Comment: The only sustainable solution to ISIS is to empower local Sunnis

Despite Assad's best efforts, the conflict in Syria is not binary


In the wake of the atrocity in Paris David Cameron has accelerated the push to extend British airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) beyond Iraq into Syria. As Cameron put it:

“It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that [ISIS] has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated. Raqqa, if you like, is the head of the snake.”

There is no doubt that this is so. The British government’s decision to war against ISIS – but only on the Iraqi side of an Iraq-Syria border that ISIS has abolished – makes no sense. This one-handed clapping is especially puzzling because ISIS’s most valued holdings are in Syria.

From revenue streams – namely oil fields and populations that can be taxed/extorted – to ideological legitimacy and recruitment tools, such as holding the town of Dabiq where ISIS prophesises End Times will take place, drawing in a large stream of foreign fighters, ISIS’s centre of gravity is in Syria.

Unfortunately, the disarray of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is now hampering the fight against ISIS. In an interview Corbyn gave to the BBC earlier this week and in the remarks of Corbyn’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham on Question Time on Thursday night, it is clear that the Labour Party is going to bind itself to the motion passed at the party conference which calls for a United Nations Security Council resolution to be passed before Labour would even consider supporting airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

The Security Council, of course, is beholden to the veto of Russia and China. And Moscow – with its deep intervention in Syria on the side of the regime of Bashar al-Assad – will not sign-off on Western intervention in Syria, even when focussed on ISIS, lest it open the way to action against its client regime.

Corbyn declared himself unsupportive of airstrikes in Syria ‘at this stage’, and flatly refused to answer the question of whether he would, in principle, ever use force against Islamic extremists. Corbyn has since stated that Labour will not be allowed a free vote on the question of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.

“We would have to consider it as a party,” Corbyn said. On the outcome of such considerations, Corbyn added: “I can’t predict at this stage.”

I, on the other hand, have a sneaking suspicion I can predict which way this will go.

Corbyn also managed to get himself into a secondary row by saying he was ‘not happy’ with shoot-to-kill orders against Islamist terrorists if an attack of the kind that happened in Paris was underway in Britain. To give such orders risked ‘end[ing] up with a war on the streets’, said Corbyn, which seemed to many to misplace who it was that was bringing war to the streets of European cities.

Corbyn and his spokesmen, while officially remaining agnostic, have hinted that their opposition to extending the airstrikes into Syria is because the government doesn’t have an integrated plan for what comes next – the ‘How does this end?’ fallacy, which almost invariably simply means: “I don’t want to do this.”

It is astonishing that the opposition should have no ideas of its own for how to handle one of the premier security threats to the country, and is instead waiting on the government to offer its proposal that they might critique.

The attempt by Corbyn to divert the question of what to do about ISIS into one about police cuts is also taking up valuable political space and time that might otherwise be used to prepare a multi-stage policy to defeat ISIS.

Extending airstrikes into Syria against ISIS is not a cure-all. Britain’s resources are indeed limited and will be stretched even further if she is operating in Iraq and Syria, since, as adumbrated in the recent Foreign Affairs Committee report, extra resources will not be deployed.

But increased freedom of action for Britain to target ISIS leaders and renegades like Reyaad Khan that pose a direct threat to national security, plus the political benefits of full participation in the anti-ISIS Coalition, is reason enough to support extending the airstrikes.

A ground component will be needed to defeat ISIS in Syria, and there are three broad options: the Assad regime, the Kurds, and the rebels and tribes.

The Assad regime’s crimes are not presented on high-resolution video as ISIS’s are but they dwarf in scale and intensity what ISIS has done: the systematic use of sexual violence, the burning alive of dozens of civilians, the torture to death of at least 11,000 prisoners in circumstances that put observers in mind of the Nazi Holocaust, indiscriminate barrel bombs and the targeted bombing of bakeries, marketplaces, and hospitals to ensure that rebels could never set up an attractive alternative administration (which the regime never did in areas held by ISIS), and the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction.

Apart from the help all of this has given ISIS in presenting itself as the defender of the Sunnis, it should make people think a thousand times before advocating alliance with Assad – not least for the sake of their own reputation.

The Kurds in Syria have proven skilled at defending their own areas, but projecting power into Arab-dominated areas where ISIS rules is deeply problematic, and it is for these reasons that even with Coalition air support the Kurds have only been able to drive ISIS from about one-third of a province in a year.

The rebels, by contrast, without Coalition support but rooted in, and with legitimacy from, the Sunni Arab populations over which ISIS is attempting to rule, expelled ISIS from nearly five provinces in six weeks at the beginning of 2014, and in the two provinces that the rebels completely cleared ISIS still has not returned.

And it is ultimately with the rebels, and the Sunni tribal forces, that an alliance has to be made to defeat ISIS. The only sustainable long-term solution to the ISIS problem is to empower local Sunni Arab actors to take control of their own security, offering an alternative to the communities currently ruled by ISIS’s statelet that does not involve sectarian domination by Assad or his Iranian-controlled armed forces.

