Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts
Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts

Over the past year, violent extremist movements have made striking gains. ISIS has consolidated its control over a large swathe of Iraq and Syria, attracting tens of thousands of foreigners, establishing footholds elsewhere, and perpetrating terrorist attacks across the Middle East and beyond. Al Qaeda affiliates from Yemen to Syria to Somalia appear resilient, in some cases stronger than ever. ISIS’s attacks in the West – apparently centrally coordinated in the case of Paris, perpetrated by lone wolves elsewhere – have upped pressure on Western powers to respond more forcefully. Certainly, more can be done to fight ISIS. But any action must be informed by an accurate diagnosis of the problem and must avoid the mistakes of the past.

With that in mind, here are 10 dos and don’ts to consider in the fight against ISIS. They all draw on Crisis Group’s years of experience covering violent extremist movements and the conflicts they feed off, as well as lessons of the past decade and a half’s counterterrorism operations.

1. Don’t overstate the threat

ISIS has demonstrated its potency and may grow stronger yet, but in the past, extremists have tended to profit from their enemies’ overreaction. Their terrorism is often designed to provoke indiscriminate retaliatory violence, which benefits them further. ISIS itself is at least in part a product of the US post-9/11 “war on terror”. Leaders in the US and Europe need to better control the narrative, avoid feeding fear, make sure they do not alienate whole communities, and use force sensibly.

2. Don’t expect bombs to defeat ISIS

Bombs can disrupt training camps, weaken command structures and kill leaders. But no insurgent movement with roots in communities has ever been defeated by bombs alone. Bombers will run out of targets and ISIS will still control some parts of Iraq and Syria. Bombs alone may even prove counterproductive: civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure can push communities into the arms of extremists. In the end, the battle needs to take place on the ground.

3. Don’t expect ‘allies’ to wage that ground war

ISIS may be a common enemy, but few of its enemies in the region think it is the number one priority. The Saudis care more about weakening Iran. Turkey’s main priorities in Syria are ousting Assad and containing Kurdish separatism. The Syrian Kurds care about Kurdistan. Iran – along with the Assad regime and, for the time being, Russia – cares more about maintaining Assad in power than defeating ISIS. Not only have regional politics and escalating competition between states been a major boon for ISIS, they also complicate efforts to defeat it.

4. Don’t overlook the political and socioeconomic roots of ISIS by focusing exclusively on their religious propaganda

True, of the many components that comprise ISIS, some are religious and pursue theologically inspired goals. And true, decades of Gulf-sponsored religious messaging, via schools or satellite television, helped shape a climate receptive to this message. But in the Middle East, where ISIS and other jihadist groups have won the support or acquiescence of communities under their control, that is not so much because of their ideology and more because of the things they provide, particularly for people living in conflict zones or failed states. ISIS has won support thanks largely to the violence Sunni Muslims suffered at the hands of regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and by appealing to the disenfranchised and alienated within the Sunni community. And in Europe, the new generation of radicalized youth are lured to ISIS online, rather than through mosques, often with little reference to religion and more to violence or fraternity. To paraphrase the French scholar Olivier Roy: we are witnessing the Islamization of radicalism rather than the radicalization of Islam.

5. Do not pursue policies to defeat ISIS that aggravate the conditions that enabled its rise

The increasing influence of ISIS, like that of other extremist groups, is in large part a product of violence and decades of repressive rule. Partnering with repressive governments – particularly those that class all their enemies as violent extremists – in efforts to stamp out the threat risks pushing ever greater numbers of their enemies into the extremist camp. And focusing exclusively on extremism can lead governments to overlook other sources of fragility that can create the crises and state collapse that extremists profit from.

6. Understand the multi-dimensional nature of the problem

ISIS and other extremist groups are symptoms of the dramatic upheaval in the Middle East. The Sunni/Shia divide and a deep sense of Sunni victimization are, of course, prime factors in its rise. Less known, but perhaps no less important, are parallel changes within Sunni communities themselves, particularly in Iraq, where ISIS has been able to play on a series of social fault lines – urban, rural, tribal, generational, and so forth – to give others, not only extremists, a significant stake in their continued rule.

7. Be cautious with the use of force

Military force often needs to be part of fighting extremism, but it is always a blunt instrument, particularly when the main goal – as it must be – is winning over communities. Only forces that can establish positive local relations should participate in an assault – with ISIS, this probably rules out Shia fighting in Sunni-majority areas and Kurdish forces in Arab lands, and it mandates caution even with local Sunni forces that may have scores to settle. If the suffering of a local community cannot be minimized, it is probably preferable to avoid attempting to retake territory and instead contain ISIS within its current boundaries. Taking the territory and losing the people again – as in the aftermath of both the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring – is worse than leaving ISIS in control.

