Islamic State: The Hour Has Struck

by Graham E. Fuller

ISIS, with its horrific attack on purely civilian targets in Paris, has established new realities about its nature, capabilities and intentions. The need for its elimination can now no longer be in doubt. It is not that Parisian lives are more important than others, but Paris changes the game.

ISIS has proven to be a serial game changer over the past 18 months since it first came to significant public attention in establishing its so called “Islamic state” athwart the desert border regions of Syria and Iraq. Its hideously choreographed media events and grisly executions were specifically designed to create shock and awe. But it operated locally.

It has now overturned the analyses of most observers, including myself, who tended to view it as primarily regionally and territorially-focused, intent on (non-viable) state-building, Caliphate formation, targeting regional enemies rather than operating on a broader world stage. Now recent bombings in Beirut, the destruction of a Russian airliner midair, and the vicious attacks in Paris have now raised level of threat to new heights.

What is yet unclear is how much the Paris action was the brainchild of a centralized command structure operating out of the ISIS capital in Syria, or an action by local “franchise” organizations or “wild-cat” operations inspired by ISIS to act locally.

Whatever the case, these series of events now call out for broader and deeper international action. ISIS must be eliminated.

I reach this view with much mixed feeling. Over the years I have grown increasingly convinced that western military interventions and wars to “fix” the Middle East have not only failed, but have vastly exacerbated nearly all regional situations. Washington has at the end of the day, in effect, “lost” every one of its recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. The West has been as much the problem as the solution.

We must remember that there would be no ISIS today if the US had not invaded and destroyed Iraq’s leadership, government, ruling institutions, elites, army, infrastructure and social order.

We must remember that history in the Middle East did not begin with 9/11. Rather 9/11 was already theculmination of years of previous western policies of interventions and political manipulations.

We cannot proceed to take more vigorous “action” now without having these two propositions engraved on our foreheads. But some action must now be taken—even though nothing in our past actions offers much ground for reassurance.

But by now ISIS is the single deepest source of immediate Middle East strategic disorder, with global implications. Not Iraq, not Iran, not Syria, not Libya, not Yemen, not Lebanon, not Somalia —or any of those other “optional wars” launched by Washington and its allies—ever presented the same deeply destabilizing global potential as does ISIS today.

-ISIS promotes and perpetuates the narrative of “Islam versus the West”—a heroic and ungrounded myth—although it is bait to which many in the West regularly rise.

-ISIS implements savage sectarian division, an ideology promoted  chiefly by Saudi Arabia, that now spills over into conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. It is not inherently the fundamental problem of the Middle East—unless it is made to be so.

-ISIS is not a real state, despite its aspirations; it never will be a viable state, and must not be treated as one.

-ISIS now demonstrates both the intent and the ability to extend its violence, its “retribution,” well outside its desert arena.

-ISIS distracts from and radicalizes all other state-to-state regional problems.

-ISIS operations whip up Islamophobia and threatens the security of Muslims living outside the Middle East.

If ever there was a case for genuine, I repeat, genuine international action in the Middle East, this is it. But if Washington or Riyadh continue to interpret Syria primarily as as a proxy battleground against Iran, or against Russia, then genuine international action will surely fail; agreement on Syria’s end state will never be achieved.

The elimination of ISIS requires every significant stake-holder to be present: UN, US, EU, Canada, Russia, Iran, Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, Egypt and others. China, aspiring to a major world role, cannot sit this one out either. This convocation requires real heft and clout to impose some rough plan of action. Above all, the UN must head up future operations involving the indispensable future ground operations. If ever an neutral face was essential, this is it.

The essential goal is the destruction of ISIS as an organization possessing territory, infrastructure, command structure, and administrative control. But it is not a genuine state, either territorially, ethnically, geopolitically, economically, historically, even religiously. It may be turning to international terrorism—as did al-Qaeda— as it sees its future on the ground fading.

The present territory held by ISIS must revert to the state on whose territory it has operated. Yes, that means, for now, Syria’s  Asad regime.

Over many decades Asad’s Syria was simply one more unpleasant regional state, but far from the worst. Even then, however, the US always sought to covertly overthrow him. But Asad took on his truly vicious and ruthless character in his reactions to the domestic uprisings against him beginning in the Arab Spring in 2011. Yet even today Syrians are divided over who represents the greater threat, Asad or his enemies. Whatever the discussion, by now the blood on Asad’s hands symbolically demand early forfeiture of his leadership—the details of transition to be negotiated.

Ironically the enormity of the ISIS/ al-Qaeda alternative to Asad had lately sparked some western hesitation in pursuing his overthrow, but now,  through its massacres in Paris, ISIS may now have dealt Asad the death blow. Because only a genuine and convincing coalition with overwhelming authority will have the clout to eliminate ISIS and to tell Asad that he personally  is finished, that some kind of international supervision is required to bring about a new order in Syria.

