Encouraging regional ownership of the fight against the Islamic State

The West needs to push regional actors to assume their responsibilities in confronting the threat posed by IS.

January 2015 marks the sixth month of the military campaign against the self-named Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Five European states have participated in air strikes against IS as members of the latest in a series of US-led coalitions fighting in Iraq, with Barack Obama the fourth consecutive president of the United States to embark on military action in the region. The track record so far is hardly encouraging, as the success of the Islamic State itself so stunningly testifies.

The rapid assembling behind the coalition of more than 60 countries, including many from the region, might have suggested a shared vision and prioritisation of the threat posed by this new and particularly rabid strain of extremism. But any such assumption was probably naive. IS has mostly been viewed in the region as a re-enforcer of existing narratives and policy predispositions. Rather than acting as a game changer, IS is being used to entrench status quo approaches behind established geopolitical fault lines and unrepresentative domestic political dispensations – precisely the regional dynamics that have fed the rise of IS. When it comes to the war raging in Syria, in particular, the response to IS has seen all sides double down on the bets they had already placed, while underscoring their respective claims to being the sole indispensable partner in confronting IS. This applies as much to the local protagonists as it does to the key regional actors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

The West bears considerable responsibility for the rise of extremist forces, given the role of the 2003 Iraq war in triggering a cycle of violent state collapse and sectarianism. But any solution to the challenge posed by IS must now focus on identifying the regional drivers that have laid the ground for the crisis over the past three years and work towards promoting policies that encourage regional rather than Western ownership of the push-back against the extremist group.

The perils of a military-led response

Doubts are already surfacing about the efficacy and dangers of the military-led response

The threat posed by IS is a real one, not least to those living under its domination. IS is expansionist in its nature. It has actively and effectively recruited foreign fighters, some of whom will potentially pose a threat should they return to their native countries, including in Europe. IS is the apotheosis of intolerance, but it has also learned and adapted from the failings of previous incarnations of extremist groups; it has partly stabilised governance and order in areas under its control, and it is winning pledges of allegiance from jihadi groups in the Egyptian Sinai, Derna in Libya, and elsewhere. It thrives in the ever-more disputed and dysfunctional politics of the Arab world.

The ability of IS to advance in Iraq and Syria has certainly been dealt a blow by the military action taken against it. IS has also bumped up against something of a natural barrier: the exhaustion of the group’s military and ideological capacity to expand beyond Sunni-dominated areas. Attempts to weaken IS by targeting its financing and its access to resources, including oil exports, will also take a toll.

However, months into the armed strikes, it is clear that the existing approach can only go so far. Western political leaders, thrown into a state of panic by the mesmerised media coverage of the beheadings of Western hostages, launched extensive military action against IS that has been heavily dominated by the US, in spite of the participation of regional actors who spend tens of billions of dollars on weapons each year. The US alone has flown approximately 85 percent of total combat missions to date in Iraq and Syria, and over the past three months, the US has carried out more than 90 percent of all strikes in Syria.

Doubts are already surfacing about the efficacy and dangers of the military-led response. In Iraq, the attempt to shape a more inclusive political order is faltering, and Shia militias associated with government actors are mobilising and taking advantage of US air power to launch a wider sectarian campaign. In Syria, air strikes, which have been extended to include other non-IS extremist groups, are playing to Bashar al-Assad’s benefit.

In both countries, military action risks the unintended consequence of mobilising wider Sunni support behind IS and fuelling anti-Western sentiment, possibly more than compensating for its degrading of the group’s assets on the ground. Ultimately, the current strategy may make it more difficult to displace the group – or at least the sentiments that give it life. It could also make IS even more of a threat to Western interests than is currently the case – partly by making this about us, the West – which was likely part of the intention behind anti-Western IS provocations.

Focusing on the politics

While any attempt to halt the group’s territorial expansion will necessarily have a military dimension, it is clear that the forces driving IS are too deep and broad to be defeated militarily. But although the coalition initially recognised the centrality of a broader political approach – not least through the insistence that a new inclusive government be formed in Iraq – this track is looking increasingly perfunctory, stuttering forward at best in Iraq and essentially non-existent in Syria.

IS’s emergence is a symptom of the profoundly broken politics that afflict the Middle East today. IS feeds off a powerful narrative of Sunni resentment against a perceived Shia-dominated regional order. The new military strikes have exacerbated this trend by contributing to a belief, however misplaced, that the US is acting as the air force to an Iranian-led Shia ground force. In Iraq and Syria, Shia-leaning powers (the Syrian Alawite regime is not Shiite, but it is tightly tied to the Shia axis) are effectively excluding Sunnis from meaningful representation, often violently. A fierce battle of identity politics has been unleashed, which IS is able to exploit because of an absence of effective Sunni regional leadership as well as endemic problems in governance structures and lack of consensual social contracts in most Arab States.