8. Work openly to end the polarization destroying the Middle East and do not unwittingly become part of it

The escalating competition between Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran – now reflected in an Iran/Russia axis pitted against a Saudi-led coalition – is as grave a threat to stability as ISIS, driving the region’s sectarian currents and opening space for extremism. Western leaders should acknowledge this publicly and redouble efforts to dampen tensions. Unless they do that, no strategy to defeat ISIS will be effective.

9. Reinvigorate efforts to end existing wars and prevent others erupting – particularly by responding sensibly to terrorism

Without reasonably inclusive peace deals in Syria, Yemen and Libya, tackling groups linked to ISIS or Al Qaeda will be impossible – they have flourished as more powerful armed actors fight each other. Given that any crisis in the Muslim world is likely to assume an extremist dimension, even in countries with little history of Salafi-jihadism, preventing conflicts is critical to protecting the states still standing. This requires bolstering those in danger, as in the Sahel, where criminal trafficking of all sorts easily morphs into political violence. Since jihadi groups like ISIS take root only after a long period of unaddressed local grievances, botched security responses and festering low-intensity conflicts, a focus on prevention and early action is key. Once a local conflict has radicalized, it acquires a transnational dimension that renders a political solution much more difficult to reach. Thus even as the Middle East burns, Europe should not forget the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa.

10. In developed countries, prioritize domestic security over military engagement in the Middle East

Military engagement can potentially weaken the appeal and influence of jihadist movements by demonstrating that they are not invincible. But their eventual eradication will be the result of political processes that may take decades. In the meantime, preventing a destructive fragmentation of multicultural Western societies should be the priority. This requires a clear rejection of the politics of fear, but such rejection will be possible only if terrorism is contained, which requires sufficient resources to protect the home front.

Workers carry boxes of humanitarian aid near Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate, Syria, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

The UN Security Council is considering renewing an understanding whereby UN agencies transport aid to Idlib, an area held by Syrian rebels. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Dareen Khalifa and Ashish Pradhan explain why the arrangement remains essential.

What is at stake in the Security Council?

The UN Security Council is set to vote soon on the renewal of a mandate that allows UN agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held Idlib in north-western Syria via a border crossing with Türkiye without asking for approval from the government in Damascus. The UN calculates that nearly two and a half million people rely on this lifeline for food and other essential supplies. Yet the arrangement is contentious. Since 2019, Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally, has aimed to curtail the mandate, arguing that the UN should work with Damascus on aid deliveries out of respect for Syria’s sovereignty.

In 2021, the U.S. made a concerted effort to convince Moscow to help keep the mandate alive, but it has made no similar push in 2022, as the two powers’ relations have collapsed over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Senior UN officials worry that Russia may veto the mandate – which should be renewed by 10 July – causing a dramatic drop in humanitarian assistance to Idlib and potentially leading to an influx of refugees into Türkiye. What happens with the mandate is a concern for the UN and, more importantly, for the people in Idlib.

The Security Council first authorised the UN to deliver cross-border aid to opposition-controlled areas of Syria without Damascus’s approval in 2014. At first, this mandate covered four crossing points, giving UN agencies access to southern and north-eastern Syria as well as the north west. The Council members’ cooperation on humanitarian issues despite their broader rifts over the war in Syria was a rare bright spot in UN diplomacy. But in rancorous debates in late 2019 and mid-2020, during which Russia and China used their vetoes three times to block resolutions renewing the mandate, Moscow succeeded in limiting the UN’s cross-border operations to a single crossing, at Bab al-Hawa between Türkiye and Idlib. Russia also made clear that the mandate could not be renewed indefinitely.

In 2021, the Biden administration identified maintaining aid to Idlib as an area for better relations with Russia. U.S. officials negotiated over the mandate’s future bilaterally with their Russian counterparts in Vienna and Geneva. While the official U.S. position was that the Council should reauthorise opening all four original crossings – an outcome few UN officials and diplomats thought likely – Russia assented that July only to keeping Bab al-Hawa open. Moscow also demanded that the UN work harder on channelling aid into Idlib from government-held Syrian territory (which is referred to as “cross-line” aid, as opposed to cross-border from Türkiye) and called for greater international funding for “early recovery” projects in government-controlled parts of Syria. Finally, Russia insisted that the UN Secretary-General report on cross-line aid halfway through the mandate period in January 2022, indicating that it might try to block the mandate’s continuation at that point (though it did not act on this threat). Despite these caveats, the Biden administration presented the fact that Russia was willing to keep the mandate alive at all – and the absence of public rows and vetoes at the UN like those in 2019 and 2020 – as proof that the U.S. could do business with the Kremlin.

