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Islamic State: no-one wants to talk to terrorists, but we always do – and sometimes it works

The Islamic State (IS) now occupies significant swaths of Iraq and Syria, has pushed as far as the border with Turkey, and has succeeded in dragging “the West” into two civil wars in the Middle East. The…

“We’re supposed to negotiate with them?” Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint. EPA/Ali Mohammed

The Islamic State (IS) now occupies significant swaths of Iraq and Syria, has pushed as far as the border with Turkey, and has succeeded in dragging “the West” into two civil wars in the Middle East. The West’s offensive, spearheaded by the US and supported by the UK and others, is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS.

But in the face of IS’s state-building efforts, that strategy will only work if it manages to degrade the group’s legitimacy as a governing enterprise.

While IS’s extreme ideology and brutal tactics obviously pose problems for its legitimacy among the population it now rules, it has taken many steps to try to win local people’s hearts and minds and to build local alliances. It has set up local governing structures, a tax system, a judicial system, and formed an education policy.

And though little is really known about what people living in IS-controlled territory actually think of their new overlords, the group may well enjoy more legitimacy than we give it credit for.

Legitimacy vacuum

This is not least because Assad’s authoritarian Syria and sectarian Iraq long ago threw away any credibility they may once have had as states. IS has thrived on the plight of the Syrian opposition’s campaign against Assad’s authoritarian regime and was welcomed back into Iraq by Sunni groups and former Ba'ath Party members who were sidelined under Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian regime.

The group’s remarkably fast military advance can be attributed to a core of officers with training and experience from Saddam Hussein’s army – in addition to a ready supply of foreign fighters. Combined with its ability to quickly set up functional governing structures, that means IS is not just a terrorist organisation; it is a well-trained army with at least some popular support. And whether we like it or not, it has successfully embarked on what looks like a state-building process.

This is all bad news for the “degrade and destroy” strategy, as a military solution is not going to be enough. The question is, what does military force against IS do to its legitimacy? One of two things. Western air raids and potential ground deployments can strengthen the group’s image of the West as an external threat and, as such, boost its legitimacy.

There is of course an alternative outcome, one in which military force could also badly degrade IS’s legitimacy by showing the population it seeks to rule that it cannot fulfil one of the main functions of a state: providing security from external threats. But until Iraq and Syria can do a better job of protecting the very same citizens’ security, degrading IS’s legitimacy militarily might not make much difference.

Instead, for the campaign to stand any chance of eroding the group’s legitimacy with the populations it now seeks to govern, the West needs to be just as focused on boosting the legitimacy of Iraq and Syria. This will be crucial if the West wants to decisively end the conflict, not just defeat IS at a few tactical flashpoints. And that, of course, will be a monstrous task.

Fighting on two fronts

A political solution becomes all the more important when we consider the possible paths to conflict termination. The civil wars in which IS is embedded span a large area covering two states with ethnic and religious differences, take place in inhospitable terrain, feature numerous actors and are fought in states with poor economies, low capacity to govern their territories and porous borders – all of which makes it easy for an insurgency to emerge and thrive.

And while neither Iraq nor Syria is strong enough to defeat IS on its own, IS itself is becoming mightier by the minute. In fact, thus far the air campaigns against IS seem to have pushed its erstwhile ally-turned-enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra, back in the IS camp.

However, the West is clearly determined not to let IS win, and that makes a decisive victory on either side unlikely. This is consistent with trends in the post-Cold War era, where relatively few civil wars have ended in military victories. Any solution, then, will have to be political.

On the surface, the prospects for any kind of negotiated settlement look bleak. Given that the fight against IS is embedded in two civil wars, we’re talking about reaching settlements in two different conflicts, both of which involve numerous actors besides IS. Moreover, no one in the West really wants to talk to IS, it’s unclear whether IS actually wants to talk, and both host states are looking like they lack the political legitimacy to challenge IS.

And yet, this might not be quite the insurmountable challenge it looks like.

Getting to the table

Lasting settlements are far more challenging in conflicts with multiple actors, but they’re certainly not impossible. The majority of civil conflicts involve multiple insurgent groups – and, since the end of the Cold War, about 38% of civil war terminations have involved a political settlement of some sort.

No one in the West, it seems, wants to talk to IS. Officially, of course: “We don’t talk to terrorists“. Actually, we always do. And sometimes it works. Political negotiations with the Taliban, IRA and FARC would once have seemed absurd, but are now an accepted necessity by politicians and their constituents.

What’s unclear, of course, is whether IS has any interest in talking. But the group has proven capable of negotiating alliances with a disparate collection of actors and its state-building efforts have required compromise and coalition-building. They also share a number of core characteristics with other revolutionary insurgencies that proved open to dialogue.

Also, on the upside, research has shown that as the governing and military capacity of an insurgent force grows, so does the likelihood of a negotiated settlement. Put another way, only strong rebel groups are generally capable of forcing states into making the concessions necessary for a peace agreement.

This means that the growing strength of IS, while no doubt threatening for peace and security in the region, could paradoxically be the very catalyst to force Iraq and Syria to engage with the terms required for peace.

Long way to go

Of course, IS is unlikely to come to the table while it continues to make significant gains. Military action might then serve a useful purpose in pushing IS towards a settlement (as it did in Bosnia); military force is after all an extension of politics by other means. This is in contrast to the current approach of military without much, or any, politics, which will most likely just make things worse.

But political negotiations will only work once IS’s twin host states regain some of their lost political legitimacy. Tragically, this is probably beyond the Syrian state while Assad remains in power, but post-Maliki Iraq does potentially have the capacity to reform and stabilise itself enough to offer a chance for resolution.

While this might seem optimistic, there are no other good options. The chance of a military victory against IS in either of these countries is slim. In many civil wars, violence does somehow fizzle out, but this is typically only the case in conflicts far below the threshold of violence we have seen in Syria and Iraq.

A political solution to install and bolster legitimate regimes in both Syria and Iraq is therefore paramount; it is certainly central to whether military action against IS will work.

The stakes could scarcely be higher: in the absence of a political strategy, the current approach may be paving the way for the emergence of a de facto state under IS control. That will do little but perpetuate instability in the region.

A political solution to two deeply complex civil wars taking place in weak and fractional states is, of course, easier imagined than achieved. Still, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The White House and Downing Street would do better to start formulating and initiating a coherent policy now, rather than continue with a strategy that’s rapidly heading in the wrong direction.