ISIS strategy needs ‘political, cultural, ideological tools – and Arab reform


The U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” and the formation of a “broad coalition” to do so, does not guarantee the destruction of ISIS, says a prominent analyst.

That objective “requires political, cultural and ideological tools, in addition to brute military force,” writes Hisham Melhem (left), the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC.  “Ultimately, the defeat of ISIS can be achieved, only when the Arabs exorcise the political and ideological demons that created Islamic extremism that metastasized over the years and morphed into ISIS,” he contends.

The fundamental cause of the production of extremism in the Arab world lies in a culture of oppressive political exclusion, coupled with religious bigotry, analyst Rula Jebreal writes for the Daily Beast:

It is up to the United States to do more to encourage inclusive politics in Arab states, as it recently did in Iraq when it forced Maliki out of the prime minister’s office because of his exclusive and sectarian policies.

What will ultimately turn the tide in the Middle East are groups that actively advocate for a democratic culture and its values around the Arab world. A campaign to promote these ideas on every level must begin, as part of the counterterrorism initiative launched by Kerry. Grassroots activism that makes a strong demand for democratic values can work in parallel with counter-terrorism strategies to achieve more concrete results. Moderates can never become mainstream if the leaders the West continually chooses to back are military dictators or internationally politically connected despots —  generation after generation.

The U.S. should recognize the political opposition, represented by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the sole representative of the Syrian people, argues Mouhanad Abdulhamid, the co-founder and programs director at SANAD (Syrian-American Network for Aid and Development):

Washington should hand over to the National Coalition all diplomatic posts in the U.S. and work with its allies in Europe and the United Nations to do the same. This recognition shouldn’t be given, but earned under specific U.S. terms and conditions. For example, the U.S. should pressure the coalition to commit to a unified, democratic and secular government in Syria that is friendly to America’s regional interests. In addition, the opposition must commit to a national reconciliation process that includes, but is not limited to, the Alawite, Kurd and Christian minorities.

But who are the moderates and how powerful can they become?

“There was nothing I saw in Al Bab in August 2012—still early days in the insurrection that is now halfway through its fourth year—that led me to feel that if the Syrian uprising toppled Assad, it would lead to an inclusive, minority-respecting, and more or less democratic outcome,” writes analyst Jamie Dettmer:

Like other countries convulsed by Arab Spring insurrections, there was a mismatch between Western expectations and perceptions and the thinking and religious views of the majority involved in the fighting, and that was a year before the emergence of ISIS. The war back then was clearly becoming more sectarian and Islamic—the trajectory was obvious.But not only is the Obama administration going to find it hard to select rebel groups it can work with, it will also have the problem of persuading them to focus on ISIS at the expense of their struggle against Assad, and if the regime starts making up more ground, that in turn could ignite local Sunni anger to the benefit of the jihadists.

“There are certainly moderates remaining,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The problem is that they are few in number and lacking in support. They have been marginalized by U.S., European, Turkish, and Arab policies that have only served to boost the presence and capabilities of the more radical factions. It’s unclear to me how Washington’s new approach can help reverse this trend in an urgent or expeditious manner—which is what is needed.”


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