Yang: Striking in Vain

by Lorelei Yang | 9/29/14 4:45pm

This week, the U.S. and several Arab nations intensified airstrikes in Syria, targeting the Islamic State extremist group in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Al Hasakah and Abu Kamal. As of yet, the Islamic State has not commented on the strikes, but it is worth noting that the group used U.S. airstrikes to explain its execution of three Western hostages. Given the Islamic State’s track record of capitalizing on military action as a rationale for escalating violence against Westerners, America’s decision to increase airstrikes seems poorly thought-out.

History teaches us that U.S. military action is a potent recruiting tool for terrorist groups. In 2005, at the height of the Iraq war, CIA director Porter J. Goss testified to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists,” the Washington Post reported at the time. Goss called the Iraqi conflict a “cause for extremists” — a view that was echoed by Defense Intelligence Agency director Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, who testified that many people in Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia believed the war in Iraq indicated that the U.S. had a “negative policy toward the Arab world.”

While the anti-Islamic State airstrikes are being conducted by both the U.S. its and Arab allies (specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar), it cannot be denied that the airstrikes are a U.S. initiative. Extrapolating from lessons learned in the Iraq insurgency, it is easy to imagine that anti-Islamic State airstrikes will prove to be a useful recruiting tool not only for the Islamic State in Syria, but also for anti-U.S. organizations elsewhere.

Aside from concerns around terrorist recruitment, treating the Islamic State like an actual state in order to defeat the group is inappropriate. Faysal Itani, a resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argued in Time Magazine that the world should treat the Islamic State as a state actor when considering further measures, but he ignores crucial realities. Neither the word “state” in the organization’s name nor the territory under its control makes the Islamic State a legitimate state. The Islamic State has many characteristics as a terrorist organization that make it unlike a traditional state — an articulated commitment to extra-governmental ideals or goals, a citizen identity based on those ideals instead of a sense of place and an agenda that is independent of its survival as a “state.” Most significantly, the Islamic State does not regard itself as beholden to the norms by which other states abide, which delegitimizes its claims of statehood. The beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines are horrific not just because of their barbarism, but also because they violate international norms regarding due process and human rights.

At best, America’s efforts to bomb the Islamic State into submission will cause the group to leave Syria, but these tactics will not destroy the organization. Just like Al Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State in Syria, eradicating the Islamic State in Syria will only lead to terror reappearing elsewhere.

With this in mind, one question arises: if not airstrikes, then what? If the U.S. is indeed the leader of the free world, surely it cannot stand on the sidelines — particularly because Iraq has directly asked for help.

The key to “winning” against the Islamic State will not be found in military tactics. Fighting against the Islamic State — and terrorism in general — is about winning against ideas. Hearts and minds will secure victory against the Islamic State, and the U.S. and its allies would be better served by focusing on political change. They must change the way extremist Sunnis view the Iraqi government and discredit the Islamic State’s ideological principles. How, exactly, some of this can be accomplished is an open question. The State Department’s recent social media campaign against the Islamic State is a method that both the U.S. and its allies can use, but it is certainly not the only one. Regardless, it is undeniably true that fighting a conventional war against the Islamic State is the wrong move for both the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East.

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