Why ISIS Cannot Be Negotiated With

Jonathan Powell argues that talking to terrorists has brought peace in the past. But the Islamic State really is different.

View of an area controlled by the Islamic State in Kobani, Syria, in 2014 (Jake Simkin / AP)

In his recent Atlantic piece on “What to Do About ISIS,” Jonathan Powell, a former senior British diplomat, posits that eventually, the West would have to negotiate with the so-called Islamic State. It’s a comforting thought, in a way—the suggestion presupposes that ISIS, just like many other armed organizations throughout history, is the kind of group that can eventually be reasoned with, however distasteful its enemies may find the prospect. Noting numerous examples in which governments have talked their way to peace with terrorist organizations, Powell acknowledges, “of course people argue that ISIS is completely different from anything we have seen before. But people have said that about each new armed group since the rise of the IRA in 1919.”

If Powell’s historical analogies worked, the struggle against ISIS would be a lot simpler. Unfortunately, the analysis underappreciates how direly different ISIS actually is. The armed groups that Powell describes as having accepted negotiated settlements were fundamentally nationalist organizations—even where the group or “nation” on whose behalf they fought was sometimes defined partly in terms of religious identity—with fundamentally political and pragmatic aims. ISIS is instead a radical supra-nationalist group based on a deeply perverted interpretation of Sunni Islam, and it has hugely maximalist goals.

Powell’s key example is the Irish Republican Army, which was a Catholic organization insofar as it used Catholic identity for political ends, cultivating a sense of Irish Catholic nationalism to fight for the ejection of the British from Northern Ireland and for political union with their Catholic brethren to the south. But the IRA was not trying to conquer the whole of the British Isles for Catholicism, nor to hasten the return of the Christian messiah and the end of the world. Powell, who was the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland when the Good Friday Accords helped bring an end to decades of violence in the country, notes that “when we sat down with the Republicans ... we found that there were a series of legitimate subjects they wanted to discuss—from power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants to the protection of human rights.”

ISIS, by contrast, is not fundamentally nationalist in this way, as Powell implies in his emphasis on the group’s appeals to Sunni identity, whether in Syria or Iraq. Rather, even while individual paths to joining ISIS may vary tremendously, and no doubt do in some cases rest on nationalist Sunni grievances, the leadership of the group has been quite clear about its genuinely held aims, which include the complete domination of Syria, Iraq, and locations far beyond.

It’s not the presence of religious identity as such that makes ISIS different. As Powell points out, there have been a number of militant groups in history that have used religion for political goals and were still susceptible to negotiated peace. The Irish Republican Army was one such example, as were various Muslim groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, which Powell points to as proving that governments have “made peace with Islamic [sic] guerrillas before ... so it is not impossible to do.” Religion, or even strong ideology, as in the case of the FMLN in El Salvador, does not make negotiation impossible. Indeed, many, if not most, of the rebel groups currently fighting Bashar al-Assad’s repugnant and brutal regime in Syria are motivated by religious precepts, and instrumentalize religion for political ends. Those groups can and should be negotiated with, and in some cases empowered against Assad and ISIS, even while their interlocutors must continuously interrogate any faults, flaws, or failings they may have.

But these other groups, from Ireland to the Philippines to Syria, fought or are fighting for limited political goals, within a defined geographic space—whether those goals were Catholic rights in Northern Ireland, Moro autonomy in the Philippines, or the reformation or end of the Assad regime in Syria. ISIS, however, is not primarily a Sunni Arab uprising aimed at protecting the civil or political rights of Sunni Muslims in Syria or Iraq. ISIS is an outgrowth of a broader uprising. But it is more than that.

This is evident, for example, in the context of the Syrian Civil War, where ISIS is one of the major combatants, but is correctly not invited to international negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. On that battlefield, and in contrast to other groups there, ISIS is not just an insurgency working for a specifically Syrian political cause. Its has regional and global ambitions that go far beyond defeating Assad’s army. And unlike the Kurds, whose own regional ambitions extend only to the lands Kurds have historically occupied, ISIS specifically rejects territorial limits to its power: Its very slogan is “remaining and expanding.”

An insurgency can end through negotiation and the satisfaction of certain, often predictable, political aims, such as the withdrawal of foreign military forces, or the granting of autonomy. But ISIS does not demand the withdrawal of foreign military forces—quite the contrary, it has expressed the wish to draw foreign armies into its territory, and to export its military force beyond Syria and Iraq. It does not call for the simple granting of autonomy to its members and supporters in Syria and Iraq—it works to end the autonomy of others in both places, and far beyond, not least through ethnic cleansing and the worldwide export of wanton violence. If ISIS were willing to be satisfied by, say, a joint Sunni Arab zone in Syria and Iraq, governed under a perverted form of Islamic law, then one could talk about the possibility, if not the laudability, of negotiation. But the point of ISIS is precisely that it cannot be satisfied without forcibly changing the very contours of the current international order.

Powell suggests that “even if some of the hardline leaders of ISIS ... want nothing less than their full demands (including ushering in the apocalypse), other more moderate leaders will, under military pressure, be prepared to settle for more modest gains.” Negotiations should, in his view, “strengthen those moderates’ positions in ISIS’s internal discussions.” Indeed, it is possible to “peel away” ISIS members, as evidenced by the number of occasions on which ISIS recruits have defected after realizing that the group isn’t all it is cracked up to be. But those “moderate” former members are essentially irrelevant to the group (unless of course they’re targeted for execution); they are not about to influence discussions within ISIS, much less take it over. These defections have in no way pushed the group toward being more palatable to international norms—in fact ISIS’s continued ability to recruit depends in part on the leadership’s very refusal to accept “nothing less than their full demands.” If ISIS remains true to its principles, that’s also the reason the world can accept nothing less than the group’s full defeat.