February 12, 2015

The ongoing coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham will do very little to destroy the militant group and may, in fact, enhance its ability to recruit more fighters, according to Salam Fayyad, a former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.

ISIS is a “nonstate actor” and it will be “very, very difficult to win a war in a decisive way,” Fayyad said at the Atlantic Council on February 11.

“We need to begin to look at the content of the military component of the effort so far…If it continues to be of the kind that has been taking place for the past six months, it is not out of the question that this kind of intervention could actually reinforce ISIS’ hand and make it stronger and better able to recruit more fighters,” he added.

US President Barack Obama on February 11 asked Congress for authorization to continue fighting ISIS, which he said poses “a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to US national security.”

The US has cobbled together a coalition of more than sixty countries to work toward eliminating the threat posed by ISIS. The coalition has conducted more than two thousand airstrikes on ISIS targets.

Obama said in remarks at the White House that the military campaign is working.

“We’re disrupting their command and control and supply lines, making it harder for them to move. We’re destroying their fighting positions, their tanks, their vehicles, their barracks, their training camps, and the oil and gas facilities and infrastructure that fund their operations. We’re taking out their commanders, their fighters, and their leaders,” Obama said. 

“Our coalition is on the offensive, [ISIS] is on the defensive, and [ISIS] is going to lose,” he added.

Fayyad, however, said it would be very hard to defeat ISIS.

“All it takes for some to survive bombings and they will declare victory,” said Fayyad, who is a Distinguished Statesman in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

“What you have here…is an insurgency-turned-self-proclaimed state. You go after them militarily, you risk another transformation back into insurgency,” he said.

While US and NATO military operations against al-Qaeda degraded the terrorist group’s ability to carry out attacks in Afghanistan, the operations in Iraq and Syria are not of the same order of magnitude, said Fayyad.

“If their command and control is not completely degraded then you are looking at a serious risk of this becoming a more dangerous phenomenon internationally, not only regionally,” he added.

Fayyad said religion is “almost like an afterthought” for groups like ISIS and that a strategy needs to be developed that addresses the root causes of this problem, including high rates of youth unemployment and a deep sense of injustice.

Stephen J. Hadley, who served as National Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration and participated in the panel discussion, agreed.

If the US rolls back ISIS, but fails to address the underlying problems “they will fester and we will in four or five years have ISIS 2, which we now know will be more brutal than ISIS 1, and they will in the end of the day come for us,” said Hadley, who is a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors.

“We need to help the people in the region try to find a way forward, and then we’re going to have to make a commitment to do that recognizing that it is going to be the work of decades, if not a generation,” he added.

Francis J. Ricciardone, Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said ISIS’ rise has underscored the gravity of the grievances in the region.

“Maybe this is a service that ISIS has almost provided with blinding clarity to us in the West and the stakeholders in the region that the problem is actually a profound challenge to attack on the very legitimacy of the order of regional states,” said Ricciardone, who served as the US Ambassador to Turkey from 2011 to 2014.

“They are not challenging regimes that have governed badly … they are not challenging insufficient provision of services…they are challenging the source of legitimacy of those who say, ‘We are the state, we set the rules, we enforce them, we govern, we provide and guide economic activity etc.,’” he added.

Fayyad said the US must make a strategic decision to “be on the right side of the people.”

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.

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