On 11 February 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave his famous self-determination speech. Now almost a 100 years later, it is time to recognize a passage from it and its applicability to ISIS: National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.Self-determination is not a mere phrasestatesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril. While of course this was referring to the culture of colonialism and the overstretched empires in the early 20th century, ISIS should be thought of in this Wilsonian context of self-determination, especially as it is seeking a portion of Ottoman Empire remnants albeit in a brutish fashion. Although this is not a sort of ethnic self-determination envisioned by Wilson; it is a spirit of ideology that invokes a shared identity (and appeal) for a prophetic Islamic State that is fueled by disenfranchised Sunni Arabs, former Iraqi soldiers, and overly enthusiastic (and naïve) foreign fighters joining under Islamic pretenses of moral obligations. There should be no doubt about the “self-determination” prose of Islamic State leadership and fighters; they have not been deterred despite a year of Coalition bombing. Finally, meticulous ISIS bureaucracy is already managing the public administration affairs of its territories and is viewed by much of its citizenry as governing better than the national governments of Iraq or Syria. The public perception of incorruptible ISIS administrators makes it unlikely that Islamic State denizens will rebel.

While ISIS is deserving of much revile and scorn, to include numerous gifts (i.e. air strikes) from an international coalition, it appears that these limited air strikes have done little to deter ISIS fighters or recruitment. It has merely slowed their advance to Baghdad. This is best evidenced by estimates of ISIS gaining over a 1,000 ISIS recruits a month despite Coalition estimates of over 15,000 ISIS fighters being killed. Clearly this limited air war is not working in defeating ISIS, which is a minimally trained yet highly motivated bunch of irregular fighters that use insurgent style tactics against conventional Syrian, Kurdish, and Iraqi military forces. It is also apparent that U.S. attempts to fund and train rebels to fight ISIS failed spectacularly.

Unless the Coalition involved with Operation INHERENT RESOLVE resorts to using its own ground forces to manually push out ISIS from Iraq; air strikes are not cutting it. No amount of assistance through coalition military advisers on the ground or war matériel will push ISIS out at this point as Iraqi military forces have proven unworthy in battle despite being better trained and equipped (and outnumbering ISIS fighters in most battles). The Kurds have fared much better, but admit they need more coalition support. Given the current realities of lackluster indigenous military forces in Iraqi and Syria, public aversions to Coalition combat ground forces, and the recent deployment of significant Russian military forces into Syria (to essentially protect Syrian regime leadership), it is time to realize that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is better than Hobbesian disorder. Assad should be timidly accepted at this point by the international community. More importantly though, to achieve stability, the Coalition must exponentially increase air strike operations against the Islamic State to diplomatically force its leaders to the negotiating table for some sort of treaty that accepts its gains and recognizes it as a country.

Such a new air power operation against ISIS could be envisioned as a modern day version of Operation LINEBACKER II from the Vietnam War, where Nixon and Kissinger escalated bombing raids in North Vietnam as a means of compelling North Vietnamese leadership back to diplomatic negotiations for a peace treaty. Such a maneuver effectively recognized North Vietnam as a country and brought peace to South Vietnam. Although South Vietnam eventually fell to the North Vietnamese, it was only because the U.S. Congress defunded support for the government of South Vietnam and its military. Nonetheless, such an amped up air operation against the Islamic State would compel its leadership to accept its current borders of an irregularly shaped polygon territory overlaying Syria and Iraq. Providing financial and military assistance to neighboring countries after such a treaty would effectively “contain” ISIS.

For those skeptical of coercing ISIS into being a country, these people need to consider the difficulty of defeating a non-state actor that is heavily armed, highly motivated, and flush with cash. For example, the U.S. quickly routed the Taliban in 2001 since its Afghan leadership and military forces behaved in a conventional nation-state manner. However, since the Taliban were never eliminated nor incorporated into the Afghan political process they were able to operate as a strong insurgency in the periphery (i.e. rural areas) where Afghan governance has been inept or nonexistent. In this case, it is best to force the Islamic State into statehood, and utilize Russian military forces in Syria to shore up their border with ISIS, while providing funding and military support to the Turks, Kurds, and Iraqis to prevent further ISIS incursions into their lands.

Forcing ISIS to be a nation-state would also significantly reduce violence within Islamic State held territories; hence reducing the refugee crisis. Reasoning from a seminal book on civil wars, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, written by Yale Professor Stathis Kalyvas, facilitates a better understanding of insurgencies. He makes the argument that indiscriminate violence against civilians decreases in areas that are under full control of an incumbent government or insurgent group. In addition, Kalyvas asserts that this violence against civilians is greatest in disputed areas, as more indiscriminate violence occurs against civilians due to an inability to collect information from civilians on whom to target. Strong-arming the Islamic State into accepting a peace treaty and recognizing its current territorial sovereignty would effectively eliminate the violence against civilians in disputed areas, thus significantly slowing down the refugee crisis. It would also force the Islamic State to invest more in governing, and less in funding a fanatical fighting force.