It is clear that the forces driving IS are too deep and broad to be defeated militarily

Iran, as the chief backer of Damascus and Baghdad, as well as of Hezbollah in Lebanon, is culpable in the destructive polices that have excluded and sometimes devastated Sunni constituencies. The perceived Shia-centric nature of Iranian policies, including the direct mobilisation of foreign militias on the ground, has increased the sense of Sunni sectarian marginalisation. It is unclear to many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria why they would necessarily prefer the defeat of IS to the alternative of rule by Shia militia or Assad.

For their part, Arab Gulf States have deliberately supported Sunni sectarian mobilisation for their own geopolitical ends, seeing the conflict in Syria as a means to rebalance the regional power order by pulling Damascus out of the Iranian orbit. They have willingly tapped into and encouraged Sunni disenchantment, either directly or by turning a blind eye to sectarian media, preaching, and funding channels.

Extremism has been viewed as a helpful and malleable tool for weakening rivals and advancing political ambitions in the region (while concurrently channelling abroad the internal dissent generated by non-representative polities). Turkey has placed itself in a similar position, whereby extremist groups operating across its border were at least in part indulged as a means of weakening both Assad and Syrian Kurds, who Ankara fears are taking advantage of the conflict to spur pan-regional Kurdish ambitions and undermine the existing Turkish government peace track with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have encouraged a regional crackdown on moderate forms of Sunni Islamist political expression such as the Muslim Brotherhood, closing the door on potentially more democratically compatible and non-violent forms of religiously-inspired political expression.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia currently sees the battle against IS as a primary policy focus

Riyadh’s willingness to join the military campaign against IS is, therefore, part of a quid pro quo aimed at securing long-sought US intervention in Syria, rather than a reflection of having made the weakening of IS a priority. Turkey is likewise unwilling to commit to the fight against IS without guarantees of action against Assad. Iran’s military push against IS preceded that of the Western coalition and will continue regardless, but Tehran has so far refused to countenance a meaningful political track in Syria that might defuse Sunni resentment.

For the moment, despite the shared threat that IS could pose to regional actors given its ambitions to overturn the entire regional order as part of its self-declared caliphate, there has been little recognition of the need for a raw, internal accounting of the drivers behind IS’s rise. The blame for this can partly be placed on Western intervention: by assuming central ownership of the response, it has relieved regional actors of responsibility. This is the moral hazard inherent in US and Western ownership of the anti-IS struggle: it enables regional allies to take more risks without facing repercussions and thereby transforms IS from a common threat to a manageable opportunity.

At the same time, competition is intensifying for Western, particularly US, support, reflecting the deep sense of uncertainty in the region. The struggle for hegemony is playing out in the shadow of the stated US desire (albeit only partially realised) to reduce its regional presence and to pivot both to Asia and back home, as well as in the context of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. Riyadh is seeking to forestall the prospect of any US realignment and to lock in the current US policy of exclusive alliances against irredeemable adversaries (notably Iran). Israel is taking the same approach and is leveraging its influence in Washington in this regard. For its part, Tehran, while not anticipating a new strategic alliance with the US, is intent on creating a convergence of interests, offering itself as a balancer to a less invested and less threatening prospective US posture. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia currently sees the battle against IS as a primary policy focus. Rather, the emergence of IS represents a powerful opportunity to advance their pre-existing preferences for an internationally-backed regional order.

Other actors, meanwhile, have adopted the battle against IS as a means of consolidating narrower ambitions, also without seeing IS as the key priority. While the Kurds have been threatened by IS, current conditions are seen as an opening to accelerate their longstanding bid for greater autonomy, including securing direct military aid from Western states and re-ordering the internal Kurdish balance of power. Egypt and Israel are both using the threat posed by IS to play up the proclaimed extremist threat and accompanying need for a clampdown on their respective Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas foes. Jordan has taken its claim to being the indispensable oasis of regional stability to new heights. Across the region, in the likes of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, rulers have pinned the introduction of new anti-terror legislation on the IS threat (as has happened in Europe too) – moves that will likely further close down the space for legitimate political dissent and fuel extremism.

The anomaly – Lebanon as precedent?

One country hesitantly bucking the trend is Lebanon, though it makes for an unlikely and imperfect model. Lebanon has witnessed an unprecedented degree of regionally-backed power-sharing that has facilitated meaningful push-back against IS-associated extremism. Iran and Saudi Arabia, alongside the local protagonists they back in Lebanon, have embraced joint ownership of the struggle against IS, fearful of the consequences for stability and their respective influence if extremists were to gain a foothold in the country. The tentative lesson to be drawn from this positive, if very fragile, example is that where domestic and regional actors come together to back an inclusive approach, and the West stays out militarily, the fight against IS stands considerably more chance of success.

The perilous question now facing dominant regional actors and Western policymakers is whether it is possible to forge such consensus more widely – and if so, how. For the moment, Lebanon represents an isolated anomaly, and one that may not hold if escalation proceeds elsewhere. Given the far deeper strategic importance attached to Syria – the fate of the country is perceived as central to determining the wider regional balance – it will be considerably harder to encourage a reversal of positions there.

