Military attacks are wrong, illegal in international law, immoral because of civilian casualties, a distraction from diplomacy, and make real solutions impossible.
We have to recognize that military attacks are not only wrong in a host of ways (illegal in international law, immoral because of civilian casualties, a distraction from vitally needed diplomacy) but also that those strikes are making real solutions impossible.
Why? We have to start by understanding just why ISIS is so powerful.
Why ISIS is so powerful
First, ISIS has good weapons (mostly US and Saudi weapons that have flooded the region for more than 15 years). So we need to start thinking about the need for an arms embargo on all sides.
Second, ISIS has good military leadership, some of it provided by Sunni Iraqi generals who were kicked out of their positions in the military when the US invaded and who are now providing training, strategy and military leadership to ISIS-allied militias and ISIS itself. These guys are a very secular bunch. They drink and smoke, and they will be unlikely to stick around ISIS if they believe they have any chance of recovering their lost jobs, prestige, and dignity. That could happen over time, but only if a really new government takes hold in Iraq, but it’s not going to be enough to simply choose a new prime minister and announce a new government made up of too many of the same old sectarian faces.
Third, ISIS has support from Sunni tribal leaders – the very people President Obama says he wants to "persuade" to break with ISIS. But these are people who have suffered grievously – first during the US invasion, and especially in the years of the US-backed Shi’a-controlled sectarian government of Nuri al-Maliki. They were demonized, attacked, and dispossessed by the government in Baghdad, and many of them thus see ISIS at the moment as the only force they can ally with to challenge that government. And many of them control large and powerful militias now fighting alongside ISIS against the government in Baghdad.
Fourth, ISIS has support from ordinary Iraqi Sunnis, who (also largely secular) may hate what ISIS stands for, its extremism and violence, but who have suffered terribly under Maliki's sectarian Shi’a-controlled government from arrests, torture, extra-judicial executions, and more. As a result they also are willing to ally with ISIS against Baghdad, at least for now.
So, weakening ISIS requires ending the support it relies on from tribal leaders, military figures, and ordinary Iraqi Sunnis. The key question is how do we do that?
Defeating ISIS without bombing Iraq or Syria
Step One: Stop the airstrikes. Because what we in the US see as “hooray, we got the bad guys” is seen by many in Iraq, especially the very Sunnis the president wants to persuade to break with ISIS, as the US acting as the air force for the Kurds and the Shi’a against the Sunnis. Thus the airstrikes defeat the important goal of ending popular support for ISIS, and instead actually serve to strengthen the extremist organization.
Step Two: Make real the commitment for “No boots on the ground.” In announcements during just the last few weeks, the White House has acknowledged sending close to 1,300 pairs of boots to the ground in Iraq. And who knows how many unacknowledged pairs of CIA and JSOC (special operations forces) sneakers may already be in Iraq? We need a call to “Stop the Slippery Slide Towards Even More Boots on the Ground!” The US must also stop flooding the region with arms that only result in more violence against civilians, and end its policy of ignoring the violations of human rights and international law committed by its allies. We need enforcement of the Leahy Law (that prohibits assistance to foreign military units known to violate human rights) here at home.
Step Three: Organize a real diplomatic partnership to deal with ISIS. Even though the US is carrying out airstrikes and deploying new troops in Iraq, everyone agrees there is no military solution. So diplomacy must have center stage. That means serious engagement with Iran, among other players. Tehran has more influence in Baghdad than Washington does. If we are serious about wanting to encourage the Iraqi government to accept a truly more inclusive approach, joint pressure from the US and Iran holds the best chance. Even though Iran is predominantly Shi’a itself, the country’s leaders are very worried about the instability in their next-door neighbor resulting from the years of Shi’a sectarianism in Baghdad. The US-Iran nuclear talks appear to be moving very well; this is the moment to broaden those talks to include discussion of a real “grand bargain” between the US and Iran, to include all the regional crises.
Step Four: Initiate a new search for broader diplomatic solutions in the United Nations. That means working to build a real coalition aimed at using diplomatic and financial pressures, not military strikes, at the international level in both Iraq and Syria. All the regional governments have their own concerns. Turkey, for instance, knows that joining a US-led military assault on Iraq could threaten the lives of its 49 diplomats and their families now held by ISIS. A real coalition is needed not for military strikes but for powerful diplomacy. That means pressuring US ally Saudi Arabia to stop arming and financing ISIS and other extremist fighters; pressuring US ally Turkey to stop allowing ISIS and other fighters to cross into Syria over the Turkish border; pressuring US allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others to stop financing and arming everyone and anyone in Syria who says they're against Assad. We don't need another Coalition of the Killing (see Step One for why). Why not work to make it a Coalition of the Rebuilding?
Step Five: Push the UN, despite Lakhdar Brahimi's resignation, to restart real negotiations on ending the civil war in Syria. That means everyone involved needs to be at the table: the Syrian regime; civil society inside Syria including non-violent activists, women, young people, refugees, etc.; the armed rebels; the external opposition; the regional and global players supporting all sides – the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and beyond. This could provide a moment to work with Russia on Syria policy, thus building on the successful joint effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and perhaps lessening tensions over Ukraine. An arms embargo on all side should be on the long-term agenda.
Step Six: Massively increase US humanitarian contributions to UN agencies for the now millions of refugees and IDPs in and from both Syria and Iraq. The US has pledged significant funds, but much of it has not actually been made available to the agencies, and more should be pledged and given.
Source: The Progressive