If the Arab Spring has taught us anything at this point, it is that brutal regimes are preferable over chaos and anarchy.

The best part of forcing ISIS into being a country is that it strategically puts Iran and Russia into a defensive and wasteful stance. Already Iran has played its card (and expended numerous resources) in Iran for over 4 years for the purposes of keeping Assad in charge. Russia has also played a role in ensuring Assad’s control of Syria by providing much needed financial resources and military advisors. Miring two U.S. adversaries in the defense of a country that is not really worth governing or controlling for capitalistic purposes is the sort of strategy that will waste the efforts (and wealth) of Russia and Iran on numerous fronts. Coercing ISIS into becoming a country for the purposes of stabilizing the region and forcing Russia and Iran to waste military and diplomatic resources on sustaining the Syrian regime is the sort of Fabian strategy the U.S. needs to invoke against an enemy that is not worth fighting conventionally or right now for that matter. Moreover, it would force ISIS to govern properly in a non-violent fashion as illuminated by Arjona, Kasfir, and Mampilly writing in Rebel Governance in Civil War. Either ISIS will govern maturely/pragmatically or it will face harsh uprisings against its superstitiously harsh rule; hence undermining the Islamic State in the long-term. Nonetheless, the inhabitants of ISIS controlled lands are disillusioned by their previous corrupt states: Iraq or Syria. That being said, a newly found ISIS controlled territory would also force neighboring territories to govern with an ethos of modernity, while also providing the sort of security necessary to provide incumbent control that invokes allegiance to the state. It would also reduce violence and refugee movements as ISIS would be forcedinto “a competition in government,” and at some point ISIS would either govern maturely or face “burnout” due to loss of popular support. The crisis overlaying Iraq and Syria could clearly be solved by acknowledging it as a state and allowing Iran and Russia to waste resources on propping up Assad.

Ultimately, the Islamic State needs to be dealt with. It should be obvious that current strategies have not stemmed ISIS growth, provoking President Obama to even acknowledge that fighting ISIS will be “long-term campaign.” Coercing ISIS into a peace treaty through an uninhibited air campaign would force the Islamic State to be a country, effectively making it easier for the international community to deal with its leadership. Chaotic violence and the flow of refugees would also be significantly reduced, as ISIS would have to contend with governing more and killing less. It would also facilitate the use of instruments of power by the international community to press ISIS leaders into behaving as a better state. Such a strategy would force ISIS hardliners to either capitulate or rise up against ISIS leadership; both benficial outcomes to the U.S. and its coalition.

It is perilous to believe that the U.S. and its coalition can defeat a very determined Islamic State through airstrikes and limited assistance to ground forces opposing ISIS. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything at this point, it is that brutal regimes are preferable over chaos and anarchy. Make ISIS a country and begin working on dealing with it as an authoritative regime, rather than as an insurgency. Who knows, the country of ISIS might someday be a quasi-normal country in 40 years just like Vietnam.



  1. Alan 30 September, 2015 at 11:06 Reply

    Jabarra, thanks for taking the time to publish this piece and think through the implications of “statehood”. While you point out some possible benefits of recognizing the IS as just that, this option falls outside the “realm of possible” as we could never convince our Arab partners and leaders in the ME to do so. And even if we could, it would be seen as westerners once again redrawing the lines of the ME.

    Additionally, allowing IS to get their way sets a dangerous precedent for attaining statehood. Would this clear the way for Kurds, Tuoregs, (insert secessionist group here) to do the same?

    Finally, if IS became a state, and fails s as many predict it would, who then fills the void? Or rises up against the IS regime, a more brutal IS 2.0?

    There is no easy solution here, and I appreciate you thinking outside the norm. I just wanted to provide some more points of consideration.