Engaging with the (largely Sunni) Syrian rebels and the tribes does not come without risk, but a recent report from the Institute of the Study of War underlined that – despite Assad’s best efforts to make it so – the conflict in Syria is not binary, and the demise of the nationalist and moderate rebellion has been much overstated.

To enlist the Sunni rebels to defeat ISIS requires being committed to the removal of Bashar al-Assad, however, and on that David Cameron’s government has given cause for concern, which might yet undo his counter-ISIS strategy.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter

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33 Responses to “Comment: The only sustainable solution to ISIS is to empower local Sunnis”

  1. Uuta

    “Empower local Sunnis,” huh?

    Well, moderate Sunnis would be fine, but I don’t think the West knows how to tell the difference between moderate and radical.

    I mean, hey — the US empowered Daesh and al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) didn’t they? And they are ‘local Sunnis’ to their regions.

  2. Ringstone

    Much as I detest Corbyn, and he uses it disingenuously, the “How does it end?” question is not a fallacy as stated in the article.
    Iraq is in the state it is because having won the firefight and eviscerated the Ba’athist regime there seems to have been no further thought than a victory parade and all the competing Arab religious and political interests joining together to salute Motherhood, the Flag and Apple Pie.
    That went well.
    Before we step back into the swamp that is the Middle East, maybe this time we’d better have a cunning plan as to how to finally drain it; given the fact that there will be lots of alligators and no Arab is unequivocally your ally that will be easier said than done.

  3. Michael Worcester

    It is not the only way, you could kill them all or at least give it a good go. Wars are won when the losers surrender. The trouble with the Corbynistas is that they are not even surrender monkeys they are in league with the devils.

  4. Sid

    “empower local Sunnis”

    But they’re just another bunch of islamic terrorists !!!!

  5. Tamerlane

    This is kiddie student union stuff.

  6. Bradley EC

    Fine. Let’s wipe them out with all we’ve got then consider your idealism.

  7. jesus

    Just keep shooting everyone till the ones who are left learn to get along.

  8. Bosun Higgs

    “Command to Typhoon Strike Force. Abort mission. Repeat, abort mission. Mr Corbyn has invited them for tea on the House of Commons terrace.”

  9. Richard Puller

    Don’t need to, they are doing a good job of shooting each other, just keep selling them the ammo and put up a big fence round the outside.

  10. Bosun Higgs

    Attack those who attack us. We have a legitimate interest in that. Leave the others alone.

  11. Plantfennel2015

    You know that, and I know that, but if they tell themselves it is part of their culture, who is Jeremy Corbyn to disagree with them? He can’t be judgemental. It might lose him Sunni votes in key marginals .

  12. Plantfennel2015

    We could just tell Erdogsn to take a running jump and arm the Kurds a bit better.

  13. Plantfennel2015

    The modern Labour Party is run like a kiddie student union, after all.

  14. crepuscularsilhouette

    According to Emma Sky in her book The Unravelling (very insightful and pretty funny too, also made the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction shortlist) says that ISIS rose to power on the back of the USA ignoring the results of the 2010 Iraqi election. The moderate party IRM composed of Sunni and Shia won the election, but the US reckoned that Iraq should be ruled by a Shia strongman so let Al Maliki (just such a figure) continue as premier. This had the effect of disenchanting voters as to the value of democracy and disenfranchising Sunnis.

    Then Obama having been responsible for this fiasco pulled troops out, thus removing even the possibility of maintaing the status quo by force.

    Kyle is right, according to this analysis, i.e. the only way to get the situation “back on track” is to involve Sunni tribes. It has been done before in the Anbar Awakening. Back in 2006/7 Iraq was basically suffering a civil war and many Sunni tribes had allied with Al Qaeda. The US managed to ‘persuade’ them to change loyalties by paying them off sectarianism of Qaeda anyway. This was also helped by the Sunni tribes being disaffected with the brutality of Al Qaeda. Presumably, things now are worse in some ways, but also ripe for change in others. Worse in that ISIS are more established, more brutal, and Sunni tribes will be even more disenchanted with the empty promises of the Yanks (see above). However, the Sunni tribes will presumably be suffering under ISIS and looking for change.

    However, there must some sort of political settlement that includes Sunni tribes for them to want to go for this. One other interesting fact that Sky mentions is that at the time of Bush’s invasion of Iraq 40% of Baghdadis were in mixed Sunni/Shia families. Of course, since then things are much much worse, but there must be a memory of happier times that one would hope people would harken back to. ISIS are relatively small, they are outnumbered by the Sunni tribes.

    Bombing can help in battles (see Kobani), but can’t win a war. Roll on the Anbar Awakening Mark II.

  15. Ringstone

    “Kill them all, God will know his own.”
    One things for sure, there’s no more “Cathar problem”.

