The West has been waging its war on terror for 14 years. The result? Instead of a couple of hundred dangerous international terrorists, we now have over 100,000. And 1.3 million dead in the Middle East.
Now a number of politicians on both sides of the aisle want to defeat ISIS with yet more bombs, and President Obama is sending an additional 250 special operations forces to “advise and assist” in the fight there. Despite short-lived successes, this strategy has not worked for the past 14 years and couldn’t even shut down the Taliban. The war on terror has turned out to be a policy that breeds terror.
Just over a year ago, I became the first Western journalist to embed with ISIS in its occupied territories and to be granted interviews with many of its fighters and leaders over the course of 10 days in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq. As the result of those conversations, as well as dozens of others before the trip, and almost 50 years of experience in the region, I can tell you that the current Western strategy will not work.
The strategy is extremely short-sighted. Every day, the number of international terrorists rises as a result of Western bombing raids, and they have never been greater as evidenced by the events in Brussels, San Bernadino, and Paris. ISIS, which was first established in 2003 as a direct reaction to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, is an ideology. You cannot destroy ideologies with bombs. Rather, you must discredit them, eliminate their recruiting grounds. Thus far, Western leaders have been unable to do this. It is therefore time for a fundamental change in strategy.
For a start, we must cut ISIS off from new supplies of weapons and ammunition. Shipments of arms to all rebel groups in Syria must cease. Many of them end up in the hands of ISIS, one way or another. Most ISIS fighters I saw in Mosul were equipped with U.S. Army gear—including machine guns, armor, and even boots. Though most of it was looted from Iraqi army bases, ISIS also buys a lot from the black market—effectively turning the American-backed Free Syrian Army into the group’s primary ammunition supplier.
Then, we must prevent ISIS from getting more recruits. Dozens of them cross the Turkish border into ISIS territory every day. We must help Turkey close its border to ISIS. The current status quo is unacceptable.
Most importantly, we must deprive ISIS of recruits from the local population by supporting national reconciliation in Syria and in Iraq. This would deprive ISIS of the support of marginalized Sunni segments of the population. If Iraqi Sunnis alone turn their backs on the Islamic State, it will be done for.
Instead, U.S. bombs in Iraq kill Sunni civilians on an almost daily basis. Entire cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baiji are leveled. In Ramadi, the murderous battle lasted three months. The result was the destruction of 90 percent of the city, hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and almost 2,000 dead civilians. Of the 2,000 ISIS fighters that defended the city, 1,850 were able to get away to foment terror elsewhere. Western politicians and the Western media are wrong to celebrate this catastrophe as a victory.
Using the Ramadi “victory” as a model, 10,000 ISIS fighters are now to be driven out of Mosul, a city with a civilian population of 1 million. Heated battles are already being waged between Iraqi government forces and ISIS at Qayyarah, 40 miles to its south, with enormous air and ground support from the U.S. here. On March 19, American planes attacked the University of Mosul, the second largest university in Iraq. Thirty Iraqi civilians who had nothing to do with ISIS died in the attack. As usual, the deaths of Iraqi civilians merited no mention in most Western media outlets.
Perhaps this strategy is one way to smash ISIS as a “state,” but it will only send the fighters underground. In fact, they would become the most horrendous underground movement of all time—not only in the Middle East, but also in the West.
This scorched-earth campaign is reminiscent of the Vietnam War. It runs counter to international law, and it is unwise. We must not remain silent on this issue, because Iraq has already suffered too much. And because there are smarter ways to put an end to ISIS.
Right now, the West has a great opportunity that has gone unrecognized by its leaders. The mood in Mosul and many other Sunni majority cities in Iraq has soured. At first, the Sunnis tolerated ISIS as a lesser evil in comparison with former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s anti-Sunni government.
Now, though, the people of Mosul have had enough of their ISIS overseers.
The Sunnis hold their culture, which is more than 5,000 years old, in high esteem. They are increasingly disgusted by ISIS’s medieval regulations, its daily subterfuges and brutality, and its extreme forms of discrimination against women and girls. It is almost impossible for the inhabitants of Mosul to leave. They are prisoners in their own city, hostages of ISIS.
If the United States and the international community were to force the current Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Maliki to grant the Sunnis a fair share in political life in Iraq, a popular uprising of Sunnis against ISIS could happen very quickly—not only in Mosul, but throughout Iraq. And that would be the end of ISIS both as a state and as a terrorist organization. An ISIS defeated by Arab Sunnis would have no future, not even in Syria.
If Sunnis are treated fairly and reintegrated into society, then and only then will the specter of ISIS be laid to rest.
President Obama: This is how you take out ISIS, not by obliterating cities.