Ranj Alaaldin is a Doctoral Researcher at the LSE and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, specialising in the Middle East.
The Government is right to assert that more should be done to combat ISIS in Syria and that the group should be confronted in Syria as much as it is in Iraq. It is in Syria that ISIS’ main apparatus is located, where its so-called capital, Raqqa, is found and where it is able to launch attacks elsewhere in the region, as well as train and indoctrinate recruits.
One year on since ISIS declared its so-called Caliphate and since the international community launched its air campaign in August 2014, the organisation is still operational and resilient. It continues to swell its ranks through brutal coercion and exploitation. ISIS, however, is only able to continue its reign of terror because of the weakness of its opponents.
Before seizing territory in northern Iraq, last year in June, ISIS operated with impunity and had at least three years’ worth of space to flourish, namely by taking advantage of ungoverned territory in Syria, peopled by weak and impoverished populations. In other words, whilst it might be argued that military action may embolden the group, it is evident that inaction also has its consequences.
Defeating ISIS requires an intensification of what has so far been an abysmal air campaign. The international community is nowhere near using the full range of its military capabilities and the Defence Select Committee was right to recently call on the UK Government to do more in the fight.
ISIS should not be allowed to repair and rebuild. If intensifying, and not just extending the air campaign so that it includes targets in Syria, is what the government is calling for then that should be welcomed, given that the UK’s military contribution to the campaign thus far stands at an estimated less than 5 per cent of total strikes.
An intensification of the air campaign will allow the UK to define and assert its role in the war on ISIS and, therefore, provide conviction and direction to the campaign against extremism, both here in the UK and abroad. That narrative for too long has lacked an assertion of the values and principles that the UK stands for and, as a result, has been dominated by extremist groups.
Interventions in the Arab and Islamic world over the past decade suggest thinking twice before doing so again. But ISIS is a threat here in the UK as much as it is a threat to the broader international community. The macabre attacks in Tunisia show how the local and international overlap considerably, as does the continuing influx of British jihadis to Syria and Iraq.
But airstrikes will not be enough on their own. The UK government should make stabilisation and good governance initiatives a central part of the campaign. ISIS thrives on the lack of institutions, weak or failed states and a volatile and polarised region. Remedying this requires good governance, institution-building and reconciliation of divided communities.
British support for local actors doing the fighting and dying is also extraordinarily insufficient. For example, the Kurds, who are pro-West and secular, have proven to be effective, organised and disciplined fighters. Amid the devastating conflict in Syria, they have built a viable, though still vulnerable, autonomous region in Syria’s northeast. They have inflicted heavy blows on ISIS in recent weeks and last week took a town just 30 miles from Raqqa.
Yet, they remain short of heavy weapons and ammunition, and their current arsenal is no match for the billions of dollars of US military equipment their opponents looted in Iraq last year.
The war on ISIS has proven to be a war of attrition. However, it can be won. This is no longer the invincible group which it once projected itself to be, as a number of significant setbacks over the year have proven. But defeating it requires matching our words with deeds and no longer providing the breathing space it has enjoyed and taken advantage of so effectively.