  16. Bradley EC

    You make no sense. The following is nonsensical: ”all the competing Arab religious and political interests joining together to salute Motherhood, the Flag and Apple Pie.”

  17. Tettodoro

    No – they didn’t.

  18. Ringstone

    Common expression of American values…you should get out more.

  19. Uuta

    Yes they did. Read, google, and weep.

  20. Maurice Ital

    Denmark is now admitting the problem but still coming up with the wrong solution.

    Immigrants in Denmark to be taught about sex

    Hoping to combat the disproportionate number of rapes committed by immigrants and their descendants, a number of political parties are pushing for sexual education to be included in the Danish language courses provided to foreigners, Metroxpress reported.

    Between 2013 and 2014, 34.5 percent of all individuals convicted of rape were immigrants or their descendants despite those groups only accounting for roughly 12 percent of Denmark’s total population.

  21. Maurice Ital

    You hate all those things, right?

  22. Maurice Ital

    Yes they did.
    ISIS is the creation of the US, the Israelis and the Saudis, all coming together to try and wipe out a common enemy, and not caring how they do it.
    They opened Pandora’s Box however.

  23. Tettodoro

    Complete and utter nonsense, without a shred of fact to support it. The provenance of ISIS is well documented by a multiplicity of thoroughly researched sources. If you depend on Google for your knowledge of the world you end up immersed in the swamp of consipracy theorists – and that will rot your brain.

  24. madasafish

    The only good ISIS terrorist is a dead one..

  25. Michael Worcester

    Not really bothered about Syria compared to the Salafist problem we have here. We cannot allow this group to spread into the wider Muslim community. Egypt and other Muslim countries don’t stand for it . Why should we?

  26. Alan Williams

    I think trying to say Assad created ISIS is one heck of a crackpot conspiracy theory, where as the USA, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UK arming isis is very blatant and admitted by Obama, the Turks were caught by the Kurds, and Saudi don’t even bother taking the shipment numbers off!!! The Turks and Israelis are buying their oil. Russia is now bombing those oil refinaries which the Western coalition ‘couldn’t find’ for two years while pretending to fight them. It’s ok the Russians have stepped in now, we had best reset our latest western backed version of the Mujahadeen (ISIS) and shove some real boots on the ground before Russia and Assad get all that territory back…….

  27. Michaelinlondon1234

    As Kyle Orton points out we should pay more people to kill each other.
    We could start in the UK and work out. (this is me being cynical.)

  28. treborc

    And if non terrorists are killed then so be it.

  29. Uuta

    No. YOU need to google it,,, as you are probably from the West.

    In fact, prove your ‘hypothesis’ buy a plane ticket to the ME and see it for yourself. OR just continue to sit in your dark box with blinders and ear plugs. Who cares?

    (google) “Truth in media: the Origins of Isis”

  30. septicisle

    Once again LFF offers space to “Middle East analyst” Kyle Orton to put forward his Saudi-orientated views on how we have to arm and support jihadists to defeat other jihadists. While that Institute on the Study of War report on the Syrian opposition is interesting in the sense that it shows just how fragmented and utterly broken the Sunni opposition still is, it doesn’t come closer to proving anything about the “demise of the nationalist and moderate rebellion” being overstated, as it provides no numbers or any real insight into the groups other than the fact they exist, if indeed they do. Some of those battalions listed no doubt add up to about 2 men and a dog, while the groups claimed to be “separable from al-Nusra” may not prove to be so in practice. It was only once the Russian intervention began that our leaders started pretending there still was a “moderate” opposition, as then they could criticise the Russians for taking the action that has made the most sense so far.

    Admittedly, and to tone done the ridicule for just a second, there are no easy answers on how to defeat Islamic State when so many of the forces on the ground are reprehensible. Persuading the Sunni tribes to defeat Islamic State could have been an option, only it long ceased being a practical one when many of the tribes that made up the Iraq Awakening forces have thrown their lot in with the jihadists in the face of the discrimination they faced. Essentially what Orton is proposing here is that we should carry on doing what we’ve been doing without success since the opposition turned mainly jihadist, letting our allies in the Gulf funnel weapons and funds to their favoured groups, be they Islamist or jihadist, only more so. Why would these groups be interested in fighting IS now when so many other groups are? Why not sit back and do what IS has done to them in the past, wait until they’ve practically been defeated by others and then move in and take their land? Why fight people who they really only have a quarrel with over just who it was had the proper right to be the official al-Qaida affiliate in Syria?

    And once they’ve defeated Assad with more massive loss of life and more refugees fleeing, what then? Representative government of those who are left, or a Sunni state in debt to the Saudis which is surrounded by enemies and dominated by jihadis? Of all the possible policies we could pursue, this would be the most self-defeating, bloody and idiotic of the lot. Which really is saying something.

  31. Wobbly chops

    Leave them to get on with it, deport nutter uk Islams to the caliphate , close the boarders .

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