GlobeAfrika02AMERICAN DRONE BOMBINGS; German military equipment to the Kurds; Danish Hercules-transportairplane; and latest a Western core coalition. There seems to be enough of Western initiatives to resolve the security problem of the ‘Islamic State’. But is this the right strategy? Not according to Senior researcher at DIIS and member of RIKO’s Council Lars Erslev Andersen. 

By Kristian Skovsted

With the decapitation of yet another American journalist the popular demand from the West concerning an active and effective commitment to the fight of Islamic State (IS) grows. An unanimously parliament stands behind the deployment of a Danish military airplane; the President of France, François Hollande, mentions the possibility of implementing an operation against the IS with French soldiers; Barack Obama is sending 350 more American soldiers to Bagdad; Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary General of NATO, is considering a new NATO-mission in Iraq; Bashar al-Assad is mentioned as part of the solution by, among others, the former Danish foreign minister Per Stig Møller; and most recently the American foreign minister John Kerry has asked Denmark and eight other allies to take part in a core coalition which aim is to fight the IS. The question is, if a Western-led operation against the IS is the right strategy if IS is to be defeated not only militarily but also politically.

Counter productive

Not according to Lars Erslev Andersen, who believes that this strategy can end up being counter productive. Lars Erslev underlines the importance of knowing the underlying causes of the success and popularity of the IS if one wants to defeat them.

The recruitment mechanism that the IS is using, which has proven to be highly effective, has its roots in a sectarian, fundamentalistic and militant worldview. Opposite Bin Laden, who preached a united Muslim front against the West, the IS is following an ideology which arguments build on the understanding that Kurds, Shia muslims, Alawites and the West all have the Sunni muslims as their main enemy.

And that is precisely why the West should be careful and take into account who their allies are and on what scale the West it self should be engaged in the conflict, as the engagement will be used directly in the IS’s propaganda and recruitment mechanism which will legitimize their fight for ‘freedom’.

Who should fight the IS?

The military engagement should go hand in hand with the political engagement, according to Lars Erslev, and IS should be defeated simultaneously both in Iraq and Syria. Lars Erslev’s judgement is that in both countries the only viable way of defeating the IS is is through other Sunni muslim groupings:

“It is not the West, it is not USA, and it is definitely not Anders Fogh and NATO (…) it is the actors in the Middle East themselves. We have to support a Sunni muslim rebellion against the Islamic State. That is the only way.” – Lars Erslev concludes. 

In Syria this means that you have to support the opposition:

“We [the West] have to accept that the moderate opposition [in Syria] not alone is moderate but also radical and includes groupings such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic Front.  

The IS is not only an Iraqi problem but also a Syrian problem. Hence it is central, Lars Erslev underlines, that Bashar al-Assad not becomes part of the solution as he and his Syrian regime is one of the main root causes to the conflict and to the development of the IS and its popularity.

Inclusion and delegitimization

The prerequisite for a Sunni muslim rebellion to emerge is that the central government in Bagdad with its new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as promised include both Iraqi Sunnies, Kurds and other minorities. However, the Iraqi Sunnies have heard this promise before. In 2007 many of the Iraqi Sunni-triballeaders became involved in an alliance, the so called Sahwa, with the West and al-Maliki’s Shia-government. The idea of the alliance was that the Sunni-triballeaders should help defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq  for then to be included in the central government of Bagdad. However, as the present conflict is a tragic example of, this inclusion of the Sunni-triballeaders did not happen. Lars Erslev claims that Haider al-Abadi needs to provide the Sunni-leaders with guaranties concerning their future political influence if a Sunni rebellion is truly to take root.

Kerry’s core coalition

In this perspective it seems naive to believe that an American-led coalition should be the right solution. This strategy might in the short run defeat the IS militarily, however, politically it will only raise its legitimacy and global attention.

The IS is, according to Lars Erslev, more a rebel group than terrorist group which calls for other strategies to be taken. Obama’s anti-terrorism strategy seems to have worked in the anti-terrorism operation against al-Qaeda, but it is inadequate in an anti-rebels operation against the IS.

“You cannot use counter-terrorism in counterinsurgency which is what [Obama] is doing. I think that is a strategic mistake.”

Lars Erslev adds that a Sunni tribal rebellion first and foremost should be supported by the leading Sunni-states in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan (not Iran and the West), as it will delegitimise the IS and be the first step in a political defeat of the IS.

Kristian Skovsted is a Master student in Global Studies at Roskilde Universitet.