The US fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been extended to Libya. The bombing raids on Sirte are seen by US military analysts as making a dent on the ISIS foothold in Libya. But this may be a tactical gain in a deeply flawed strategy.
Regional developments in the past few years have demonstrated that military smack-downs on ISIS do not stop it, they only help its spread to the neighbourhood and beyond. ISIS is filling a void and as long as we have unstable governments and political crises, there is plenty of fertile ground for groups such as ISIS to thrive. New theatres of war have opened in Yemen and Libya because little attention was given to finding political solutions to emerging crises.
Let’s not forget that ISIS emerged in the fractured politics of post-Saddam Iraq which turned sectarian affiliation into a ticket for rise or fall of communities, and flourished exponentially in the mayhem of the rapidly deteriorating conflict in Syria. ISIS has demonstrated a keen awareness of the psychological advantage it can gain through spreading its tentacles far and wide. There are now concerns of an ISIS franchise in South East Asia, obviously worrying the Australian government. In the meantime, the Australian Air Force is engaged in dropping more bombs on ISIS-controlled parts of Syria in tandem with other NATO planes.
This policy has not worked. And it’s not good enough to say this is a sign of weakness for ISIS, when we see security deteriorate further away from the battlefield. It is high time for a radical rethink. What are the priorities? Which actors can assist us achieve them? Who is standing in the way?
The Syrian crisis can only be brought under control through a political settlement. This would exclude ISIS, but include the myriad of fighting factions without preconditions. That means Bashar al-Assad will need to be part of the solution, even if as an interim arrangement. This also means that regional and great powers with an interest in a political settlement have a constructive role to play. Iran and Russia have a stake in Syria and have demonstrated traction with Assad. They are needed to bring Assad to the table. Of course even a hint of Iran’s involvement in an international effort to resolve the conflict in Syria would raise the ire of many. After all, Iran has made a name for itself as the regional spoiler and a champion of anti-Americanism. But in Syria, there is a common enemy that is spreading. Old enmities should not blind us to current realities. We can learn something from the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visiting the Russian President Vladimir Putin to bury the hatchet. New realities call for new actions, not recycling old clichés.
No doubt Saudi Arabia and Israel object to including Iran in any international fora, lest it would confer legitimacy to the Iranian regime. But such well-entrenched objections need to be put in perspective. Iran’s nuclear deal has addressed a key concern for the international community. Bringing Tehran to the negotiation table over Syria will offer the Iranians further incentive to be engaged and work with the United States and its allies for an end to this protracted and expansive conflict.
Addressing the growing security threats posed by ISIS in the region calls for a reality check. Let’s put the ideological lens aside and work with players who can advance a political settlement. The sooner the better.
Author: Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
Shahram Akbarzadeh, PhD is an ARC Future Fellow and Research Professor Middle East & Central Asian Politics. He is also Convenor of the Middle East Studies Forum and Deputy Director (International), Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University. Professor Akbarzadeh is Founding Editor of Islamic Studies Series with Melbourne University Press. His most recent publication is Iran in the World (Palgrave 2016).
***Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia ***