Interview with Lars Erslev Andersen

The US-led coalition has been dropping bombs over Iraq since august in the fight against the Islamic State. They have also supported the ‘moderate’ rebel groups and the Kurds with weapons. However, Islamic State is still very strong. Though it appears that the attacks on Islamic states financial infrastructure do have an effect IS maintains control over a lot of territories and continues to recruit new warriors. RIKO has interviewed senior researcher at DIIS and member of RIKO council, Lars Erslev Andersen, on his view for which strategy to use in the fight against Islamic State.

Lars Erslev Andersen: The way I see it we should precede with a containment strategy in the fight against Islamic State. This strategy entails cutting off any possibility IS have to get support and help from outside in achieving their goals. Islamic State needs help from people with different skills, such as doctors, engineers and journalists in order to build their society. These are the people we need to prevent from entering and joining them. Not to disavow passports from IS support as states do today. But rather by helping the neighbouring states to control the borders.

But it is not only people crossing the borders that need to be controlled. Ammunition runs dry and weapons very quickly get warned down and IS continues to need these resources. They are not able to survive and continue on the weapons they have stolen from the Iraqi and Syrian army. And it actually is possible to prevent supplies to reach Islamic State.

It is not only about preventing supplies from going in. But also to prevent that the goods they wish to sell are not able to come out. By this, they would lose credibility from the people who sympathise with them. As their credibility is based on their ability to build a state, this means securing the social needs of the people within their territory, fighting the enemy with violence and remunerate their warriors. I believe it would be a hard blow to Islamic State if their project for state building were weakened. It would mean that the whole thing could fall apart from inside.

RIKO: Western and Arabic air forces have long been bombing oil refineries and stocks under the control of Islamic State, and the American treasury department is trying to hit their banks and moneymen. Yet the group is still strong. Why is it not working?

Lars Erslev Andersen: There is no policy towards the governments in Damascus and Bagdad. The fact that there is a new government in Bagdad is nothing more than fancy words and symbolism. It is well known that nothing has truly changed and the old sectarian policy continuous. This inevitably needs to change. And when it comes to Damascus there is no policy at all because the international community has no stand against Assad. It is imperative that the coalition starts to figure out what it wants in the region.

If any agreement can be reached on an effective containment policy, and equally policies on the governments in Iraq and Syria, I believe we will start to see Islamic State fall apart within a foreseeable timeframe. I don’t think we need to talk about three years, as Obama does. It is of course not possible to say with any certainty, but I believe that it will be visible within a year or so.

RIKO: If the coalition succeeds in weakening Islamic State, and they do start to fall apart – then what is the next step?

Lars Erslev Andersen: This is actually a very important step. We need to be clear on what to do with those who defect from Islamic State. We cannot just liquidate them, or send them to extermination camps. We need to deal with them and to have a clear policy on this matter would be advantageous in this regard. This leads us to the question of negotiation.

RIKO: Is it even possible to negotiate with Islamic State? Everybody, from the Danish parliament to the Americans, is absolutely opposed negotiating with them?

Lars Erslev Andersen: That is because we have portrayed Islamic State as the devil itself. At the UN general assembly in September the different state leaders competed in portraying Islamic State as the essence of evil. The group is totally dehumanised and portrayed as being beyond any sense of rationality and dialogue.

Islamic State has indeed themselves been a part of creating this image. They use very extreme and horrifying actions and circulate videos and images of them liquidating and decapitating hostages. They have committed massacres and UN has accused them of crimes against humanity.

When all said and done it usually always ends the same. There will be a need for entering into a dialogue with parts of the organisation. We have seen this in similar situations – most recently in Afghanistan. When the western coalition went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 Taliban was depicted not that different than what we see with IS today. They were viewed as medieval fundamentalists that basically were barbaric without language and anything. And today we see Afghans, Americans and Pakistanis negotiating with them.

They are, of course, not talking with Mullah Omar, but you have people in the negotiations that are high up in the organisation. We will see the same thing with IS. No matter how outrageous it sounds at the moment.

RIKO: What outcome is desired if negotiations happen?

Lars Erslev Andersen: The hope is that members of the organisation will defect and join the coalition against IS. For tribes and other groups to condemn them and take a stand against the project and society IS is building and give their support for a different society for Iraq and Syria. Currently, it may not make much sense to send diplomats to negotiate with them. However, if succeed in dividing IS from inside then negotiations are the next step.

RIKO: So containment, and pressuring the IS economically is the strategy forward – together with a clear and agreed upon policy towards the governments in Iraq and Syria. How can Denmark be a resource in this strategy?

Lars Erslev Andersen: With this strategy we need to work with the neighbouring states, especially Turkey but also Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These countries need to close their borders. We have a commitment to the UN resolution that was adopted by the general assembly in September. And the only way to make sure it is followed is by closure of the borders.

And Denmark can contribute to this. Denmark has Special Forces that are exactly trained for this. Not to just fight IS in battles but to monitor the activities that are happening across borders and find ways of stopping them. So I believe that Denmark together with the other countries in the coalition can contribute to having the borders closed.

This interview was conducted by Anders Seneca Bang and Nina Holst Christensen.

Translated by Rumet Cilgin