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Pure Onsense

Destroying ISIS will be no easy task

Scott Zuke

(11/2014) It’s been nearly two months since President Obama’s speech to the nation in which he announced the mission to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS. Since the US-led coalition’s operations began in northern Syria just over a month ago over 500 ISIS fighters have been killed in air strikes.

With the mission underway and the first few moves having been made, we are developing a clearer picture of the challenges that lie ahead, and it’s not pretty. Degrading ISIS will be a long, tedious process relying on much more than just American resolve. The stated objective to destroy the jihadist organization is already being talked about as a blunder—the latest in a line of tough-sounding but unrealistic rhetoric from a president overselling our capabilities.

The first sign of trouble for the U.S. mission is that history is against it. Though operations have significantly degraded the core Al Qaeda group that was behind the September 11 attack, Al Qaeda affiliates sprung up all over the Middle East, and even into Africa and South Asia. ISIS, itself an Al Qaeda spinoff, will be no different. If they are suppressed in Syria and Iraq, they will diffuse throughout the region and find new places to operate. An unrealistic victory condition means the United States will either have to backtrack or find itself committed to another costly, meandering, and ultimately fruitless military operation.

In the meantime, the U.S.-led military coalition will be facing an extremist organization that is unusually wealthy and very well organized. Al Qaeda, we learned in recent years, is fastidious with its financial records, strictly gathering receipts for even the most minor of transactions. But that pales in comparison to the bureaucracy being built by ISIS, whose goal is to establish a self-sufficient Islamic state. According to a RAND Corporation report, it has become "the world’s richest terrorist group, with estimated assets of $1 billion to $2 billion." The revenue is gathered from its control of the region’s oil exports and a sophisticated network of organized crime, but it has also begun collecting taxes and doing other things to act like a real nation. "The Islamic State," the report says, "has built its organization using a financial strategy characterized by ruthless efficiency and pragmatism."

The organization is also disturbingly effective with its self-marketing and propaganda. In the West, the side of that operation that we are most exposed to is its demonstrations of brutality through videos of mass executions and journalists being beheaded. Such provocative acts serve as a beacon to other jihadists, calling them to join the new front in the war against oppressors and other obstacles to establishing the ideal Islamic caliphate. The message has spread far. The Washington Post reports that an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters have flowed into Syria from neighboring countries, Europe, the United States, and even China, and many have ended up joining the Islamic State.

The organization has brazenly utilized new media to spread these well-produced, brutal propaganda materials, which makes the other outcome of their marketing operations all the more confounding: many people who come to support ISIS don’t believe the videos are real. David Kirkpatrick, in a New York Times story on the flow of young fighters from Tunisia to Iraq and Syria, reported that, "In dozens of conversations with young Tunisians, almost no one, whether sympathizers or critics, believed the news reports of the Islamic State’s mass killings or beheadings. ‘It is made up,’ echoed Amar Msalmi, 28, a taxi driver. ‘All of this is manufactured in the West.’"

Such a view can only be the result of staggering cognitive dissonance or, more likely, very limited and incorrect information. The Islamic State has managed to convince the region’s disaffected youth, struggling with stalled economies and poor living conditions, that a better life awaits them in the caliphate. Not only do they have a chance to be ‘part of something,’ but they are also told that they will find homes, jobs, and wives there. The U.S. and other democratic governments in the region have so far failed to either disabuse them of this false belief, or to provide a more enticing vision.

Finally, the Islamic State has established itself inside a complicated political space that has made our key regional ally, Turkey, very difficult to bring onboard with the operation. Turkey’s long border with Syria poses a great risk to its security, yet it has been distracted by its decades-old conflict with the Kurds, an ethnic group that inhabits portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

Turkey has had an ongoing conflict with the PKK, a terrorist group inside Turkey that has fought for Kurdish independence. The PYD, a Syrian offshoot of that organization, has become the primary bulwark against ISIS seizing the strategically important border town of Kobani. So Turkey was faced with a difficult decision of whether to join the U.S.-led coalition in combating ISIS by giving military support to the PYD, which it sees as sympathetic to the PKK. It chose to keep its war with the PKK as its top priority, dragging its feet as the Kurds in Kobani faced slaughter by the Islamic State.

The United States wisely intervened, providing military supply airdrops to Kobane over Turkey’s objections and holding direct talks with the PYD. Although this move forced Turkey to change its policy, it has so far been marginalized in the larger battle against ISIS, putting one of the region’s strongest military forces on the sidelines.

In the war against ISIS, the United States has so far demonstrated some diplomatic acumen as well as its usual military superiority, but neither will be enough to meaningfully degrade the organization. The coalition must work relentlessly to chisel away the Islamic State’s revenue stream to keep it from buying loyalty. And it should also give much greater attention to its propaganda operations in the region. Our inability to communicate positively and effectively with the people has created a dire trust gap and left them receptive to terrorists’ false promises. Preventing the next generation of extremists is every bit as important as fighting the present one.

Read other article by Scott Zuke