The terrorist organization, Daesh, has captured the world’s attention with gruesome videos of beheadings, wanton destruction of antiquities and skilled use of social media. It has also captured a large part of eastern Syria and western Iraq, proclaimed a caliphate based in Raqqa, Syria and attracted foreign militants from around the world.
US President Barack Obama says that Daesh must be degraded and ultimately defeated. He has appointed Gen. John Allen to lead a coalition of some 60 countries in the task, relying on air strikes, special forces and training missions. Some critics want him to send more American troops; others say that the United States should settle for a doctrine of containment.
In the current US presidential campaign, some candidates are calling for “boots on the ground.” They are right: Boots are needed. But the soldiers who wear them should be Sunni Arabs and Turks, not Americans. And that says a lot about the nature of the triple threat that the US and its allies now face.
Daesh is three things: A transnational terrorist group, a proto-state, and a political ideology with religious roots. It grew out of Al-Qaeda after the misguided US-led invasion of Iraq; and, like Al-Qaeda, it appeals to extremist elements. But it has gone further, by establishing a caliphate and is now a rival to Al-Qaeda. Its possession of territory creates the legitimacy and capacity for offensive jihad, which it wages not only against infidels but also other Muslims.
Daesh is extremely adept at using twenty-first-century media. Its videos and social-media channels are effective tools for attracting a minority of Muslims — primarily young people from Europe, America, Africa and Asia — who are struggling with their identity. Disgruntled, many are drawn to “Sheikh Google,” where Daesh recruiters wait to prey upon them. By some estimates, there are more than 25,000 foreign fighters serving in Daesh today. Those who are killed are quickly replaced.
The tripartite nature of Daesh creates a policy dilemma. On the one hand, it is important to use hard military power to deprive the caliphate of the territory that provides it both sanctuary and legitimacy. But if the American military footprint is too heavy, the terrorist organization’s soft power will be strengthened, thus aiding its global recruiting efforts.
That is why the boots on the ground must be Sunni. The presence of foreign or Shiite troops reinforces Daesh’s claim of being surrounded and challenged by infidels. So far, thanks largely to effective Kurdish forces, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, Daesh has lost some 30 percent of the territory it held a year ago. But deploying additional Sunni infantry requires training, support, and time, as well as pressure on Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government to temper its sectarian approach.
After the debacle in Libya, Obama is reluctant to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, only to see Daesh take control of more territory, accompanied by genocidal atrocities against Syria’s many non-Sunnis. But Assad is one of Daesh’s most effective recruiting tools. Many foreign militants respond to the prospect of helping to overthrow a tyrannical Alawite ruler.
The US diplomatic task is to persuade Assad’s supporters, Russia and Iran, to remove him without dismantling the remains of the Syrian state structure. A no-fly zone and a safe zone in northern Syria for the millions of displaced people could reinforce American diplomacy. And providing massive humanitarian assistance to the refugees (at which the American military is very effective) would increase US soft power enormously.
As it stands, the funding and coordination of America’s soft-power strategy is inadequate. But we know that hard power is not enough, particularly to contest the cyber territory that Daesh occupies — for example, by developing a capacity to take down botnets and counter hostile social-media accounts.
Even if the US and its allies defeat Daesh over the coming decade, we should be prepared for a similar Sunni extremist group to rise from the ashes. Revolutions of the type the Middle East is experiencing take a long time to resolve.
Looking ahead in a region where the US has interests, American policymakers will need to follow a flexible strategy of “containment plus nudging.” However, US foreign policy toward the Middle East will have to develop a higher level of sophistication than the current debate reveals.