Paris is just the beginning. The devastating attacks claimed by ISIS that killed scores in the French capital last week are a sign of things to come and a clear indication that efforts to combat this scourge have been a failure thus far.
The “global war on terror,” launched by the Bush administration after September 11 and continued by the Obama administration, has been an abject failure by any objective measure. Terrorism today is far more prevalent around the globe than it has ever been, in large part because of some of the policies of the American “war on terror.” With ISIS metastasizing around the globe, we seem further away from the objective than ever.
I’ve found that the best way to think about comprehensive counter-terror strategy is the boiling-pot analogy. Imagine that you’re presented with a large pot of scalding water and your task is to prevent any bubbles from reaching the surface. You could attack each bubble on its way up. You could spot a bubble at the bottom of the pot and disrupt it before it has a chance to rise. Many bubbles might be eliminated in this way, but sooner or later, bubbles are going to get to the surface, especially as the temperature rises and your counter-bubble capabilities are overwhelmed.
The other pathway is to turn down, or off, the flame beneath the pot—to address the conditions that help generate terrorism. When it comes to the question of ISIS in particular and broader terrorism in general, Western counter-terror strategy has focused on the bubbles and not the flame. While significant resources have been invested in intelligence and homeland security, too few have been invested in resolving the conditions that generate terrorism. In fact, too often, the West has contributed significantly to those conditions. In the case of ISIS, no event did more to create the conditions for its emergence than the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi state.
Today France is facing an all-too-familiar quandary. In the wake of the unprecedented attacks, the French government is looking for ways to respond. Already there is news of increased French airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria. We can recall that earlier this year, Jordan was in a similar situation, when its country was stunned by the gruesome execution of one of its pilots, who was burned alive in a cage. Nationalist music played on state-run TV stations for the next few days as Jordanian airstrikes hammered ISIS-held territory. Perhaps it satisfied the raw anger many felt, but it did little to weaken ISIS.
Turning down the flame that is causing ISIS to bubble over into Western capitals will require a very different approach. Currently, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Jordan the UAE, Iran, and others have conducted strikes of some sort against the terror group. The military budgets of this coalition, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the movie Independence Day, make up close to 70 percent of the entire world’s military spending, while ISIS is a mere nonstate actor with no formal military and certainly no intergalactic space invaders.
Despite this, ISIS continues to pose an asymmetric threat because the group has established a territorial base in Syria and Iraq that serves not only as a base from which to plan attacks, train, and procure resources, but also as an inspiration to ISIS franchisees around the world who see the so-called “state” as a greater achievement than anything Al Qaeda ever pulled off, and thus as the beginning of the fulfillment of their perverse dreams.
Eliminating that territorial base cannot be done with airstrikes, nor can it be done with Western boots on the ground. One of the great lessons of the Iraq War was that while powerful nations can occupy the territory of others and attempt to repress insurgencies, there will always be a day when the occupying power leaves—and everyone knows it, including the insurgents.
The only option here is a difficult one: restoring the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq by ending the Syrian civil war and the broader, regional Saudi-Iranian contest that feeds it.
Belligerents in the war have each tried to use ISIS to serve their narrative. Both the Assad regime and the rebels claim that only by eliminating the other can ISIS be defeated. In the meantime, ISIS has entrenched itself in the vacuum created by the war, and Iran and Saudi Arabia happily continue a fight to the last Syrian.
In the last two weeks alone, ISIS has aimed spectacular attacks at very pro-Assad Russia and Hezbollah, and at very anti-Assad France. The costs, to both sides, of not reaching a negotiated end to the war continue to rise.
The reality is that the Assad regime cannot govern a post–civil war Syria. It can only rule with an iron fist, and that is a recipe for continued war. Even the Russians and Iranians know this, and they must know that over time, propping up Assad will become increasingly costly and unsustainable. The Syrian people also deserve so much better.
At the same time, a change in the regime must be managed, and this is particularly difficult in the midst of war. A complete collapse (we are almost there) of state institutions would leave Syria in an even more vulnerable position—ISIS barbarians are already at the gates.
The parties that have backed both sides in the war, unable to agree on what sort of transition to support, have opted for the status quo—a continuance of war—rather than budge on their demands. This only means that more Syrians will die before the parties inevitably have the same discussion again months down the line. Now, however, as French and Russian bodies are added to the toll claimed by this war, perhaps the priorities and calculations in these capitals will begin to change.
Ironically, it may be ISIS’s own actions that bring global players together to end the war that ISIS has thrived on. For the sake of Syrians—the primary victims of ISIS—and for the sake of the victims of ISIS everywhere, let us hope that this is the case.