Incentivising regional ownership

Still, IS has the potential to change regional calculations due to the threat it could eventually pose to them all. IS has made it clear that it harbours designs on Saudi Arabia, given the Kingdom’s custodianship of Islam’s two holy mosques, its resources, and the significant number of Saudis fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq who could eventually turn their focus back home. For Iran, IS poses a serious military threat to its allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and is playing a central role in stirring up a regional sectarian war that, while manageable in the short term, can only work to Tehran’s overall disadvantage given the minority status of Shias across the Middle East. IS threatens domestic peace in Turkey because of its potential to carry out attacks there and because its ambitions to redraw the Sykes-Picot borders risk empowering Kurdish ambitions. Elsewhere, nearly all countries in the region are threatened by the rising number of their nationals joining IS and the risk that extremism and violence will spread.

The West’s central focus should shift to the level and nature of regional responsibility that it is encouraging

However, the more regional actors assume that the West will take care of IS, the more likely they are to duck their own responsibilities. The key regional actors will not make concessions, such as recalibrating their own policies and making the fight against IS an absolute priority, if they do not have to make them. President Obama’s insistence on the limitations of his anti-IS campaign tends to be dismissed in the region, encouraged by the fact that Obama is already engaged in a war he would rather have avoided and that has already escalated beyond its initial aims.

If the West does not intend militarily to reassume ownership of Iraq, as well as of Syria (a move that would be unwise in the extreme), then it will have to be more insistent in its expectations of the roles regional actors should assume. The West’s central focus should shift to the level and nature of regional responsibility that it is encouraging. Part of this must involve embracing policies that force regional actors to take ownership of confronting the threats they all face from IS, which will entail limiting the current level of Western military intervention.

The West needs to be prepared for a patient and long-term approach to the phenomenon of extremism

Europe and the US must recognise that taking on IS also means taking on an idea – and that cannot be primarily accomplished by military means, nor can it be led by non-Muslim actors. IS undoubtedly feeds off resentment at Western policy – from support for dictators to drones and military interventions to complicity in the fate of the Palestinians – but it is not fundamentally about “us”. Excessive Western military intervention, whereby the burden of responsibility for managing the threat is largely borne by non-regional actors, will not ameliorate the ills that fuel IS and will only make the West more of a target. Excessive force is distinguishable from limited action such as the targeting of IS groups when they are seen to be actively planning attacks on the West (of which there is very limited evidence to date) or where the threat of an imminent humanitarian disaster can be successfully diverted by a targeted response that does not entail wading into the broader regional fight. In Iraq, developments have already moved in the opposite direction: limited strikes to protect the Yazidis quickly expanded into a wider fight against IS, including the battle for key strategic locations such as the Mosul dam and the control of contested towns.

The West needs to be prepared for a patient and long-term approach to the phenomenon of extremism. Misplaced interventions tend to extend, not shorten, that timeline. IS may burn itself out. Elements now aligned with IS may become amenable to a more rational and pragmatic form of coexistence in the region over time. Enough Sunnis may abandon IS if the central government convinces them they have a future in Iraq, particularly as IS may lose local appeal as it settles down to the difficult task of local governance in the areas under its control. Either way, the longer game will have to be led by regional powers and from within the communities in which IS operates.

Acknowledging this still leaves much that can be done beyond the residual and narrowly targeted military components mentioned above. Stopping the flow of foreign fighters into the battle ground, primarily by working with Turkey and assisting it to better manage its border, would mark a significant step forward. There is also a legitimate case to be made for providing armed support to Kurdish groups – not because the Kurds are more deserving, but because their stated mission is more achievable since they are not as directly implicated in the broader regional and sectarian civil war. The continued provision of humanitarian assistance to the huge Syrian refugee population in neighbouring countries will be critical to preventing IS from spreading its radicalising message, as will support for the efforts of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon in hosting these refugees. In addition, any areas experiencing a ceasefire inside Syria should receive fast-tracked assistance.

By far the most important area of focus should be supporting efforts to resolve the crises in both Syria and Iraq, as well as between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So long as these crises endure, fuelling radical identity politics and the spread of ungoverned spaces, there is little prospect of successfully dealing with IS. A start on this front would be active support for the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, recognising his pursuit of a freeze of hostilities, initially in Aleppo, as one of the only available paths towards desperately needed de-escalation between all parties, both local and regional. In Iraq, the West should continue to push for the establishment of a meaningfully inclusive governing system and the reining in of government-linked sectarian militias. Building on this, the West should actively seek to encourage a convergence among the crucial triangle constituted by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

After a decade of escalating conflict across the region, it should be self-evident that the means to defuse these crises will not come through knock-out victories, which will remain elusive given the domestic, regional, and international balance of power. Meaningful solutions will entail compromise-based, inclusive political processes that give local populations real stakes in self-representation. By leaning out rather than always leaning in and by encouraging regional actors to confront the threat that IS poses (first and foremost to themselves), Europeans and Americans could play a more constructive role in pushing forward this urgently needed re-calibration.

This piece is one of a series of 14 looking at the regional dimensions of the IS crisis

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow
President, US/Middle East Project

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.