People often underestimate ISIS by dismissing the group as a random collection of angry men. Unfortunately, the so-called Islamic State is unprecedentedly well-organised and has lived up to its name to a terrifying extent. ISIS has created kangaroo courts for those who break its brand of pseudo-Islamic law, wealth taxes to keep its finances in check, and price controls on staple goods to bolster support from the poor. Its soldiers leave dissenters’ dead bodies on the streets and hold up decapitated non-believers’ heads to cameras on social media. It is a genocidal, oppressive force that needs to be slammed with mass airstrikes and, potentially, soldiers on the ground where needed.
It should be reasonably clear at this point that ISIS is worth taking out. We already know – but, for some reason, the media are unwilling to say – that ISIS has engaged in mass killings and ethnic cleansing, especially of the Yazidis, who have been forced to flee to Mount Sinjar to avoid being slaughtered. Women are raped and children are forced to fight under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Meanwhile, a million have fled to countries such as Turkey, escalating Middle Eastern tensions and leaving people in misery and fear. These people did not choose to live in Iraq or Syria, yet find themselves dragged into oppressive horror; in those circumstances, most reasonable humans would contend we have a duty to save those incapable of saving themselves.
Even if that fails to move you, you should still care about beating ISIS even from a purely Western perspective. First, ISIS makes up to $3 million a day from oil revenues and general racketeering. That makes it a major geopolitical player in the region with immense financial control. Combined with the land and capital ISIS has already amassed, that control makes the group a terrifyingly powerful extremist breeding ground. We should care about this, given ISIS shot to fame off the back of extraordinarily well-planned propaganda, which it has been using to rope Western men into its wars on a tidal wave of fundamentalist rhetoric. The consequences of these people heading back to their native countries and the proven force of ISIS’s radicalisations should be cause for action alone. ISIS’s rise has moreover led to an explosion in sectarian conflict in neighbouring countries, as countries divided along religious lines copy ISIS’s proven extremist tactics. A reverse-Arab Spring would permanently burn our political relationships with these nations and create precisely the sorts of civil wars and strife that push worn-down minorities to the extremes and create a wave of anti-Western aggressors.
At this point, it is plausible that you think ISIS is a threat, but that the West shouldn’t be involved in any intervention. Such a viewpoint is wrong in two ways. First, the West has vastly superior military forces and technology, both in quantity and quality. Fighting a war against a relatively entrenched group is far easier for them than for, say, the Iraqi military, which is riddled with corruption and lacks the raw resources or cash flow to keep its army replenished. Second, only the West can coordinate all the different military actors involved in such a conflict; its relative might and military strength means other regional powers will rapidly fall in line to defeat a force that threatens their own governments’ stability. By contrast, if Middle Eastern countries are told to deal with the threat themselves, they are likely to disagree and clash constantly since none of them is significantly more powerful than the others, and they can be seen as winning against each other rhetorically.
Moreover, left to their own devices, the Middle East’s powerful armies will likely avoid a fight entirely: Turkey believes it cannot win alone and won’t risk haemorrhaging resources; Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to upset its wealthy elites who in some cases actually funded ISIS; and Egypt is too focussed on quelling discontent within its revolutionary lower classes to throw itself significantly into an all-out war. Even if these countries do invade, their military incentives are horrendous. Each is likely explicitly to favour certain sects and create exactly the same mistrust that led to ISIS’s original rise in support.
Perhaps you agree with all the above, and still oppose intervention on the grounds that Iraq should be combatting its own threat. This is wishful and deeply dangerous thinking. First, al-Maliki’s pro-Shia reign burned relations with Iraqi Sunnis to the extent that they turned to ISIS in the first place, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world disapproves of ISIS. Al-Abadi has done almost nothing to reassure them: the appointment of Sunnis to a couple of fairly insignificant positions isn’t going to buy him support from a group his party oppressed for a decade. Second, ISIS has millions of dollars from wealthy Arabs and oil funds, while Iraq barely has enough resources to keep peace after small terrorist attacks, let alone take on a group like this. Third, ISIS has an enormous power base in Syria, which Iraq can’t touch even if it can somehow magically get Kurds, Sunnis and Shias to work together militarily.
So, what remains to be proven at this point if we are to justify intervening? Perhaps the strongest objection comes from libertarians, who contend that if we invade ISIS, we give them the perfect anti-Western PR material to launch a mass recruiting drive and grow in strength. It is essential at this point to understand that hawks and libertarians have contradictory but equally plausible viewpoints as to how ISIS runs its PR. Libertarians say that ISIS thrives on hatred of the West. Invading, therefore, allows them to talk of the West attacking their values and encroaching on their territory. Hawks, meanwhile, say that ISIS thrives on imagery of Western weakness. Not invading lets them talk of the West as cowards who were scared by their beheadings. Either way, both sides believe this rhetoric will let ISIS spur former moderates into joining their cause.
The only way to test these two viewpoints, since they are contradictory, is to see whether either is inconsistent with factual reality. Here’s a clear test: ISIS stayed under the international radar for years as it bolstered its theocratic reputation and started to capture significant political control in Iraq. When would be the right time to start beheading Westerners and engaging in anti-US rhetoric? Libertarians would contend that ISIS wants the West to attack it. Therefore, it should start beheading Westerners as soon as it has a sufficient power base in Iraq to make a war easy for the West to justify, but relatively hard for them to win. By contrast, hawks would argue that ISIS wants to look like it wants the West to attack, but in reality wants to make it as hard as possible for the West to invade. Therefore, it should spread itself into a geopolitical hot potato like, say, Syria, so that it can crow about the West not wanting to invade. Empirical evidence – ISIS invaded and built up a stronghold in Syria before YouTube beheadings started – nullifies the libertarian characterisation of ISIS. The blowback effects – the only thing that remained for us to deal with to justify intervention – are thus likely overstated.
For too long, the West has done the wrong thing in the Middle East when it mattered. Now, we risk being paralysed in fear of doing something wrong again, with horrendous consequences. ISIS is a murderous, genocidal group intent on capitalising on Middle Eastern instability and Western inertia. It imposes its terrifying policies on some of the world’s most vulnerable people, while we cross our fingers and hope that none of the British jihadis fighting for Kobani work out how to return home. We should have crushed them with drones when it was easier, but inaction then is no excuse for inaction now. Let’s hit ISIS hard.