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To Defeat ISIS, Look to Local Politics

In the week and a half since the atrocity in Paris, the West has united behind calls to redouble the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) wherever the terror network may be found. 

French President Hollande has declared the attacks an "act of war" and promised a pitiless response.  A fiercer military response to the so-called "Islamic State" is absolutely required, and in fact the multi-national bombing campaign has already begun to roll back the terror state's borders in the battles of Sinjar and elsewhere.  But as attention naturally focuses on the military response to ISIS, it's worth recalling that the conditions that led to the terrorist group's rise were political.  So too will be the means for its ultimate defeat.

It's easy to dismiss ISIS as a gang of tech-savvy goons who through sheer savagery took over a swath of stateless land in the troubled Middle East, but this caricature vastly misrepresents their real center of gravity.  If this image held true, then eliminating ISIS' leadership and military would be sufficient to snuff out the threat forever.  But the truth is that ISIS is reluctantly supported by a fair number of the people currently living under their control.  Why is this?  Because the sectarian, exclusive politics in both Iraq and Syria have closed all avenues of legitimate power for their Sunni-religion citizens, pushing them into the arms of radical ideologues. 

ISIS, then the more modestly-named Islamic State of Iraq, got its start “defending” the Sunni population of Iraq against Shia militias in the chaotic aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall (never mind that they had provoked the sectarian violence in the first place).  ISIS and their al Qaida predecessors were crushed there, for a time, when the Sunni tribes realized the extremists were doing them more harm than good, and those tribes joined forces with the United States military surge of 2006-2007.  Crucially, the deal was sealed, for a time, through electoral politics: first the governorate elections of 2009 and then the parliamentary elections of 2010 offered the politically isolated Sunni population a chance to re-engage in the governance of their country.  While working for the International Republican Institute (IRI) in Iraq at the time I remember talking to Sunni sheikhs who were desperate for political recognition even while fearful that America’s eyes would turn elsewhere and they would be left once again to the tender mercies of the militias and extremists.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.  The 2010 elections proved an upset victory for the multi-sectarian list of Ayad Allawi, a secular politician who created a coalition broad enough to win seats in both the Sunni and Shia heartlands of his country.  This would have been a profoundly encouraging result, if Allawi had been allowed to assume the position of Prime Minister his plurality would have supposed.  Instead, he was outmaneuvered by the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, abandoned by an increasingly disinterested American administration, and shunted toward a made-up position which he never received.  In the following years, as American troops withdrew, Allawi’s Sunni allies were arrested or exiled, and the promise of a share in their country’s future once again slipped from the collective grasp of Iraq’s Sunnis.

In the meantime, ISIS had been putting down roots in new and fertile soil.  While Prime Minister Maliki was reminding Sunnis why they had no future in Iraq, Bashar al Assad was doing the same in Syria.  What began there in 2011 as a peaceful and broad-based movement for democracy, just one of the Arab Spring revolutions sweeping the region, quickly turned violent as Assad followed the brutal lessons of his father in dealing with dissent.  Soon the protesters were shooting back, a popular uprising turned sectarian, and ISIS moved in.

Fast forward a few years, and ISIS now rules the vast majority of the Sunni crescent of land between Baghdad and Damascus.  Many factors have contributed to this spectacular rise, not least of which is the organization’s clever use of social media to attract the world’s violent narcissists and gullible losers to its cause.  But it is no accident that ISIS caught fire in this particular corner of the Middle East, home to an aggrieved population excluded from the levers of government.  Indeed, this is not a new problem: Bashar al Assad’s father Hafez faced his own Sunni insurgency in his day, then led by the 1980s extremists du jour, the Muslim Brotherhood.  Even if ISIS is crushed as the Muslim Brotherhood was, there will be no long-term peace in either Iraq or Syria while the Sunnis there do not control their own future or have a stake in their own government. 

Ensuring that stake is the real hard work of the war against ISIS.  After years of bloodletting, animosities run deep.  But there’s always hope, as any number of countries once broken by civil conflict can attest.  Iraq is, despite its many flaws, a representative democracy that has seen multiple election cycles and peaceful transfers of power, and the new Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has moved decisively to increase Sunni participation in his government.  There is legitimate political power to be had there for all of Iraq’s citizens, if ISIS were to be defeated.

In Syria, heroic men and women continue to resist ISIS even while living under the terror state’s yoke.  Many pay the ultimate price.  IRI is privileged to work with Syrians living throughout the country, of every faith, who remain committed to a democratic future.  There are ad hoc local councils that seek to meet the desperate needs of their constituents living in liberated parts of the country, and groups of citizens advocating for the protection of civilians to anyone who will listen.  These people aren’t the mythical “government in waiting” the United States pines for, but they’re the foundation from which inclusive politics could be built.  But even these brave men and women, hunted by ISIS for the truth they speak, insist that peace cannot be had without removing the political conditions that first led to war.  As one said to me recently: “You cannot get rid of Assad but leave ISIS, and you cannot get rid of ISIS but leave Assad.”

The people of Raqqa, Mosul and Ramadi don’t want to live in a medieval dystopia ruled by an apocalyptic cult – but they fear the death squads, the political and economic dead end, that they think will come with a return to the pre-war status quo.  If the international community is serious about defeating ISIS for good, we need to show the people of the Sunni crescent that they have a real alternative, and a future worth living for.