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In the present conflict between Islamic State and its international enemies, a dual battle is taking place. There is the battle primarily centred in Syria and Iraq over territory and there is a truly international conflict for the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims globally. In order to achieve a meaningful victory against IS, its opponents must fight both battles simultaneously and by doing so placing themselves in a difficult balancing act I feel many of the nations directly opposed to IS do not fully appreciate or acknowledge.
With regards to conventional military strategy, the battle to halt and roll back IS territorial advances is predominant. The territory IS holds affords it numerous quantifiable benefits. It provides the group with revenue from oil, taxes and extortion. It provides IS with a local pool of available manpower to recruit or conscript from and provides IS with the space to manoeuvre its forces and supply routes strategically.
Its territories also provide IS with a number of non-quantifiable benefits. Most notable is the simple fact that holding territory qualifies IS to present itself as a caliphate. The more territory it holds, the more valid Islamic State’s claim to be a legitimate caliphate will appear. The more valid Islamic State’s claim to statehood seems, the easier it is to recruit Muslims who nostalgically desire the return of the caliphate of old or are attracted to the glamour of being part of a ‘state’, not simply an armed group.
The fact that territory is of such great value to IS means that in order to combat IS and the wider issue of Islamist extremism, territory must be taken back from IS. This involves the application of military force to physically remove IS from territory it controls. IS contrasts with the majority of other terrorist groups in that it lacks the freedom to freely concede territory and melt into a civilian populace without meaningful consequence. Its legitimacy and capability to wage Jihad was tied to physical territory from the moment Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate.
How Islamic State’s opponents go about fighting a war over territory is where the precarious duality of the conflict reveals itself. Jihadist groups have long made use of a victim mentality as a potent recruiting tool and IS is no different. The innumerable barbaric and callous acts of the Assad regime during outgoing war in Syria has provided IS with a very marketable message to Sunni Muslims; “Come to Syria and protect Sunni Muslims against the barbaric Shia Alawite army of Assad”.
IS has also effectively harnessed historical distrust of the USA, its European allies and Russia in the Middle East for its recruiting propaganda. Every act of foreign intervention and particularly incidents of collateral damage to innocent bystanders can be used and, is used, effectively by IS recruiters as an exploitable avenue for radicalisation. US strategists are certainly aware of this, with a number of airstrikes against IS reported to have been aborted due to risk of civilian casualties.
Even in the event that IS is totally defeated in the territorial sense, if the military campaign is not carried out in such a fashion that refutes Islamic State’s propaganda of how the nations opposed to it are at best are apathetic towards ordinary Sunnis, if not outright hostile towards them, Islamic State’s defeat will mean little in the long-term. IS is of course just the latest and most dangerous manifestation of transnational Salafi-Jihadism in the grand scheme of things. Unless IS is defeated in such a way that lays clear the moral superiority of the opponents of Salafism, it is simply a matter of time until another group fills the void IS will have left, a group which could be much more difficult to root out.
This fact of course makes the reading of continued war crimes by the Assad regime and Shia forces in Iraq, incidents of ham-fisted application of air power by Russia and incidents of collateral damage by western coalition forces grim reading indeed.
In the ongoing conflict with IS, radicalisation must not only be countered at home by governments and NGOs, but counter-radicalisation must be fully implemented into an effective military strategy against Islamic State’s military forces. It is only this way that we can walk the path towards dealing a truly lasting defeat to extremism and move towards perhaps, one day, winning the war against extremism.
It is a path as thin as a razor’s edge and one which will require great commitment, intellect and courage to walk. For that reason I cannot help but feel fearful going forward. Having seen so many slips and falls, with no end to the ongoing madness in sight.
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