That new order will inevitably create regional winners and losers which will immensely complicate the creation of any international consensus. But given the rising challenge and chaos some hierarchy of goals can gradually be hammered out.

-First, ISIS must be eliminated as a territorial entity.

-The UN must maintain the operational and legal leadership of the operation—not the US, or “the West” or NATO that spark volatile reaction.

-Disarm militias and restore order. Order is the bed-rock of any further progress.

-The Syrian state itself must not be dismantled á la Washington’s folly in occupied Iraq—whose disastrous repercussions are still with us. No de-Ba’thification of Syria as a program.

-Establish the framework for gradual national elections. Yes, Iran, this means that minority ‘Alawi rule over the country will not survive national elections; regional authorities could be created and the ‘Alawis and others could administer their own regions. Anyway, Iranian-Syrian relations have always rested on far more than these dubious sectarian ties.

Are there problems and complications with this scenario? Of course. I myself can think of as many problems in this scheme right now as any other reader. There’s much more to be said. But we have to start somewhere. A Rubicon has been crossed.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). This article has been republished, with permission, from Photo by Dawn Endico via Flickr.

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  1. You didn’t address the root of it all- Saudi Arabia & it’s toxic cocktail of Wahhabism

  2. @ “Are there problems and complications with this scenario? Of course.”

    Among them are the Syrian people’s inalienable right to self-determination of their government. Bashir Assad is their elected leader and the many public opinion polls conducted in Syria since the last election predict that he would be overwhelmingly re-elected in new elections. That, of course, is the very reason why the U.S. insisted for so long on him stepping down as a pre-condition to negotiation.

    Another problem and complication is that the solution is not more violence. If there is anything the U.S. should have learned from its string of failures in the Middle East is that its strategy of arming and paying Salafist mercenaries to do its dirty work in proxy wars does not work, that it has dramatically increased the number of terrorists globally.

    But ISIL and the other terrorist groups can last not much longer than their finances and supplies. Reining in U.S. leadership and control of the mercenaries it has unleashed, coupled with very strong diplomatic pressure on the nations providing the mercenaries, their weapons, their funding, and their supplies will do far more to end the problem than all the violence a very large group of nations could muster.

    Repeating the same action but expecting different results is not a formula for success. If the U.S. continues down that path, then one has to begin questioning whether eradication of terrorism is the real goal, suggesting that maintaining the Middle East in a condition of destabilization is the real U.S. goal.

    The way to end war is by declaring peace, not by even more war.

  3. An insightful article, which provides a comprehensive analysis of the factors that led to the emergence of ISIS and the threat that it now poses not only to the region but also to the world! However, when it comes to providing the solution, it goes against what it has rightly identified as the causes for ISIS’s emergence. The author correctly points out: “ISIS implements savage sectarian division, an ideology promoted chiefly by Saudi Arabia, that now spills over into conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.” If ISIS was primarily created by Saudi Arabia, supported by the West and Turkey, in order to get rid of President Bashar Assad, it is strange to conclude that, after the heinous atrocity in Paris, “ISIS may now have dealt Asad the death blow.”

    The conclusion should be quite the opposite. If ISIS and its main backers that have waged this horrendous terrorism to topple Assad are now rewarded by achieving their goal, it will further embolden them and will throw Syria into a worse chaos than what happened in Libya and Iraq. Furthermore, it takes no notice of the wishes of the Syrian people. A more logical solution would be for everyone to unite against ISIS, and once it is defeated to allow UN-supervised elections to be held and for everyone to respect the outcome of those election. The rule of law and the mechanisms of democracy must take precedence over the wishes of Assad’s friends and foes. The alternative would be victory through terrorism and the continuation of foreign interference in Syria’s domestic affairs.

  4. “to tell Asad that he personally is finished,”

    Haven’t we heard that repeated at nausea for 5 years, while ISIS was building up on the ‘rebels’ with weapons and money provided by the same countries that wanted Bashar al Assad out?
    The obvious solution to eradicate ISIS without involving Western troops is rather straightforward.

    – Forget once for all about bringing democracy by regime changes on countries who are not obedient to the West. Bring the Syrian opposition to become an elected Syrian political party and not an imposed Gulf or Western agent.

    – Give massive support to the Syrian army, Hezbollah, the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi shia militias. They are the most motivated to do the job.

    – Ignore Turkey’s protests and and unravel the vicious games of hegemony in the region

    – Stop the family-religion lead countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to propagate their vicious ideology in the Arab countries and in the West under the pretext of financial help

    If the West is serious and ready to compromise its ‘friendly’ relation with its double-faced “allies” in the region, then it may come to close the ISIS chapter once for all.

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