ISIL – Radicalization is the main problem

On 4th December, 2015 CEID organised our 5th Euro-Atlantic Café with General John Allen , Senior Fellow of the The Brookings Institution and Mr. Péter Siklósi from Ministry of Defence of Hungary, organised in cooperation with the Slovak Atlantic Commission and supported by the US Embassy Budapest , US Mission to NATO and the Pallas Athéné Alapítványok. The following article is summarizing the discussion.

The ugly truth

General John Allen, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL and Mr. Péter Siklósi, Deputy State Secretary of the Ministry of Defense both agreed that there was no point in denying that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) does fulfill all the requirements of a proper state. It is an almost entirely self-sufficient, expansionist state with a powerful ideological background. Its success as an imperialist entity is underlined by the fact that it was able to redraw the territorial and ethnic landscapes of both Iraq and Syria, undermining the stability of the whole region. As for the uniqueness of ISIL, Gen. Allen explained that the diverse portfolio of its financial resources – combined of oil and tax incomes and revenue from illicit trafficking of people and antiquities – distinguishes the Islamic State from other terrorist groups like al-Quaida or Hezbollah, who rely overwhelmingly on external support. In the case of ISIL, foreign sources account for an insignificant 70 million dollars in its overall 2 billion dollar budget. Although, Gen. Allen drew attention to the fact that such overreliance on internally generated revenues also creates vulnerability as pipelines are easier to destroy than mysterious support chains to untangle. Hence, attacking the financial background constitutes a central element of the anti-ISIL coalition’s strategy.

But there is more to ISIL than money” – Mr. Siklósi added. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quite arrogantly declared himself the Caliphe of the Muslim world in the Great Mosque of Mosul, he laid down the ideological basis of ISIL, which converted terrorists into virtuous conquerors. In Mr. Siklósi’s view this ideology had an enormous impact and had become a major driving force even for many European-born fighters to join ISIL. It is alerting to see that while its aggressive expansionism might have been pushed back lately in the battlefield and certain attempts have been made to cut its finances, there is very little advancement in countering its stunningly powerful propaganda so far.

Military: necessary but not sufficient

Although the US is often depicted as an aggressive hegemon using its military supremacy to enforce its interests across the globe, the most powerful nation in the world knows better than to believe in the omnipotence of the armed forces. Gen. Allen emphasized that the United States and its allies have never assumed that complex international crises would be solved by military means only. Military buys time until long-term settlement is elaborated and fully implemented. The role of the army also varies from one conflict zone to another. In the fight against ISIL, the focus is currently on the training of the local forces, supported by an extensive air campaign. The often cited “no boots on the ground” means limited involvement, but so far also limited results. According to Mr. Siklósi, the original purpose of the coalition was to train indigenous forces in order to avoid another costly Western intervention, which could further increase anti-Western sentiments in the region. Nevertheless, the perplexed system of loyalties, interests and identities made it extremely difficult for Western troops to achieve their goals. Gen. Allen revealed that the reason why US-trained Syrian rebel groups have not succeeded in containing ISIL is quite prosaic: they mainly targeted regime forces instead. On the other hand, both panelists found it very important to underline that the involvement of Kurds and Iraqi Shiites needs to be carefully calculated. The brutal ethnic cleansing of Islamic State militants has created a substantial Sunni zone stretching across the Syrian-Iraqi border. And if the historic Sunni-Shiite animosity would not be reason enough to deter the West from fuelling ethnic tensions, the consequences of the 2003 Iraqi intervention should be taken as a reminder of what happens when the Sunni population is ruled by an oppressive Shiite leadership: they turn to radical groups for protection.

Radicalization – the underlying reason

There was general consensus that understanding the root cause of radicalization is key for finding a long-term solution. If we look at the socio-economic reasons behind the rise of ISIL, Mr. Siklósi’s approach is that the Sunni population felt deprived of its rights and could therefore be easily radicalized. In his view, demographics play a very important role: huge masses of unemployed young Sunnis lacking any perspective are attracted by jihadist movements offering an alluring alternative and purpose in life. Subduing these Sunni groups to a Shiite government in Iraq only increased their frustration and paved the way for the emergence of ISIL (or as many refer to it, Daesh). Nevertheless, while there is no doubt that the war in Iraq was a major mistake, Gen. Allen stressed that the 2003 intervention only contributed to an already palpable radicalization. He warned us not to forget that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have already destabilized the region more than twenty years before Iraq. Thus, “it is fair to assume that the chaotic situation of today would have unfolded sooner or later even without that tragic miscalculation of the Bush administration” – Mr. Siklósi conceded. According to the General, dealing with the consequences requires an elaborate, multifaceted strategy including a military and a financial component, reducing the level of radicalization and impeding the recruitment of foreign fighters.

What happens next?

The hardest question is what happens after the coalition defeats ISIL. A long-term deployment of Western troops is not a real option, but creating a power vacuum would not be the wisest solution either. The Islamic State has proved in the most horrific way that there could always be a worse group to succeed the previous one. According to both speakers, Bashar al-Assad must not remain in power, but that doesn’t mean that toppling him will bring peace and stability in Syria. Mr. Siklósi highlighted that there was a need for a political solution involving all relevant actors. Since Russia has made itself a relevant actor, the coalition has to find a way to build a constructive partnership with Moscow. Although, huge discrepancies regarding the final settlement exist, Gen. Allen believes that the Russian factor might not be so destructive after all. At least it gave the international actors an opportunity to start a discussion and talk about the scenarios of a future political transition in Damascus. Gen. Allen confirmed that reaching consensus on questions like the restoration of old borders would be extremely challenging with Russia, and it would be even more difficult with those local forces who were fighting the proxy war at the moment and who had never really recognized the artificial boundaries created by colonialist powers a hundred years ago. Still, both speakers expressed their concerns over a potential “Balkanization” of the region and instead opted for the relative stability ensured by the old borders as the only viable alternative at the moment.