Countering ISIS

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

Faysal Aly Raja
ISIS flashed on geo-political scene couple of months ago with a foundational announcement of Islamic caliphate by Al Baghdadi during a sermon in Iraq. In its composition it is a polylithic representation of various groups, violent and hyper-violent, with appreciable presence of disgruntled Sunni-Iraqi tribal elements and die-hard Sadamists. Philosophically, on religious basis, ISIS is different than Al Qaeda in strategic, operational and functional disposition. The former looks for a permanent base as a precondition for initiating actions for achievement of its set objectives whereas the latter has been instituting operations principally against United States of America and its allies for establishment of a sovereign space for stable operational functionality. The philosophy of Al Baghdadi, therefore, pivots around providing right, might, dignity and leadership to all Muslims through establishing suzerainty over a territory.
The caliphate-area earmarked for ISIS operation has been submerged into a civil-cum-ethnic war where various external actors are pitting one faction against the other. Though there exists no uncertainty of enemy specification nonetheless present situation presents a strategic decision making dilemma for the US where weakening of one enemy makes the other stronger and more dangerous. The available options include multi-pronged disciplined military approach which impairs functional efficacy of all the antagonists save those who are currently being seen as the future administrators of Syria or using a decisive coalition force to destroy all the enemies in a protracted warfare.
The first option involves massive use of asymmetric politico-military endeavors targeting areas of weaknesses through secret operations and goading key allies who share an ideological bond with ISIS. Exploring non-monolithic formation of ISIS and apparent religious cleavages among traditional Sunnis, Baatists and extremists can destroy the group from within. Moreover, the group should be tackled differently in Iraqi Shia dominated areas, Kurdish lands and in multi-ethnic Syrian localities.
While dealing with extreme jihadi groups like Jabaht al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, a balanced strategy needs to be carefully chalked out. Among the key elements of such a strategy for all groups include dynamic force deployment in the area, weapon capability and threat perception of commanders or sub group leaders, rate of recruitment of new entrants, level of recruitment, mass communication capability, internet exploration and future projections of financial sustainability of these groups.
On the ideological front, some key allies of the US are funding and financing ISIS to settle their perpetual score with Iran. This strategic impasse can be resolved through implanting a reliable moderate force like Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga Army in Syria to fight against ISIS. These fighters shall first degrade ISIS and then make inroads into Damascus. Since Iraqi Kurds are reliable having close ties with the US therefore, low probability exists of hoodwinking their benefactor once strategic aims are achieved in Syria. This option greatly depends upon three important factors namely possible Turkish reaction to mollycoddling Kurds in Syria, consistent supply of weapons to these fighters to degrade and discourage the enemies on dual fronts and exhibiting tactical restraint by Saudi Arabia and its ideological partners.
Three strategic balances are to be maintained by the US for achieving its regional objectives. First, creating equilibrium between Iraqi Peshmerga fighters and ISIS plus Syrian Army to first weaken them and then confront these forces one by one. Second, maintaining equivalence between Kurds and Turks so that their strategic apprehensions are well guarded. Third, keeping a stasis between ultimate aims of Sunni regional countries and the US in order to avoid any spillover effect of these operations in neighboring territories. Unless this tri-balance is not ensured any action triggered in Syria might couple with uncontrollable unintended consequences.
Decapitation of ISIS leadership is another way to dent its momentum and propagation. But such option should be utilized deftly making it area specific and keeping intra-jihadi-groups’ rivalries in Syria in view. Activating ground resources and mobilizing multiple intelligence collection mechanisms through first or second channels for analysis of possible actionable information shall be the biggest challenge before the US. Local contacts or drones can be readily utilized for decapitation of ISIS top command. In order to offset any apparent power imbalance among the various jihadi groups in Syria, similar leadership annihilation operations may be extended to them through proper calculation and deliberation. Importantly before initiating any such operation it must be ensured that removing a certain figure head, local commander or a leader of a group might not result into a scenario which becomes more menacing and threatening for the national security of the US.
Moreover, if a regional coalition is to be formed to fight ISIS through diplomatic calibration then it must not disturb the wider regional strategic equation. Any geographical rearrangement of borders or creating new entities shall be inimical to long term regional stability. A controlled action is therefore necessary for maintaining strategic order.
However, contours of such controlled action must be carefully laid down with international support and necessary legal framework keeping its future implications under consideration as well. No country should be given a lead role in the alliance so that wider national ambitions of the principal nation may not over-ride the limited mandate of the alliance. Such a coordinated approach to confront ISIS will be beneficial for regional stability rather than leaving the fight against terrorism squarely on the shoulders of a single country.
The announcements made by different Pakistani extremist outfits showing solidarity with ISIS have far reaching implications. First, it indicates availability of high potential human resource as avid followers to ISIS. Second, it opens up a new financial faucet for Pakistani banned groups who are currently facing economic constraints on multiple fronts. Third, such affiliations can have serious repercussions in post Syrian civil war scenario. Fourth, war theater can again be shifted to Af-Pak region once primary objectives are achieved by the US and its allies in Syria. This shift can reignite hostilities and increase targeted operations in the area. It is therefore important that the situation be explored deftly to avoid any future international blow-back.

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