  2. bill 30 September, 2015 at 12:43 Reply

    Is this satire? The article is woefully ignorant of the threat and our capability to shape it.
    1) Our airpower is already maxed out. The author seems to assume we’re holding back, and that we could cripple ISIS, “bringing them to the peace table” with a little more effort. We cannot increase firepower without a commensurate increase in civilian casualties. The target set is not framed by columns of tanks waving NVA flags. What center of gravity does the author believe ISIS holds that we aren’t striking? Does the author really think we’re passing up targets right now?
    2) The author makes the mistake of mirroring his own preconceptions by assuming that ISIS believes in a nation-state system like the west. They do not. They will never be satisfied with their current territory and do not behave as a rational actor. They have explicitly decried Sykes Picot and explicitly stated they want a world-wide caliphate. Containment as defined by preventing this “state” from invading another country with columns of technicals is misguided mirror-imaging. That is not how they will fight.
    3) the premise that ISIS will be forced to rule humanely or be overthrown by its own population is ignoring history. If that were the case, North Korea would have fallen long ago.
    4) the author fails to address the spreading of ISIS ideology throughout the middle east and beyond. Once we “force” a state in Iraq/Syria, what do we do with the Sinai? “Force” a state there as well? What about Libya? Mali? Afghanistan? Nigeria? All places that have claimed to plant the flag of ISIS. There is no containment through force of arms for an ideology, and claiming air power could solve this problem is ridiculous.

    We make a mistake by assuming what we value is also what they do, and that coercive measures that would work on us, would work on them as well. It’s called asymmetric warfare for a reason.

  3. Dennis 30 September, 2015 at 15:56 Reply

    “Forcing ISIS to be a nation-state would also significantly reduce violence within Islamic State held territories; hence reducing the refugee crisis.”

    You assume as fact something for which there is little evidence and much reason to doubt. You assume that the refugees are simply fleeing violence and would happily stay behind peacefully living their lives under a government dominated by a doomsday cult. And that the doomsday cult would no longer visit random violence on anyone whom they suspected did not completely support their end of days vision.

  4. Khadijah 1 October, 2015 at 01:23 Reply

    “If the Arab Spring has taught us anything at this point, it is that brutal regimes are preferable over chaos and anarchy.”

    Slow down, Sparky.

    There are brutal regimes and there are BRUTAL REGIMES. Hussein was a BRUTAL REGIME. The vintage Qadaffi was a BRUTAL REGIME. Idi Amin was a BRUTAL REGIME, as was Stalin, Mao, and a host of others that are a part of history.

    Men like Assad run brutal regimes, but not BRUTAL REGIMES. The difference? A Hussein would have you killed for cutting him off in traffic. Assad, OTOH, imprisons political adversaries. Before the recent revolt, the economy in Syria was strong and standards of living were growing, because Assad was not a BRUTAL REGIME.

    If you remove Assad, you will replace a brutal regime with a BRUTAL REGIME. Don’t think for a minute that this is justified. Assad can be reasoned with. ISIS cannot.

  5. Ilpalazzo 1 October, 2015 at 01:26 Reply

    Dear author, please pick up a Quran for research. A ‘state’ is the most naive insult you could come up with. We’re talking about an ideology that can’t tolerate a Rhode Island-sized state of differences in the desert. ISIS is doing this because they want a WORLD caliphate. Give them a state and you’re just basically giving in and acknowledging them as a right to exist, and they’ll spread.

  6. John 1 October, 2015 at 01:52 Reply

    Repeat after me: there are no civilians over there. There are Muslims who want to kill us, Israel, and others (including Muslims) who oppose them RIGHT NOW. Then there are Muslims who don’t really care who else gets killed or when, as long as they themselves are left alone. The number of Irshad Manji types in Middle Eastern Muslim nations who would truly shun jihad and shari’a would probably not fill a football stadium. Our mistake is in trying to be surgical. “There is no containment through force of arms for an ideology”?
    Tell it to the Japanese in Hiroshima (where I have been).

    • bill 1 October, 2015 at 14:18 Reply

      Repeat after me: 1) The majority of people caught in the line of fire are civilians in Syria and Iraq (where I served multiple deployments). “Kill’em all and let God sort’em out” is a slogan on a T-shirt, not a strategy. 2) Comparing the end of the war in the pacific to the fight against ISIS is the exact same mirror imaging I spoke about. It’s apples and T-bone steaks. Japan is a nation-state, not an ideology (where I lived for three years).

  7. Tom 2 October, 2015 at 03:51 Reply

    The author makes a very weak point here and fails to consider the horrible atrocities committed by ISIS on non-Muslims. The women who are subject to systematic rape and slavery do not consent to these religious (not national) aspirations. And self-determination is not a Wilsonian concept; it’s a Lockean concept. There are multiple other ridiculous theories in this article. LINEBACKER II!?! What are you going to bomb? So if the Taliban was offered a chance to participate in Afghanistan, all would be peaceful? Very unlikely.

  8. Ashley 3 October, 2015 at 15:22 Reply

    “It would force ISIS to govern properly in a non-violent fashion… either ISIS will govern maturely/pragmatically or it will face harsh uprisings against its superstitiously harsh rule.”

    There are neither guarantees. Look at another extremist ideology – the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – who continued to kill millions within their secured borders.

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