Thinking the Unthinkable over ISIL

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].


Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war in Syria have focussed on managing the conflict between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the multi-faceted Syrian opposition. On 22 February, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced a ‘cessation of hostilities’, brokered by the US and Russia, to begin five days later. When it comes to ISIL, the statement of the ISSG specified that:

Military actions, including airstrikes, of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Armed Forces, and the U.S.-led Counter ISIL Coalition will continue against ISIL, “Jabhat al-Nusra,” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.

In other words, the diplomatic effort has attempted to ring-fence the war against ISIL and the less prominent threat of the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. But, what if the numerous parties mentioned in this statement simply cannot wage a concerted war against ISIL? Indeed, the war effort against ISIL comprises of a messy patchwork of competing interests. Russia wants to back Assad, as does Iran, through it’s urging of Hezbollah to deploy there. Iran also wants to deepen its influence in Iraq, which has been in the ascent since the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey wants, above all else, to remove the Assad regime and check Kurdish gains, while the Kurds fight ISIL to safeguard their territory and to boost their autonomy. Western countries may implore others to focus their efforts against ISIL. But fighting ISIL is rather far down the list of priorities for others.

What if, in years to come, the piecemeal war effort against ISIL fails to roll back the group’s control of territory, and perhaps only manages to keep it under pressure and contained? Will ISIL then have to be spoken to? Contemplating negotiations with ISIL means thinking the unthinkable (a term coined by Herman Kahn during the Cold War). The idea is as much abhorrent as it is unfeasible to envisage, given the scattered territory controlled by the group, the violence it uses to manage its rule, and the hatred it engenders amongst so many around the world. A group so wedded to nihilistic violence and an apocalyptic vision, with a seemingly maximalist desire for expansion, surely could never be spoken to. This is certainly true, but one must not assume permanence in the situation as it is today. The question, therefore, should be rephrased. Could ISIL ever become a fixture on the map of the Middle East? The kind of permanent entity, seemingly impervious to being dislodged and degraded by military pressure, that others have no choice but to work around?

There are no prospects for this at all in the short or medium term. The West wants to destroy ISIL, not talk to it. Moreover, ISIL does not appear to want to exist in a world of states. But, in decades to come, if it can withstand the military campaign against it, ISIL, or its forebears, may need to be dealt with in ways that extend beyond aerial bombing. The unthinkable may be no less palatable in ten or fifteen years from now. But if ISIL still exists, it may become important to consider.

As I argue in an Adelphi Book, which is forthcoming in summer 2016, the perceptions held of armed groups can experience enormous transitions if they manage to perpetuate their existence for decades. Certainly, when Hezbollah carried out a suicide bomb attack on US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, or when the Taliban came to global prominence after abetting al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks, nobody could have assumed the continued existence of these groups today. Few would have thought that Hezbollah would become part of Lebanon’s government. Or that the Taliban would absorb the punishment of a fifteen-year NATO military campaign, only to be the subject of an overture by the President of the USA for reconciliation talks.

There is currently no path and no prospects for ISIL to ever achieve any kind of status of this nature. It is absurd, off-putting and defeatist to even contemplate such a future. But that is precisely what thinking the unthinkable asks of us. If the civil war in Syria fails to abate, and the UN effort in support of Security Council Resolution 2254 fails to make progress, efforts to eradicate ISIL’s hold over territory in Syria will be hindered. This, tragically, is not so unthinkable. The patchwork nature of the anti-ISIL campaign is ISIL’s to exploit.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With UN Secretary-General Ban Before Hosting the International Syria Support Group Meeting in New York City, 18 December 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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