The War on ISIS Cannot Be Won Militarily Alone

The war on the Islamic State (ISIS) has significantly weakened the organization in Iraq and Syria. Yet ISIS can still punch above its weight as demonstrated in the most recent attacks it has claimed. In Turkey, an attack on the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve left 39 dead and dozens injured, while the Berlin attack two weeks earlier left 12 dead and 56 injured. The continuous attacks demonstrate the limitations of the war on terror and the organization’s exploitation of growing social, political, and economic polarization plaguing the Middle East and, increasingly, the West.

In an interview with MEMRI, Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Freihat, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Jordanian military, asserted that ISIS has been significantly weakened losing 60 percent of its territory in Iraq and 35 percent in Syria. The commander also estimated that the organization lost 25 percent of its manpower and about 50 percent of its top ranks.

“By the end of 2017, ISIS will be in the final stages,” predicted Freihat confidently. Yet, optimism may be premature: al Qaeda showed in Iraq that jihadist ideology thrived in the chaos of polarized societies. Today, Al-Qaeda’s spawn, ISIS, appears to be doing the same.

In Europe and Turkey, ISIS has tapped into divides within society—among both recent immigrants and second and third generation nationals. Expert Will McCants at the Brookings Institution points to French and Belgian political culture as a counterterrorism problem. He also says many Muslims view aggressive secularization programs as a deliberate attack on their religion. Third generation citizens and recent migrants both face similar problems of identity, integration, and high urban unemployment rates among youth, making them prime targets for radical recruiters.

The perpetrators of the Paris November 2015 attacks, for example, were mainly French and Belgian citizens, with some hailing from Belgium’s predominantly Muslim Molenbeek district. Tunisian national Anis Amri—the suspect in the Berlin attack—was one of many who fled his country in the wake of the 2011 revolution.

ISIS has adopted a similar strategy in Turkey, adapting it to the growing rift between secularists and Islamists as highlighted in the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul. The nightclub—described as a favorite among celebrities—was a playground for the rich and secular elite celebrating the New Year. The latter celebrations have been a source of tension between secularists and conservatives, with Turkish Islamist media such as the Mili Gazete warning a few days before the Reina attack that people who celebrated the New Year will be exposed to dangerous consequences. The cycle of ISIS attacks and government crackdowns will only deepen the rift between the secular and conservative and trigger a possible backlash by alienating conservatives who, though not themselves carrying out attacks, consider places like the Reina nightclub a sign of moral depravity.

At the political level, ISIS has positioned itself at the heart of the region’s conflicts. ISIS is promoting its agenda by taking advantage of the sectarian rivalry pitting Shiite Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia. This conflict represents a significant driver of war in the Middle East, aggravating tensions and triggering violence in countries home to Sunni and Shia populations including Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria.

The absence of a fair solution to the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, will only feed the ISIS narrative. ISIS, and any other organization it may spawn in the future, will continue to appeal to members of the marginalized Sunni population.

In Iraq, the government has focused on a military solution to ISIS and has yet to address the refugee crisis, internal displacement, and the rebuilding of cities destroyed by the war on terror, in order to restore trust within the various communities. Shiite community leaders attempted, through a national settlement proposal, to abolish sectarian and ethnic quotas in parliament and put an end to the monopoly of power by the Shiite parties. Sunni leaders welcomed the initiative, but they abandoned it with Iraq’s passage of a law in December establishing the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The PMU is accused by Amnesty International of carrying out forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Sunni areas as a means of revenge.

In Syria, Shiite-Sunni polarization is greater: there the Arab Sunni community accounting for over 60 percent of the population remains outside the power circles monopolized by the Alawites led by president Bashar al-Assad. The regime bolstered by Iran and Shiite militias from Lebanon and Iraq has been able to wrest back the country’s largest urban hubs, which resulted in 203,097 civilian deaths, 188,729 of which were at the hands of the regime.

Political and social polarization is aggravated by poor economic growth and large economic disparities. Economic growth across the region plummeted for 2015, from a regional average of 5 percent in 2008 to 2.4 percent in Jordan, 1 percent in Tunisia, 2 percent in Lebanon, and 4.2 percent in Egypt. In addition, GDP growth between 1995 and 2012 stood at 1.65 percent in the MENA region, much lower than growth rates of 4.1 percent in South Asia and 3.1 percent in East Asia and the Pacific during the same period. Income inequality is significantly high in the region, estimated at 38.2 percent. The byproducts of large social inequalities are a slowing economic growth, worsening education levels, poverty and unemployment, factors, resulting in a lack of opportunities for youth across the Arab world, which in turn perpetuates a vicious cycle of unrest and terror

These struggles cannot be tackled by war only, but more importantly by promoting dialogue and reform. Civil society actors and governments should promote discourse between Islamist and secularist youth in areas known to be easy recruiting grounds for ISIS and other extremist groups, such as Molenbeek, impoverished areas of Paris, and Bizerte, Tunisia. The government themselves also need to jumpstart dialogue among themselves, as their hostile relations translate into policies that aggravate sectarian relations, as epitomized by Iran and Saudi Arabia carrying out a proxy war in Syria. Additionally, to avoid another wave of chaos on which radical organizations thrive, governments can no longer shy away from political and economic reforms. Without these changes, ISIS and other radical organizations will continue to feed on the feeling of injustice and humiliation believed to be at the heart of the radicalization process.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: Tunisians demonstrate against the return of jihadists fighting for extremist groups abroad, on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in Tunis, Tunisia January 8, 2017. The placard reads "Angela Merkel Tunisia is not the garbage of Germany ''. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi