By Ben van der Horst
On Thursday June 25, 2015, World Affairs Council – Washington, DC hosted a Foreign Policy Panel event, “One Year Since Caliphate Declared: Combatting ISIL.” On June 29th, 2015, it will have been exactly a full year since ISIL declared itself a Caliphate and the US strategy to combat ISIL has yet to be fully developed. ISIL now controls almost a third of both Iraq and Syria and their territorial influence is still growing. Their recruitment strategy is extremely effective and they continue to receive new acolytes every day. There are 22,000 foreigners fighting for ISIL who represent over half of the world’s countries. The program addressed the challenges that the United States and its Coalition Allies must face if they are to degrade and destroy ISIL. Panelists included: Thomas Sanderson, co-director and senior fellow in the Center for Strategic International Studies Transnational Threats Project, and Dr. Shadi Hamid, a fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East” (Oxford University Press, 2014). The program was moderated by Bryan Bender, The Defense Editor and National Security Correspondent for POLITICO.
Bender began the discussion by reminding the audience of the environment that allowed ISIL to emerge. Four years of civil war in Syria, Assad’s numerous atrocities against his own people, and Iraq’s sectarian government policies, have disenfranchised the region’s Sunni population, pushing them toward radicalization. Sanderson emphasized that the Arab Spring failed to provide the people of the MENA region with a means to fill the region’s governance deficit and ameliorate its continued economic downturn, which are the two main factors that he believes draw people to ISIL. He also stated that regardless of whether the US is able to degrade ISIL or not, the factors that created the environment for ISIL to emerge - economic instability and a governance deficit - will not be quieted. Dr. Hamid addressed the issue of what comes after ISIL. He argued that even if ISIL were to be eliminated tomorrow, the damage is already done; future extremist groups will aspire to copy their model and seize any stateless territory they can. Furthermore, ISIL is very different from every other radical group, as they challenge the basic assumptions of the Middle Eastern State. Unlike groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood that have tried to produce gradual change within the current state systems, ISIL wishes to shatter the current systems with brutal force. The panel’s experts provided the audience with their honest and informed perspectives of what future strategies the US should employ to combat ISIL for the audience. This program was recorded for broadcast at a later date on the Council’s television show World Affairs TODAY.