Bombs are not The Only Way to Defeat the Islamic State

Hussein argues that a military solution alone, even with Arab participation cannot defeat IS. The solution lies in a political change in Damascus with the participation of Assad’s allies and detractors.

For months now, the international community has been grappling with the question of how to effectively eliminate the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), currently referred to as the Islamic State (IS). The alarm bells first went off when IS fighters took control of most of Northern Iraq. The well-equipped Iraqi army offered almost no resistance to these fighters coming in from the north, permitting them to capture almost one fifth of Iraqi territory and one of its largest cities.

The failures of the Maliki government of Iraq provided the seeds for IS’s success. The collapse of the Iraqi army was mainly due to the fact that it was run on a sectarian basis. Ascending the ranks depended on political and sectarian grounds rather than merit. This meant that the Iraqi army, although well equipped, lacked the competent leadership that would render it an effective fighting force and alienated many of its rank and file. Maliki’s sectarian policies also created a fair amount of disillusionment among the primarily Sunni population of Northern Iraq. These factors provided the groundwork for IS’s successful invasion of Northern Iraq.

Both the Iraqi political elite and the international community realized early on that solving the crisis in Northern Iraq had to involve some sort of political reshuffling in Baghdad.  The system of government that caused this problem could not continue to exist and a new more inclusive form of government must replace it. Eventually political forces pressured Maliki to step down and replaced him with Haider El Abadi who promised a more inclusive government.

A similar strategy must be adopted in Syria. The Obama administration is currently forming a strategy to combat IS in Syria. However, just like in Iraq, the solution in Syria does not lie only in defeating IS militarily. Just as the surge did not totally destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq, relying simply on air strikes and a possible Arab taskforce on the ground will not get the job done.  It should be clear from the start that whatever political solution is agreed upon in Syria, it must not involve Bashar El Assad.  For the past three years, Mr. El Assad has never missed an opportunity to demonstrate that he does not take his opposition seriously and that his only goal is to deal a harsh military defeat to his opponents, much like his father, Hafez Al Assad, did in Hama in 1982.

Mr. El Assad’s sectarian rule and his uncompromising approach to the Syrian uprisings is what turned Syria into the quagmire that it is today. In order for things to move forward in Syria, pressure must be put on the Assad regime and its allies to accept the fact that there can be no solution in Syria with Bashar El Assad in power. The Assad regime and the international community must accept that the security threat posed by IS in Syria cannot be eliminated without a political solution to the three year-long Syrian civil war.


By Hussein Salama a graduate student at the American University in Cairo studying International Human Rights Law.



  • FarahOsman

    I agree with you Hussein. My only concern is timing. Dealing with Bashar El Assad will not occur overnight, particularly given the myriad of state and non-state actors involved in the power struggle over Syria. IS, however, is an imminent threat that must be dealt a harsh blow as soon as possible.

    That said, I also doubt that IS can truly be defeated without the political resolution you speak of. So I’m in a bit of a mental catch-22.

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