Despite the numerous air strikes, the battle against ISIL won’t be over anytime soon. But the big elephant in the room is what will the Coalition do once ISIL is weakened. As the UK considers expanding their military mission to Syria, an exit strategy needs to be envisioned once the air campaign has achieved its goals. Without a long-term strategy, the region’s deep-rooted sectarian tensions could easily resume the conflict and continue the bloodshed. Only a strong coalition relying on our regional allies can ensure a long-term solution for Syria and Iraq without requiring a permanent presence of Western troops.
Tapping into the sectarian tensions in Syria and in Iraq, the group was able to draw tens of thousands of Sunni militants to its side. The CIA estimates that ISIL currently has between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters. What makes ISIL threatening is that no other fundamentalist group has been able to establish a state-like organisation with access to resources that grant them economic independence. ISIL makes al-Qaeda look like amateur jihadists; they have been able to fight on two fronts, despite their weakened military, while taking on other rebel groups.
Air strikes are necessary but not sufficient. ISIL’s recent seize of US airdropped weapons intended for the Kurds, show that at some point ground forces will be required to fully dismantle the group. More importantly, the Coalition must ensure that other groups are de-radicalized. Given past experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, this task should be left to the regional powers that understand the dynamics of different opposition groups; otherwise we risk getting involved in another on-the-ground mission.
United we stand…
The Coalition against ISIL encompasses more than 60 countries, although not all of them are participating in the air campaign, or in both countries for that matter. The involvement of a handful of Arab countries further shows the magnitude of the threat ISIL poses to the region as a whole. However, there has been a lot of finger pointing within the Coalition as to who is responsible for enabling ISIL’s expansion, either by blaming Europe’s colonialism, US’ Shia friendly political arrangements in Iraq, or Qatar’s generosity towards the Syrian opposition. Such questions seem trivial, when compared to the 6-to-8 million people currently living in ISIS-controlled territory. If any, most of the allies are to some extent responsible for this chaotic scenario. What remains important is how to move forward.
Criticizing members of the Coalition over their ideology or past actions at this point only creates tension and suspicion. Instead, members should focus on their allies’ capabilities and how best to use them. Given the long-term nature of the mission, strengthening the Coalition’s unity should be a top priority – especially the participation of regional allies. The involvement of the Gulf allies will be pivotal once the air campaign accomplishes its purpose. Even after ISIL’s main economic arteries are destroyed, the region will continue to be in great jeopardy.
…divided we fall
Dismantling ISIL will not solve the sectarian tensions that plague the region. A long peace process, coupled with confidence building and state reconstruction will have to take place to avoid going back from we started. Unless the regional powers are involved in that process, we risk building yet another fragile government. We simply can’t make a tradition out of invading the Middle East.
Allies that have previously demonstrated their willingness to work with the West and share strategic interests must be included in the processes of stabilizing the region. The Coalition must ensure that a country that has a strong history of cooperation with the West leads such a process. Qatar, for example, has hosted the US’ most strategic military headquarters in the region at the al-Udeid Air Base since 2003. Qatar was also a key actor in the operation in Libya working with the coalition against Gaddafi. Despite the recent controversy about Qatar’s relationship with the Syrian opposition, Qatar’s emir has made clear that their foreign policy is based on dialogue and the foreign minister has ensured that “Qatar does not support extremist groups, including ISIS, in any way.”
Once the dust settles, having an experienced negotiator and a Western-friendly government like Qatar on our side would sensibly reduce such risks. Given the Qataris’ “zero problems with neighbors” policy, they might be in a better position to act as broker in the Middle East than other European NATO members.
It is normal for disagreements to arise within a Coalition fighting an unknown enemy in a complicated context. However, those differences must rise in terms of strategy and not in terms of ideological differences. The West might not share certain ideas and principles with some members of the Coalition, but we must not forget that the most important thing is that we share a common goal – stopping ISIL.