ISIS problem can only be solved by regional Sunni powers

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim


By : Dr. Azeem Ibrahim


Should the West be involved in Syria? Or get more involved, as is now planned? It is certainly true that ISIS poses a threat to security in the West. After the recent scenes in Paris and Brussels, there is no longer any doubt about that.

But we have long known that the West cannot solve the ISIS problem itself. The more it intervenes, the more it gives credence to the ISIS narrative that there is a war between Western Crusaders and Muslims in ‘Muslim Lands’.

The West could, if it had the motivation, simply crush ISIS. But if it just went in and did that, a new ISIS would just spring up from the ashes – and though we may yet lack the imagination to foresee how, that new ISIS may well turn out even more brutal and malignant.

Local population

The war in Syria and Iraq is not going to go away. And it probably won’t be solved by the “big powers” posturing about in conference halls. There are tens of thousands of ISIS fighters. They rule over a territory with an estimated population of up to 10 million. The same way that Sunni ISIS cannot hold Kurdish and Shia territory, the Sunni lands that ISIS control will not accept Shia government from Damascus or from Baghdad, and submission to leaders like Assad, or indeed Malaki, both of whom have dropped cluster munitions on Sunni civilian populations and, in the case of Assad, much, much worse.

The main problem is that for the Sunni states, defeating ISIS would bolster the governments of both Assad and Malaki – both of whom are clients of its arch-nemesis, Iran.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

The fact of the matter is that many in the local population in the ISIS controlled lands, though they may not be too keen on the ideological excesses of ISIS, feel safer under ISIS administration and protection than they would from either of the Shia governments. Or indeed, under any kind of Western-backed administration, given our propensity to drop bombs on them or support brutal dictators (see Sisi in Egypt).

Regional Sunni powers

No, the ISIS problem can only be solved by the regional Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and the Emirates. And on paper at least, there really shouldn’t be too much to stop these countries from intervening. They certainly have overwhelming numbers and the technological edge – even though their capacity to use those numbers and the technological edge can be reasonably questioned.

Unfortunately, what they also have are conflicting interests. The main problem is that for the Sunni states, defeating ISIS would bolster the governments of both Assad and Malaki – both of whom are clients of its arch-nemesis, Iran. Turkey is making a similar calculation. It may not be a huge fan of ISIS, and it is particularly incensed by the ISIS attacks in Turkey this year. But it certainly hates Assad’s regime just as much, and it fears the Kurds much more – both of whom would benefit from the destruction of ISIS.

So the Saudis have preferred to wade into a messy civil war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels, where at least it has some kind of an idea of what it is trying to achieve. And with its resources thus distracted, the Saudis are said to have not carried out any airstrikes against ISIS since September.

Turkey, for its part, has just about managed to persuade itself to get involved after much U.S. pressure and the ISIS attacks on its soil, but it has still preferred to focus its attention on the people it considers its primary strategic enemy, the Kurds. In principle, everyone is fighting ISIS. In practice, everyone – Assad, the Turks, the Saudis, the Russians and so on – are using ISIS as a pretext to hit other groups hard, by way of associating them with ISIS. At this point, the Kurds and the Iran-led Shia militias may well be the only groups actually fighting ISIS, with U.S. and Western air support.

But so long as this remains the case, this is a war of the Crusaders and of the Shia heretics against “good [Sunni] Muslims”. As long as Europe and the U.S. try and fail to cope with the mass migration triggered by this conflict – while many Arab Gulf states take no refugees at all – ISIS can credibly tap into that pernicious Muslim victimhood narrative that Islamists have so carefully cultivated for decades. And as long as that happens, ISIS can be crushed, but they will not be defeated.


Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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