By Alex Wilner, May 27, 2016
The war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq is being won, slowly but surely. The U.S. and its coalition partners — Canada included — have destroyed ISIS’s ability to capture, hold, and govern territory in much of the Middle East. The group’s borders are shrinking. Its coffers are running dry. Its ability to attract, train, and retain foreign and local fighters has diminished. And ISIS’s leadership is being decimated. There’s certainly more to be done, but we’re nearing our short-term goal of militarily defeating ISIS.
Unfortunately, securing the peace — our long-term goal — will be far more difficult to achieve. It seems obvious that military success alone doesn’t lead to political stability. Sustainable victory requires a shift in focus from the military domain towards governance, reconstruction, resettlement, and reintegration. In each case, our post-ISIS strategy for Iraq and Syria will face major obstacles.
First, leveraging a sustainable solution to Iraqi and Syrian political dysfunction will be necessary if we hope to defuse the sectarian strife that helped fuel ISIS in the first place. Good governance is a bulwark against political extremism. But in both states pitfalls abound. In Iraq religious and ethnic cleavages will be nearly impossible to bridge. Iraqis have lost faith in the unity of their state. And in Syria, meaningful negotiation between the dozens of armed groups will only start once the Assad regime is replaced. But ousting President Bashar Assad will require Russian involvement, and up to now, Moscow has banked on his survival.
Second, the war in Syria and Iraq has left a trail of devastation. A massive reconstruction effort, on the scale of the post-1945 Marshall Plan in Western Europe, awaits. If the conflict in Syria were to end today, the World Bank estimates that U.S. $170-billion would be needed to rebuild the country. By comparison, since 2014, the U.S. has spent roughly U.S. $7-billion on its war with ISIS. Without major international investment in bricks and mortar, winning the peace will be difficult. Unfortunately, it’s less than clear where this money will come from. Donors aren’t exactly lining up with open wallets. Rubble may well be a lasting legacy of this war.
Third, millions of refugees have been displaced, both locally and internationally. A tiny fraction have been invited to permanently resettle in third countries. The vast majority live in camps or as migrants. Eventual repatriation into post-war Iraq and Syria is a must. But that process will involve providing refugees with homes to build, an economy to grow, and communities to join. Without these core ingredients, refugees may find few reasons to return. Hope is in short supply.
Finally, the collapse of ISIS may result in the capture of thousands of local and foreign militants. Enemy combatants will need to be detained, humanely. And rehabilitation strategies will need to be developed to help reintegrate militants into society. Unfortunately, retributive justice is more likely. And that ISIS has recruited tens of thousands of foreigners suggests that special, international provisions may need to be established for dealing with foreign fighters. Avoiding Guantanamo Bay 2.0 is top of mind.
Military victory alone won’t bury ISIS. Destroying the organization may be necessary, but it won’t be sufficient for securing the peace. Stabilizing Syria and Iraq in a way that prevents ISIS— or some future iteration of ISIS — from clawing its way back to bloody relevance is our next great challenge. Unfortunately, getting this next step right will make breaking ISIS look easy.
Alex Wilner is an assistant professor at NPSIA, Carleton University, and a fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a public policy think tank in Ottawa.