What to Do About ISIS? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the Charlie Rose segment seen above, Graeme joins a round table with Will McCants of Brookings and Ian Fisher of The New York Times to address ISIS and the Paris attacks. Meanwhile, another reader joins our ongoing discussion:

I am no specialist, only a French journalist from Egyptian upbringing and background. I will bypass all the basic info of what is ISIS, what it stands for, why it has been expanding so rapidly, who are its members, and how come it so easily finds masses of recruits dedicated to die in the pursuit of imposing sharia law worldwide. A lot of information and analysis material is available, written by over-competent people.

Firstly, I want to make clear that no negotiation is possible with any organization like ISIS, because the leaders, as well as the followers, are deep believers of the wahhabi-salafi creed, by which Allah has ordered them:

– To spare no effort to impose sharia worldwide,

– To live in the same manner as lived the early companions of the prophet Muhammad, i.e. beard and kameez for the men, burqa for the women,

– To consider a sin any occupation that is not prayer and related activities, i.e. no music or singing (except religious), no smoking, no alcohol (the Koran says nothing about drugs...), no movies, and no any other cultural or creative activity, no woman outside of the house except under the control of a male family member, no man-woman relationship before marriage, women are more or less considered property sold over from family to husband, etc., etc.

– To flog any person caught in (small) sin, such as smoking or singing.

– To stone anyone caught (even lightly) flirting with a member of the opposite sex.

– To chop off the heads of all convinced of atheism or converting to another religion.

– To chop off the heads of homosexuals and other non “straight” humans.

– After the creation of the caliphate, ISIS considers all Muslims in the world can only follow sharia law, i.e. sign all agreements or settle all disputes under the arbitration of local imams, who in turn refer to ISIS in case of doubt. Muslims living outside the caliphate territory are forbidden to obey the laws of the countries they live in, their kids are forbidden to even believe what their teachers tell them... Etc.

– All Muslims living outside the caliphate are free to cheat, steal, and double cross as long as their victims are not ISIS members.

Within territory conquered by the caliphate, everybody will either submit to ISIS’s wahhabi-salafi kind of Islam, or pay a hefty monthly (or annual) tax, or have their heads chopped off.

Secondly, let me stress that ISIS is not a “normal” country that can be at war with another country. For ISIS, there is no possible negotiation or compromising with “the enemies of Allah,” i.e. all countries not under the caliphate’s jurisdiction!

So it is really is either “them” or “us” and there is no alternative. So, no alternative left other than the eradication of ISIS. In my view, air-strikes alone cannot be the solution, at least as the sole means of defeating ISIS. Nowhere has it ever worked so far.

The solution would be a short-to-medium term strategy of strangulation, in a twin-mode operation:

1. We all have seen videos of the hundreds of tanker trucks running daily on the desert roads linking Irak and Syria to their neighbor countries. They carry crude oil out of the fields occupied by ISIS and refined oil back into ISIS territory. These are not highways but narrow one-lane-each-way roads. A first fly-over by U.S., French, Russian, or other combat planes, with a possible round of machine-gun in the sand, will have all civilian cars back away. Then the aircraft would zero in on the trucks and ... boom ! In no time the oil traffic is dead.

2. A no-traffic belt would be set around ISIS territory. Monitored by high-flying AWACS aircraft or the likes, with jet fighters or combat helicopters dealing with any vehicle or payload trying to cross the invisible border.

ISIS has for sure billions and billions of dollars. But so far no one has as yet discovered a way of turning dollars into fuel or ammunition with prayers only! So: no fuel, no working tanks or vehicles of any kind; and no ammunition, no weapons firing.

In a very short time, the information about ISIS being in a (very) difficult situation will go viral. ISIS enthusiasts may be fanatics, but they surely are not stupid. Potential recruits will very soon shy away. The same goes for fighters already with ISIS: they will start looking for ways to desert.

Overt and covert policing will be needed for quite a while to track down and pick up wannabe jihadists, as well as former Iraqi military who joined only because a stupid American general disbanded the Iraqi army overnight. At the same time, radical (but not yet jihadist) Muslims elsewhere in the world will have to be adequately dealt with, and the large numbers of Muslims in the world who only “feel for” ISIS while against their modus operandi, will have to be taken care of one way or another, including re-education.

Update from a reader:

Some of your reader’s emails on the topic sound more like they are discussing pieces on a board than actual countries with real people in them, and lack a nuanced and historical understanding of the populations and regions involved. “Just give Damascus to Ankara”; the writer apparently sure that the Arabs of Damascus would be happy to return to Ottoman (Turkish) rule because they are all “Sunni,” as though this was a unitary label and without question constituted their primary identity. (Do these people realize that many, many Sunnis support Assad? Or that there are many people who are not Sunni in Damascus?)

In the same way the term Shia is used with no understanding of what an Alawi, a Twelver, or a Zaidi is: these groups being the “Shia” in Syria, Iran, and Yemen, respectively, and all of whom have very little in common religiously or culturally (Alawi drink wine! Zaidi pray in mosques with Sunnis!).

Sorry to strike such a critical note, but this is precisely the sort of half-informed geopolitical fantasizing that brought us the Iraq war.

A simplified view of the situation allows people to imagine simple solutions; the fact is that every redrawing of borders in history has been massively bloody, and they will continue to be so. Stability under a dictator is definitely preferable to the chaos of a civil war, and the idea that one can simply destroy and replace authority anywhere without a horrible amount of suffering is naive and frankly idiotic in light of events in Iraq, Libya and Syria. (Note that the abject failure of the first did little to prevent cheer-leading for a similar course of action in the later two cases.) Read your Hobbes.

I would highly recommend this this post on the “great sorting out” underway in the Middle East right now. This is similar to the sort of dislocations of the wars of religion and the world wars in Europe (modern religious pluralism and representative democracy both having come about only after hideous ethnic and religious cleansing had created more homogeneous states). The idea that anything can “solve” these things easily or quickly is just wrong.