As the Caliphate crumbles, its notion lives on.
On October 17th, US-backed forces took back the city of Raqqa, Syria, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. On one hand, this is an amazing victory: much of the leadership is dead, their logistical capabilities are essentially nonexistent, and their oil revenue is almost gone. On top of this, most ISIS-held territory has fallen back into Syrian or Kurdish hands. President Trump has gone so far to say that “the end of the ISIS Caliphate is in sight.” But what does the fall of Raqqa really mean, and what should the global community do to counteract terrorist insurgency in the Levant?
The simple truth is that ISIS is much more than a state. It claims a divine mandate to bring back the previous glory of a unified radical Islam; in doing so, it intends on re-establishing Sharia law and eliminating Western influence on Islam. As such, it is important to distinguish ISIS from the ideology driving the movement. The Islamic State is falling apart in front of us: Its leaders are fleeing from government forces and its territorial control is collapsing. But the one thing that unifies all of the Islamic State is not supply networks or communication or money; it is the ideology of the people, and an ideology is much harder to defeat than a physical state.
To defeat an ideology, one has to think long-term about how each action affects the situation. More often than not, direct intervention only adds fuel to the fire and spurs anti-Western sentiment. Drone strikes, military presence, or direct unwanted interference in a region will only prolong the process. Instead, if we want to eliminate radical groups, we have to stop giving them a reason to be radical. It is America’s job to provide tertiary support in rebuilding from the instability in much of the Middle East in a non-threatening way that focuses on redefining the West’s relationship with the region.
First, a stable economy leads to a stable political climate. America must help provide the economic resources to rebuild in the wake of physical and social destruction. This aid need not be completely philanthropic, but it should be invested for the public good. Additionally, investing in the region could actually open up business opportunities and access to the area’s natural resources, such as oil.
Second, America should take an active role in crafting its global image. Unfortunately, much of the global community views the United States as an imperialistic, self-serving force to be feared, and who can blame them? Instead, America needs to take steps, through actions and words, to reframe America’s role in the global community as a peacemaker and a force for good; if countries can be convinced that American aid and interventionism is in their best influence, they will be more receptive to American interests and influence. Additionally, they will view our intervention positively, which will hopefully limit the growth of anti-Western sentiment, and, in extreme cases, radical terrorism.
Of course, this “soft” approach to foreign intervention leaves many factors outside of our control. With it, we would be unable to prevent people deemed contrary to American interests from getting power. It would scale back our military presence and leave us weaker in case an actual war broke out.
There is no easy solution to counteracting global terrorism or radicalization. But history tells us that the more confrontational we are, the less permanent change is. While fighting a well-established ideology, we must consider more than the physical structures we wish to destroy and acknowledge the harmful, often incendiary, effects of violent and unilateral decisions.