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 grahamefuller.com. Photo by Dawn Endico via Flickr.