Operation Inherent Resolve Endgame: Fewer Guns, More Butter
By: Colin McElhinny
Momentum seems to be turning decisively against ISIS, with the U.S.-led coalition racking up a string of notable wins. At least, that’s what some U.S. headlines would lead one to believe. In recent months, Iraqi forces recaptured Ramadi, airstrikes have successfully targeted the group’s financial reserves, and ISIS propagandist “Jihadi John” has been confirmed dead. Though, it is unclear whether these snapshots bring the United States appreciably closer to President Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, as separating the crucial from the trivial is often difficult when evaluating this campaign.
Retaking Ramadi certainly has the potential to be significant, as the Islamic State derives ideological legitimacy and resources from its territorial holdings. Targeted killings are also taking a toll on the group in eliminating leadership and disrupting operations. President Obama touted these and other accomplishments in his State of the Union address.
However, tactical gains should not be mistaken for strategic success. Dislodging ISIS from large swaths of Iraq and Syria will not address the conditions that made ISIS’s rise possible—the political oppression and destitution of large populations in both countries. It iinally, its worth remembering how the comes outig Act
providess worth recalling that the Arab Spring, which generated the protests against Bashar al-Assad that escalated to civil war and destabilized the region contributing to the rise of ISIS, was not sparked by ideological or sectarian triggers, but by the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor barred from making a living by his government. In this vein, a critical foundation of ISIS’s success in spreading and maintaining its hold in Iraq and Syria has been selling disaffected populations on the benefits of its governance through the provision of a bevy of social services and public goods. ISIS’s social contract has generated significant sympathy for, and tolerance of, its control.
In the context of current operations, targeting the group’s finances is a necessary part of any strategy that seeks to cripple the Islamic State’s governing capacity. Recent reports that ISIS plans to cut salaries for its fighters in half are a welcome development. Expanded efforts by the United States to challenge the group’s messaging also hold the potential to shift the popular narrative against ISIS more decisively over the long term. Yet, without improving prospects for Syrian moderates and Iraqi Sunnis’ lives after reintegration into their former states, it is difficult to imagine support for ISIS dissipating anytime soon. Even more difficult will be rebuilding citizens’ trust in their governments. For Syria to begin functioning as a coherent state again, Assad will almost certainly have to be deposed.
The campaign against ISIS thus far has failed to sufficiently grapple with these realities. Conducting airstrikes from afar is relatively easy compared to building institutions and accountable governance capacity. As tactical victories continue to pile up against ISIS, the international community needs to begin formulating what a feasible endgame might look like for Iraq and Syria respectively. To have any hope of enduring success, it must secure some semblance of an economic future for residents of both states.