How to beat the Islamic State

On Thursday, the Wilson Center hosted Volker Perthes, Executive Chairman and Director of German Institute for International and Security Affairs, to discuss the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and the larger implications of its presence in the Iraq and Syria. Robert Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Perthes sees a “dissolution of order” in the Middle East, especially in the Levant. IS has proclaimed its disregard for the colonial Sykes-Picot divisions. It wants reversion to pre-state, pre-modern ideologies. Without a clear long-term plan, the international community must simply observe the sociopolitical, socioeconomic and geopolitical dynamics of the region. Politics from North Africa to the Persian Gulf will remain local so it is critical to separate IS in Iraq and IS in Syria. IS’s ideology and identity have strong local backing. In addition, local issues in both Syria and Iraq stem deeper than the over simplified Sunni/Shi’a divide; there is a struggle for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The international community has wanted to constrain threats rather than get directly involved. But regional actors should be more involved and more in control. One of the unique aspects of IS is its presence in two states. Unlike previous civil wars fought in Lebanon, Iraq and others, this conflict is spilling across borders and strengthening “quasi-sovereign entities” like the Kurdish regional government.

Perthes begs to differ with President Obama, who has said IS was neither “Islamic or a state.”  This underestimates the ability of a “terror militia” to govern and administer effectively. The international community cannot ignore IS’s “state building project,” which has become a threat even to Saudi Arabia due to the support IS has received from the Kingdom. Regional states need to make a more concerted effort to contain and roll back the IS. Local actors must lead. But military power can only “degrade.” It will have no long-term effect on the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq. Perthes applauded President Obama’s effort to stop the expansion of IS in Iraq, build an inclusive government and include regional actors. But without a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate their struggle of regional hegemony there will continue to be sectarian polarization.

There should also be more focus on Iranian cooperation in combating IS as well as ending the civil war in Syria. The IS problem in Syria cannot be solved without addressing the civil war raging within the country. What needs to be done, Perthes suggested, is to end the war between the regime and the moderate/non-jihadist parties and from this ceasefire create an inclusive government. The attempts to orchestrate local cease-fires need to be done with the help of Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia in conjunction with the United Nations.

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