ISIS: Time to think Long-Term

Islamic State (ISIS) and their acts of brutality continue as a regular news feature, especially with the Islamist militant group’s seemingly unstoppable spread across northern Syria and central Iraq. World leaders maintain that military force should be the focus of strategies to defeat ISIS. Air-strikes and the large-scale Iraq offensive illustrate the reliance on military tactics as a solution. However, this dependence is short-sighted and underlines world leaders’ failure to learn lessons from previous campaigns in the Middle East.  Here, Sabrina Marsh discusses how current policy towards confronting ISIS is dangerous, bringing only temporary results and stoke sectarian divides.  

The origins of ISIS

ISIS began its rise in 2004 as an ally of Al-Qaeda, united through their radical anti-Western ideology and collective desire for an independent Islamic state. ISIS has since moved away from Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Al-Qaeda and has become synonymous with callousness, most notably emphasised by the beheadings of its captives and so-called infidels. ISIS and their bloody rule have not only caused loss of life and misery, but their spread has weakened global religious understanding through their flawed reliance on Islamic teachings. They have also become a rival to Al-Qaeda in recruitment attempts, with their slick online presence and promises of material wealth.

A military response is not the answer

Wiping out ISIS militarily is not the answer. More violence and destruction does little to understand and solve the underlying causes of why such militant groups garner global support, financial and otherwise, and are able to effectively control large swathes of land. World leaders have tried and failed to obliterate Al-Qaeda only to see ISIS rise out of the void, demonstrating that the outcome of violence is unpredictable at best.

This conflict involves a complex blend of religious, ethnic, economic and historical factors. It is naïve to assume that such a multifaceted situation can be resolved with such a blunt, one-dimensional tool as military might. Its use will only further fuel ISIS support. Even if the ISIS problem is ‘solved’ by killing and dismantling the group, giving a sense of finality, this will incentivise others. This increases the likelihood of the creation of a yet bloodier group: we must safeguard against this.

Furthermore, there is a danger that the current Iraq offensive is skewed: predominantly Shia men make up the Iraqi force while seeking to regain control of Sunni strongholds. Previous victories by Iraqi government forces were marred by human right abuse allegations, shattering any sense of legitimacy. Any approach towards ISIS must not be accused of being anti-Islamic or one-sided. This will only lead to yet more disengagement.

A military response is inevitable as world leaders look for a quick response to the brutality and are shown to be active, aggressive and unwavering – characteristics appealing to a scared electorate. At the very least this use of force must be combined with long-term, ‘softer’ options. This should include the support and promotion of access to education, resources and job opportunities in the region. This requires time, investment and, perhaps most importantly, strong and inclusive leadership.

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We need a global, coordinated response

There is certainly no easy solution to ISIS, but it is clear that any response must be both global (in a regional sense) and focused to establish legitimacy and, ultimately, be effective. Middle Eastern countries must be the key players: they, in theory, understand the regional intricacies. This will be an almighty task as any grouping needs to cut through deep-seated Sunni-Shia sectarian and ethnic divides: a rarity thus far.

Despite the multiple explanations for the advance of ISIS, religious leaders can play an important role in the engagement with jihadists through the united rejection of extremism. Currently, religious arguments are used by both sides as powerful explanations for inciting violence.  For example, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al Abadi, has framed the recent offensive in religious terms, referring to the blessing of the Shia clerical leadership with the project name itself, ‘answering your call, Prophet Mohamed’. Religious leaders worldwide can, and must, play a vital role in stopping this unfounded reliance on religion by both ISIS and political leaders.

Thinking long-term

A global response while a start, is not enough. It must be joined with Governments’ examination of their own national policy. ISIS support is not confined to certain borders or even regions, but instead the group attracts volunteers from cities across Europe; such as London. These governments needs to act now to promote an improved understanding between religions in order for people to appreciate what Islam does and does not promote. This will deprive Isis, and others, of a potent explanation for their actions. If this is overlooked the consequences will be significant: we will see the growth of young, disengaged Muslims who are more easily drawn to radical thinking.

It is on this grassroots level worldwide where the real long-term change can happen which will ultimately impact whether we see another ISIS in the future or not. This requires top-down nurturing, patience and a long-term outlook. Now is not the time for quick-fixes.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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