Security Council members [fret] that Russian and Western diplomats would fail to reach an agreement on the future of aid to Syria.

A year on, that optimism looks like a thing of the past. Since Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February and the sharp deterioration in Moscow’s relations with Western powers, Security Council members have fretted that Russian and Western diplomats would fail to reach an agreement on the future of aid to Syria. As things stand, the mandate’s fate remains unclear with less than a week to go before the deadline for its renewal.

Ireland and Norway, the Security Council’s two elected members acting as “penholders” (diplomatic leads) on the issue, introduced a draft resolution renewing the authorisation for aid deliveries through Bab al-Hawa for twelve months on 27 June. Russia has yet to make a definitive response, and Council members expect that there may be intense wrangling over the text before the vote. The outcome will have a major effect on the lives of civilians in Idlib. It is also a crucial test of how far Russia and the West can continue to work together at the Security Council – however grudgingly – as the war in Ukraine rages and their policies become ever more hostile to one another.

How important is the mandate for Idlib and are there alternatives?

Despite the high level of tension in the Security Council over cross-border aid, this mandate has given the UN essential political backing to guide humanitarian operations in Idlib. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in particular has played a pivotal role in cross-border aid delivery. The Council mandate allowed OCHA to coordinate donor response, lead negotiations with local authorities, and guarantee a significant degree of transparency for aid delivered into these rebel-held areas. OCHA has also helped NGOs involved in relief work navigate the legal and political hurdles of operating in an area under the control of Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist militia running most of Idlib. HTS is UN-sanctioned and is listed by Russia, the U.S. and Türkiye as a terrorist organisation.

The UN has additionally led negotiations involving Damascus and the HTS-backed Salvation Government that administers Idlib over the balance between cross-border and cross-line aid operations. The Syrian government and Russia insist that the UN ramp up cross-line assistance as an alternative to channelling aid through Bab al-Hawa, as part of their effort to reinstate Damascus’s influence over aid delivery to all of Syria. UN officials and Western diplomats are sceptical that this proposal is realistic, especially given the Syrian regime’s track record of blocking aid to punish civilians in opposition-held areas and the hostility of its rhetoric toward Idlib and its residents. From a technical point of view, cross-border aid remains the cheapest, quickest and most reliable way to meet Idlib’s needs. A report from the UN Secretary-General in June stated that UN humanitarian monitors counted some 1,686 trucks carrying supplies (four fifths of them bearing food) from Türkiye into Idlib in April and May alone. By contrast, the report noted that the UN had overseen just five cross-line convoys between July 2021 and June 2022, and highlighted one in May that involved just fourteen trucks.

The U.S. and its allies have agreed that the UN should also experiment with cross-line aid ... into Idlib.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and its allies have agreed that the UN should also experiment with cross-line aid, mainly as a political concession to Russia and in hope of retaining Moscow’s acquiescence to cross-border operations. In 2021, the Security Council agreed to “encourage efforts to improve cross-line deliveries of humanitarian assistance” from government-controlled areas into Idlib. Moscow complains that the resolution has not been fully respected, as cross-line deliveries to Idlib have remained irregular, while HTS (and civil society groups in Idlib) as well as many humanitarian agency employees describe these efforts as a sop to the Kremlin rather than serious aid.

This debate has also become highly contentious for local forces in Idlib. HTS and the Salvation Government have reluctantly agreed to some of the cross-line aid deliveries, providing them with security and allowing for safe distribution. Yet HTS has come under fierce criticism from parts of the population and rivals in Syria’s opposition for thus “collaborating” with a regime that has killed thousands and displaced millions of Syrians. In private, HTS members express concern that the cross-line mechanism is a quandary for them: if they cooperate, they are criticised locally; if they don’t, they will be condemned internationally; and in neither situation can cross-line aid address even a fraction of humanitarian needs in Idlib. For the time being, HTS has found it prudent to facilitate the safe passage of several cross-line aid convoys to avoid giving Moscow a pretext to put a halt to the UN’s cross-border mandate and to strengthen Türkiye’s hand in negotiating with Russia. According to HTS, it would be much harder for them to cooperate on cross-line aid if Moscow were to veto the cross-border mandate’s renewal.

What would a Russian veto mean?

If Russia does veto renewal of the cross-border aid mandate, the immediate fallout could be chaotic. It is not clear whether OCHA would have to abruptly end its Syria operations in Türkiye or whether it could continue to play a minimal coordination function during a transitional phase. Regardless, the absence of OCHA’s irreplaceable aid infrastructure and cross-border mandate would significantly reduce the volume of aid and the efficiency of the donor response. It would also leave NGOs and donors struggling to manage aid coordination and oversight, while reducing their leverage in dealing with authorities in Türkiye and Idlib. UN officials estimate that NGOs could supply at best 30 to 40 per cent of the aid that the UN has been providing. In practice that means hunger will increase, medical cases will go untreated, and millions will be at risk of losing shelter and assistance.

