A Strategy for the Strategy

By Tannuva Akbar, M.A. Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

As President Obama addressed the nation on Dec. 6 after the San Bernardino shooting, his strategy to fight terrorism was outlined once again. The strategy included “coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and military assistance to anti-Islamic State local ­forces; cutting off the group’s financing and stopping the flow of foreigners rushing to join it; ­counter-messaging to block the group’s online appeal; and humanitarian aid to the millions fleeing its brutality on the ground.” As we start to break down this statement, it is apparent that ISIS cannot be defeated with only one method. It has to be a concerted and comprehensive approach in order to address all the aspects of weakening and ultimately destroying ISIS.

Canada is part of this mission and an important member of the coalition. However, we made headlines recently when Canada decided to withdraw from coalition airstrikes. Much has been debated about this already and the blame game will eventually unfold. Historians will judge whether this decision was a right or a wrong move for Canada. One question that is relevant to ask is: how much difference does it really make? Canada has made significant contributions to many international coalition missions in the past. But for now, if Canada is determined to withdraw from the airstrikes, then the government is accountable to provide the rationale behind it and explain what those six CF-18s were bringing to the table before and what the alternative strategy is if we are no longer involved in a combat role. That way we can really see if Canada is making an impact at all. Moreover, why is it expected of Canada to jump on the bandwagon if we are constantly left alone just to follow and fulfill someone else’s requests?

tremistmRegardless of what Canada’s contribution to the coalition is, perhaps the most important question that needs to be asked is who should lead the fight against ISIS? The Western contribution is critical to the success of the coalition mission but having the West lead these efforts may not bring the desired outcomes. Is the Arab coalition unable or unwilling to step up? If it is both, then our strategy needs to be reconfigured to provide more incentives to the Arab countries to fight.  This strategy should be centered on a political component, which includes the elements of good diplomacy, negotiation, military and humanitarian assistance for both the short and the long term. We are talking about two countries in the Middle East with a deep-rooted history of religious, ethnic and sectarian violence and a unique and agile enemy.  How much success can we expect to lead a fight against extremism when it is the Arabs who will inevitably shape the future of the Middle East? While the Western leadership in the coalition is crucial to destroy ISIS for the time being; simultaneously, we need better strategies to enable a strong Arab nations-led coalition in the long run.

Subsequently, how effective would the Western led military coalition be when the hostility between regional players such as Saudi-Arabia and Iran keeps growing; as tension escalates over fighter jet controversy between Russia and Turkey; and as Saudi’s war with Yemen continues to deteriorate? These are only some examples of major recent events, which depict the complexity of the players who are determined to defeat the common enemy, ISIS. ISIS will take advantage of any divisive policies and any corrosive relationships among allies because they fear unity more than military might.

Since its inception, the caliphate has gradually made the borders of Syria and Iraq more irrelevant. What if there is no Iraq to fight for? According to a recent survey report, average Iraqis are frustrated due to the lack of a responsible government and proper institutions in the country. Many disgruntled Sunni Muslims from Iraq will continue to join ISIS because for them, the alternative is worse.  Moreover, ISIS is gradually being pushed out of Iraq and Syria but it has started to tap into other places such as Libya. In light of this, the West needs to prioritize the solutions to minimize the conflict of interests in the Middle East and then re-evaluate the impact of the airstrikes or other military action. That would help redefine how the West can contribute in a meaningful way.

The nature of transnational terrorism has become more sophisticated and less-understood, no one can guarantee the best policy to defeat ISIS or other extremist groups.  All we can do is to take lessons from the past and be wise about our future maneuvers. If we want to defeat extremists, the Muslim ‘Ummah’ needs to stand up in solidarity and lead the fight. That solidarity is stronger when it is backed by military and humanitarian assistance from the West.

Image Air Force Thunderbirds_MG_5162 from Kool Cats Photography over 6 Million Views via Flickr. 

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