By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On August 2 Efraim Inbar wrote a paper arguing that “the destruction of Islamic State is a strategic mistake.” Prof. Inbar is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University as well as a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
He makes several points in his article, which deserve to be rebutted one at a time:
- He notes that IS initially was successful in exploiting the void of power in Iraq and Syria, but now it’s power has been blunted. “IS is capable of only limited damage,” he claims.
Wrong. Although IS is weaker it still inspires people abroad to convert to its cause and murder people. From afar it may seem it is only doing limited damage. But on the ground it is killing innocent Kurds and suppressing the innocent people who live underneath it, not to mention the thousands of Yazidi women it continues to abuse as slaves. The concept that it only does “limited damage” is as strange as considering that Hitler’s Germany was only incapable of doing “limited damage” in 1945 and therefore perhaps it was not worth defeating it completely. The 320 people murdered in Baghdad may have been killed by “weak” IS, but they were murdered nonetheless.
2) He argues: “A weak IS is, counterintuitively, preferable to a destroyed IS. IS is a magnet for radicalized Muslims in countries throughout the world.” This is because “If IS is fully defeated, more of these people are likely to come home and cause trouble.” Thus it’s destruction fosters a “terrorist diaspora.”
Wrong. The defeat of IS will not create a diaspora. The IS members and lone wolves are not people who left Syria usually, they are indigenous, home-grown, killers. That was the case in the church attack and in Bangladesh and elsewhere. The idea that a collapse of IS would send Jihadists like some sort of cancer borne on the winds throughout the world is not true. The gates are closing for Jihadists to leave IS, that is why so many people who wanted to join IS are now committing lone-wolf attacks at home, precisely because they cannot go to Syria. The longer IS survives, the more they will kill. It also is not true that it is preferable to have local citizens go to Syria and be “shaheed” there as the author asserts. First of all because this harms Syrians and Iraqis, but also because most of the flow of IS foreign fighters has been cut off now. The EU thought it was a good idea to export 5,000 local Jihadists to the Middle East as a way to get rid of them, but we know now that actually many of these people came back and it was not a “success” to merely export murderers abroad. IS served as a center of these murderers, like al-Qaeda before it. Destroying it doesn’t make them go away, but preserving IS is not helpful in the long run.
3) Because IS is a failure, it also dissuades radicalism, “A dysfunctional and embattled political entity is more conducive to the disillusionment of Muslim adherents of a caliphate in our times than an IS destroyed by a mighty America-led coalition.”
Wrong. A weak al-Qaeda was not somehow helpful in convincing Muslims not to become extremists. In fact IS emerged afterword because there is a Jihadist dialectic, in which one extreme group gives birth to another. A dysfunctional terrorist-empire is not good for anyone in Syria and Iraq. It exports murder and harms local people. Destroying it is for the good of everyone.
4) Then Inbar claims that destroying IS would “help the brutal Assad regime” and that Hezbollah is being “seriously taxed” by fighting IS.
Wrong. There is no evidence that IS has been doing much fighting against the Assad regime or has been a major challenge to Hezbollah or Assad. In fact the destruction of the Syrian rebellion can be perfectly charted to have begun with the rise of IS, as foreign fighters and locals put their strength into IS, rather than fighting Assad, put their energies into mass rape and genocide and harming Kurds, rather than fighting Hezbollah, and discredited the rebellion. IS destroyed the rebellion’s chances against Assad, ISIS uses the rebels as a buffer against Assad as well.
5) He claims “IS are truly bad guys, but few of their opponents are much better.”
Wrong. The Kurdish opponents of IS who have been the major force fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, are the much better than IS. They are the diametric opposite, shielding minorities, empowering women and doing everything IS does not. The opponents in the Assad regime, or Hezbollah or Shia militias may be the other side of the coin of IS, but they are only one enemy.
6) Supposedly, “The defeat of IS would encourage Iranian hegemony in the region.”
Wrong. Initially Iran’s involvement in Iraq was empowered by the arrival of ISIS in the summer of 2014. Iran’s Shia militias have been a driving force against IS. But IS is not a counterweight to Iran, rather it emboldens Iran, empowers it and provides it an excuse to meddle in the region under the claim “we are fighting IS.” Destroying IS would take some wind from Iran’s sails. Sunnis have legitimate concerns for their rights in Iraq, but Iran and its allies are able to label them all “Islamic State” and therefore excuse suppressing the Sunni Arabs. So IS doesn’t counterbalance Iran, it invites more Iranian meddling. The main counterweight to Iranian hegemony are Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and the Kurdish government in Iraq (KRG). IS only serves Iran’s interests.
The fact is that pretending preserving IS is necessary as a strategy is like pretending that a remnant of Hitler’s Germany was necessary as a buffer against Soviet Communism and Stalin. But the way to defeat Stalinism isn’t to inject Nazism, it’s to inject democracy and human rights and other issues, including legitimate nationalism. For instance as long as their was Nazism, Stalin could be seen as the good guy fighting the Nazis, and he was allowed to swallow up Eastern Europe in the process. IS isn’t a counterweight at all, it’s a net destroyer that allows other evils to jump into the void. Nazism destroyed Eastern Europe, it wasn’t a buffer against Stalinism.
IS must be defeated, it should have been defeated a year ago. Other extremists will come in its place. But preserving it is not an answer, nor should it be a strategic goal. It doesn’t reduce terrorism just because it is weak, it will not spread terror when it’s land area is reduced, it isn’t counter-balancing Iran.