practically the whole region, states and people alike, are opposed to what IS stands for, there is a tremendous opportunity to seize on such a large constituency and use that alliance for rooting out what President Obama has termed as a "cancer" in the region. Failing to consider the consequences and aftermath of a full-scale assault against IS will do little to address the fundamental issues, such as corrupt governments that sow sectarian division, which led to IS' prominence in the first place.
Much like the War on Drugs, the US War on Terror has had the precise opposite effect, so much so that replacing ''for' with 'on' in those meaningless slogans would be more accurate. If an executed policy is exacerbating the problem you are trying to uproot, is that not a signal to alter course? But reality is never so simple. Once the framework is in place, dismantling it is next to impossible, given the vested interests that arise as a result. Nevertheless, the US should take stock of the Middle East and alter its self-imposed priorities in order to see the forest for the trees. For years, Iran has been labelled as Enemy #1, but this characterization looks pathetic in light of the chaos in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, among other places--all of which are compounded by IS' entrance into the fray.
Compared to that picture, a diplomatic and military victory over the IS threat appears to have a greater chance of success. If the US hopes to gain a shred of credibility in a region where it has none, it must work to reign in those allies that have directly or indirectly funded IS and adopt a joint political-military strategy that goes to the heart of the conflict. Though the Obama administration is grappling with a Congress displaying historically abysmal levels of inaction, it still has room to maneuver before seeking Congressional authorization. It is time to face facts: if you want to stop terror, deprive it of the conditions that allow it to thrive and fall on the side of justice for the people of the region as the policy is pursued.
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