MADRID – The general consensus emerging since last month’s carnage in Paris seems to be that the Islamic State (ISIS) can be defeated only by a ground invasion of its “state.” This is a delusion. Even if the West and its local allies (the Kurds, the Syrian opposition, Jordan, and other Sunni Arab countries) could agree about who would provide the bulk of ground troops, ISIS has already reshaped its strategy. It is now a global organization with local franchised groups capable of wreaking havoc in Western capitals.
In fact, ISIS has always been a symptom of a deeper malady. Disintegration in the Arab Middle East reflects the region’s failure to find a path between the bankrupt, secular nationalism that has dominated its state system since independence and a radical brand of Islam at war with modernity. The fundamental problem consists in an existential struggle between utterly dysfunctional states and an obscenely savage brand of theocratic fanaticism.
With that struggle, in which most of the region’s regimes have exhausted their already-limited stores of legitimacy, a century-old regional order is collapsing. Indeed, Israel, Iran, and Turkey – all non-Arab-majority countries – are probably the region’s only genuinely cohesive nation-states.
For years, key states in the region – some of them, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, darlings of the West – have essentially paid protection money to jihadists. Yes, America’s wars in the region – as destructive as they were stupid – bear a substantial part of the blame for the mayhem now engulfing the Fertile Crescent. But that does not exculpate the Arab fundamentalist monarchies for their role in reviving the seventh-century vision that ISIS (and others) seek to realize.
ISIS’s army of psychopaths and adventurers was launched as a “startup” by Sunni magnates in the Gulf who envied Iran’s success with its Lebanese Shia proxy, Hezbollah. It was the combination of an idea and the money to propagate it that created this monster and nurtured its ambition to forge a totalitarian caliphate.
For years, the Wahhabis of Arabia have been the fountainhead of Islamist radicalism and the primary backer and facilitator of extremist groups throughout the region. As former US Senator Bob Graham, the lead author of the classified Senate report on the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, put it earlier this year, “ISIS is a product of Saudi ideals” and “Saudi money.” Indeed, Wikileaks quotes former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accusing Qatar and Saudi Arabia of collusion “with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups.”
That raises an obvious question: When regimes in the region collaborate with terrorist groups, how can intelligence cooperation with them, let alone a coalition to fight Islamic extremism, be credible? The so-called pro-Western regimes in the Arab Middle East simply do not see eye to eye with the West about the meaning and implications of the war on terror, or even about what violent radicalism is.
That is just one reason why an invasion of the caliphate, with local armies supported by Western airstrikes, could have devastating unintended consequences – think of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Indeed, even if such a division of labor could be agreed, a ground invasion that denies ISIS its territorial base in Iraq and Syria would merely push it to redeploy in a region that is collapsing into various no man’s lands.
At that point, “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or some future would-be caliph, would invariably fuse the region’s mounting governance chaos with a global jihadi campaign – a process that, as we have seen in Paris and elsewhere, has already started. The ideological and strategic rift between ISIS and Al Qaeda notwithstanding, an alliance against the common enemy – the incumbent Arab regimes and the West – cannot be entirely discounted. Osama Bin Laden himself never ruled out the idea of establishing a caliphate. Indeed, his terrorism was perceived as a prelude to it.
At the same time, Syria and Iran might exploit the inevitable chaos to expand their presence in Iraq, and all parties, including Turkey, would oppose a central role for the Kurds. The latter have proven themselves to be tremendously reliable and capable fighters, as the battles to liberate the cities of Kobani and Sinjar from ISIS control have shown. But no one should think that they can be the West’s tool for subduing the Sunni heartland of Iraq and Syria.
Nor is it clear that the West is capable of compensating the Kurds with full-fledged statehood. The geostrategic constraints that have prevented Kurdish independence for centuries are even more acute today.
Some of the consequences of a Western-backed Arab invasion of the caliphate are no less predictable for being “unintended.” It would eventually stir up mass sympathy for the caliphate throughout the region, thus providing ISIS with a propaganda victory and further inspiration for alienated young Muslims in Europe and elsewhere to fight the "Crusaders" and the Muslim "traitors" aligned with them.
The only realistic alternative is more – much more – of the same. That means a constant and resolute effort to stop the caliphate’s expansion, cut off its sources of finance, deepen and expand intelligence cooperation among credible allies, end the oil-rich monarchies’ collusion with terrorist groups, and encourage reform (without engaging in grand state-building projects).
The Arab Middle East is not susceptible to quick fixes. It requires profound indigenous change that might take the better part of this century to produce. For now, turning the caliphate into yet another failed state in the region seems to be the best possible outcome.