Crisis Group’s interlocutors in Idlib agree that the aid flow’s disruption could lead many of the region’s inhabitants – many of whom fled other parts of Syria earlier in the war – to attempt to escape the area, mostly by trying to enter Türkiye. How Ankara would respond to chaos at the border remains unclear; already in Türkiye the presence of an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees is a source of socio-political tension, which is on the rise due to economic troubles and elections due in June 2023. Although living conditions in Idlib have improved considerably since Moscow and Ankara forged a de facto ceasefire in 2020, the population remains anxious about the precarious situation. “Our lives depend on the mood in the Kremlin every few months. This is inhuman and unsustainable”, an Idlib resident said.

What are the chances the mandate will survive?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Security Council members generally seemed pessimistic about the chances of renewing the mandate for cross-border aid in conversations with Crisis Group. Now, however, some are guardedly optimistic that Moscow will let it survive. It is mostly a matter of speculation. The Russian mission in New York typically has to wait until late in negotiations on this file to get clear instructions from Moscow on how to act. In negotiations on the draft resolution tabled by Ireland and Norway on 27 June extending the mandate, neither Russian nor Chinese diplomats appeared to have definite guidance from their capitals. Western diplomats hope that Moscow will decide that it will retain greater leverage over events in Idlib by agreeing to renew the mandate – which gives it a platform for pushing the UN to work harder at cross-line aid – rather than forcing a crisis.

Western officials hope that Moscow will [refrain from using its veto] on this occasion.

Although Western and Russian diplomats have had toxic relations at the Security Council over Ukraine, Moscow has refrained from using its veto on other resolutions, such as a new mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, that other countries feared it might block. Western officials hope that Moscow will show similar restraint on this occasion, especially as vetoing the resolution would intensify its tensions with Türkiye (Turkish sources, by contrast, insist that they cannot prevent Russia from using its veto, and argue that Ankara should not be expected to fix this problem on behalf of the U.S. and European nations). China may also help moderate Russia’s calculations. During the 2021 negotiations over the Syrian humanitarian mandate, Chinese diplomats told Western counterparts that they did not want a repeat of the public disputes of 2019 and 2020. In 2022, they have emphasised the need to avoid too many blow-ups in the Security Council while the Russian-Ukrainian war continues.

There are different views regarding what Council negotiations will bring. Some Council members speculate that Russia could make last-minute demands – most likely over cross-line aid and funding for recovery – in the coming days. While the Council is slated to vote on mandate renewal on 7 July, it could push the date back, with negotiations perhaps running past the current mandate’s expiry on 10 July. Equally some UN officials guess that Russia will not create this sort of disruption, meaning that the process may end with a quick vote.

What is the longer-term future of cross-border aid to Syria?

It is clear that the best outcome of current UN diplomacy over Syria would be for the Security Council to renew the mandate for cross-border aid for a year. No credible alternative set of arrangements exists for cross-border aid. If Russia does veto the mandate, the fallout would provoke enormous humanitarian suffering, additional displacement and, potentially, political turmoil in and around Idlib. While Moscow has shown scant regard for the disapproval of other Security Council members over its war on Ukraine, it might be wary of straining its relationship with Ankara – and of creating a new crisis for itself in Syria while it is focused on Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Western members of the Council and UN officials need to ready themselves for an end to the cross-border-mandate, either in July or at a later date. The original Council mandate for cross-border aid to Syria in 2014 was based on the assumption that rebel-controlled enclaves around the country were temporary phenomena, and the mandate as well. For now, it appears more likely that the Syrian conflict is moving into an extended stalemate with no clear military or political resolution on the horizon. Areas of northern Syria where millions of displaced Syrians live might remain outside government control – and in need of significant external aid – for some time to come. There is no guarantee that the Security Council will continue to renew the authorisation for cross-border aid indefinitely.

Donors, the UN and NGOs already have plans for the eventuality that the cross-border arrangements end. One option – even if the mandate is renewed – may be for OCHA to gradually wind down its delivery operations while continuing to play a smaller coordination role and helping build up the capacity of NGOs to supply aid to Idlib in place of UN agencies. In this case, a future Russian veto would do less damage to aid supplies than it would do today. For the time being, however, it is essential that the Security Council renew the mandate for cross-border aid to avoid a fresh humanitarian disaster in north-western Syria.