As France, the United Kingdom and Russia ratchet up their attacks on ISIS, President Obama has come under increasing pressure to escalate military American action against the extremist organization. Though he has emphasized, time and again, that intensified military action is unnecessary and harmful, the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino have increased domestic pressure for more aggressive action against ISIS. As of now, the U.S. is in the process of escalating its military campaign against ISIS. To weaken an extremist organization whose strength lies in its ideology, this is the wrong course of action. Killing the radicals but perpetuating the environment that allowed for the radicalization in the first place is a strategy doomed to failure.
ISIS is an extremely complicated entity. It was born out of a variety of circumstances, and its sustained existence is the consequence of complex Middle Eastern politics compounded by the massive failure of the international system to solve the Syrian Civil War. While world leaders fret over the thousands of foreign fighters that ISIS has managed to seduce, not enough attention is paid to how the terrorist organization was able to accrue such a large domestic base in the first place. In order to understand why ISIS exists today, it is crucial to understand the circumstances that allow it to so effectively garner its earnest, eager local recruits.
The short answer is this: extremist ideology flourishes in environments of instability, and especially so in regions with long histories of oppression. A well-educated, economically and socially secure citizen is not easily lured by extremist ideologies; opportunities for employment and education are the antidotes for radicalization. Most local recruits are young people searching for a purpose and a “chance to feel like a citizen.” Moreover, enormous numbers of young Muslims both inside and out of the Levant were born into societies that harshly oppress specific Muslim ethnic groups (such as Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iran and pre-2003 Iraq, and Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia) or Muslims in general (such as in Western Europe). As a Sunni ‘caliphate,’ ISIS plays deeply on the embedded pathos of animosity towards the current regimes that Sunni Muslims share. These factors, unfortunately and harshly combined, set the region to simmer for decades. Today, ISIS provides a violent, brutal — but extremely effective — outlet for the boiling resentment felt across the region towards traditional sectarian power structures.
To a great number of its recruits, ISIS is not only an avenue for power; it also provides a sense of citizenship, community, and a particular form of self-governance. It is an organization with political capacity, however violent, in which alienation is exchanged for a newfound sense of belonging. ISIS projects order, but it also crucially fronts holding a capability that the Iraqi and Syrian governments seem to be sorely lacking. Though ISIS is not without military defeats, it maintains a sleek and frustratingly sophisticated social media arm that makes the organization attractive even in retreat. Though ISIS may be an exceptionally cruel and barbaric extremist regime, it does an excellent job marketing itself as the effective, well-structured government its recruits grew up lacking, intensely bolstered by the contested moral upper hand it awards itself.
The continued existence and expansion of ISIS seems to be the outcome of a global effort to wish away the rampant instability, oppression and sectarianism that defines the Middle Eastern political sphere. While NATO and Russia bomb away, ironically validating ISIS’s theological claims about a “Crusader” alliance determined to destroy them, the regional powerhouses and archrivals of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shia-ruled Iran continue to oppose each other in the Syrian Civil War — a barely masked proxy war they’ve both dug their heels into. As global leaders outside the Middle East similarly ignore the dramatically increasing Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions, they continue to subscribe to the false belief that a military campaign alone will eradicate an organization whose persistent appeal is the product of extreme regional instability and political divisiveness.
Bombing away until only bits of ISIS fighters remain will not rebuild Syria or Iraq and enable them as functioning states, nor will it aid in ending the sectarianism that birthed ISIS — besides, the U.S. is running out of bombs to drop. Even if the West were somehow able to militarily excise ISIS from its territory but otherwise maintain the Middle Eastern status quo, the void left would be quickly filled by a similar extremist organization that plays upon ethnic resentment and repression.
As of now, foreign campaigns against ISIS only scratch the surface of a powerful machine — and may even be doing more harm than good by creating popular Western resentment in the Middle East, although that is a different inquiry altogether. ISIS is, at its core, a violent response to political repression, sectarianism, and disenfranchisement, although it may be heavily cloaked in the righteousness of religious ideology. It will be impossible to defeat ISIS without restructuring the political society in either Iraq or Syria, and it is inconceivable to think of eradicating extremism without equalizing political power irrespective of religion and allowing political and social participation of marginalized Muslims across the world.
The Arab Spring — the spark for the Syrian Civil War, which in turn sparked the creation of ISIS and ultimately brought so many of these regional tensions to the fore — illustrated that there is a significant, popular desire for peaceful progress throughout the Middle East. In accordance with this sentiment, the UN has painstakingly drafted a peace agreement and political roadmap for Syria’s transition to democracy, which includes internationally overseen “free and fair elections” in 18 months.Yet this won’t necessarily solve the problems of sectarianism and repression that characterized Syria’s government before the war, and throughout the region a mountain of questions remains regarding the future of extremism, political tensions, and other proxy wars, both present (such as in Yemen) and future.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the eventual level of success the UN’s peace plan may achieve, and although Syria today teems with complex political violence and volatility, it may actually bear the most potential for reform. The UN resolution and a (hopefully) peaceful end to the Civil War will provide a ‘clean slate’ of a sort which the international community can help to rebuild. However, other Middle Eastern countries — such as Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt — will prove much more difficult to restructure politically, due to the twin constraints of sovereignty and regional political interests.
The tactics and barbarity of ISIS are shocking; the existence of such an entity can hardly be called the same. Military action executed by foreign powers may provide some assistance in the fight against extremism in that it can eliminate some gratuitous murderers and their violent leaders, but it took a symphony of regional chaos and discord to create such a ripe environment for extremism, and it will likely take a regional resolution to eradicate it. This is precisely why the problem of ISIS, and extremism, will not be solved soon and cannot be solved by military action alone.
Zoe Savellos, a sophomore studying political science, is the international editor of Stanford Political Journal.