Recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad and the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 over the Sinai Peninsula have, in typically horrifying fashion, proven that ISIS has metastasised beyond its “J.V. team” origins. International outrage erupted, triggered by the attacks’ sophistication and the heightened threat they represent. Wary rivals like the United States and Russia should use their hardened resolve to seek deeper cooperation and assemble a coordinated front against the group. While impressive in the short term, these attacks may well have set the bell tolling for ISIS.
The United States and Russia, the strongest powers involved in the Middle Eastern quagmire, are the international lynchpins of two loosely opposing groups whose members are also, at least nominally, fighting ISIS. Washington is allied with Turkey and the Sunni Gulf states while Moscow supports the Shia governments of Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered Syrian regime.
Neither side can triumph in this wider regional power struggle that forms the backdrop for ISIS growth (although they are certainly not monolithic in their aims) without the support of their great power patron. This should afford both the United States and Russia strong influence over their allies in bringing their strength to bear against ISIS.
Geographically, the United States and Russia are also well situated to coordinate their coalitions’ anti-ISIS efforts. Russia is heavily involved in backing Assad in western Syria while the United States has a military presence in Iraq and infrastructure throughout the Persian Gulf. ISIS sits in a vice between the United States and Russia with the two powers on the brink of turning the screw.
Inviting as such a scenario may be, powers outside the region should resist deploying ground forces to fight ISIS. Large contingents of Western or Russian troops in Iraq and Syria will fuel ISIS’ return of the crusaders narrative and strengthen their recruiting power among prospective fighters. Such ammunition gifted to the group’s propaganda-savvy media minds would outweigh the benefits of large Western or Russian troop contingents and would place a far higher price on peace.
Any ground effort to dislodge ISIS must comprise primarily Middle Eastern military forces. Foreign opposition to ISIS will be answered with epithets against imperialism but relying on regional ground troops will undercut the group’s vitriol. Instead of going in guns blazing, Western and Russian militaries should support their partners with matériel, intelligence and expertise.
In addition, world powers should focus on providing humanitarian assistance to those who will inevitably be displaced by the bloody conflict to come. This should start on our own shores by taking in refugees, but should also extend to supporting areas liberated from ISIS control. Food and medical supplies should feature prominently on cargo plane pallets; their provision will further take the wind out of ISIS’ propaganda sails.
All this engagement should be coupled with strong oversight of the regional forces deployed. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has demonstrated how little regard the Saudi government has for following the rules of war. For all their faults, Western militaries do have a better record of following laws like the Geneva Convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions. They should make adherence to these conventions a strict precondition for military support.
Besides preventing excessive civilian deaths, a watchful eye overseeing the myriad of different troops — Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Iranians — will help limit inter-state and inter-ethnic power struggles which are liable to boil over into sectarian violence if left unchecked. Outside powers must attempt to safeguard both civilians’ lives and the fragile partnerships between regional rivals.
This task will be especially difficult with regard to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Any unbalanced gains by Tehran will feed Riyadh’s perception of impending Persian dominance in the Middle East. Iran, however, faces a greater threat from ISIS and, despite Saudi outcries, still plays a weaker geopolitical hand — as evidenced by the numbers of troops its military has thrown into the Iraqi-Syrian meat grinder. Iran’s weaker position as the sole functioning Shia state in the region will afford opportunities to extract concessions and allay Saudi fears. Striking the balance will be difficult given the political realities of the region, but increased pressure from the international community to cooperate will help bring both governments to the table.
Managing the political and geographical space left behind after the removal of ISIS will be difficult but ensuring multilateral cooperation during and after the military phase will provide a foundation for a continued peace. The primary task is preventing the creation of a Mesopotamian power vacuum while delivering an equitable settlement to all state actors involved (unfortunately, Kurdish hopes for statehood are most likely unattainable as countries struggle to maintain security).
This can only be accomplished through an internationally-backed political settlement in Syria, and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. Much to the dismay of American neoconservatives and Saudi clerics alike, any agreement that has a chance of maintaining peace must include Moscow and Tehran. Securing important players — those with the capacity to seriously undermine stability — as stakeholders presents an alternative to a zero-sum regional game and the only path to solving the Middle East’s many other problems.
Given its location and its resources, the Middle East has been a continuous battleground between competing regional and international powers, none of whom have succeeded in delivering peace. It is telling that it took the deaths of Westerners and Russians to stimulate any semblance of cooperation, but surely it’s time to try something new.
Alex Davies is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.