Airstrikes alone won’t defeat ISIS

As the UK debates extending into Syria, there is a striking absence of consideration for citizens. A commentary.

The recent attacks in Paris brought back the debate in Europe on the urgent need to fight ISIS as the threat it poses grows and becomes more imminent. While France took a clear position by immediately striking ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, other European countries are still in the process of deciding what to do. The ongoing debate in the UK now is whether or not to support Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to striking ISIS in Syria, without contemplating any other options.

The danger here is in limiting the discussion/choices to either fighting ISIS via airstrikes — which won’t be enough to defeat ISIS and could well end up being used as a recruiting tool for the group — or not doing anything at all to fight them, which is the discourse of the Stop the War Coalition. Such decisions are not simple or straightforward, so it’s important to discuss other options that fight ISIS but are also part of a comprehensive strategy to address the roots of the problem, including the Assad regime’s atrocities, and finding sustainable solutions.


It’s important to highlight that a victory against such a group will neither be easy nor fast, but the slow progress of the current airstrikes is allowing the group to adapt its tactics to reduce losses. The anti-ISIS airstrikes in Iraq and Syria were able to harm ISIS on many different levels; financially, militarily and by restricting their movements, etc. However, the majority of these gains are tactical and have not translated into a strategic victory over ISIS. In other words, the airstrikes are not an existential threat to ISIS — the group has been able to expand to new areas in Syria such as rural Aleppo and Homs. Furthermore, ISIS has adjusted its military tactics to the strikes, which has reduced their impact especially since the groups’ easy targets (military bases, training camps, etc.) were eliminated during the first days of bombing. ISIS has also been able to fight on different fronts at the same time, which indicates the minimal impact the strikes are having on the efficiency of the group.

The suffering of civilians affected by such airstrikes is usually the untold story that people avoid discussing. The common narrative is that those who are against ISIS have left and those who are still there are ISIS supporters and are therefore ‘collateral damage.’ Many people didn’t have a chance to flee either because they couldn’t afford to or they couldn’t find a safer place to move to. It might come as a surprise to know that many people moved to ISIS-controlled areas because these areas were targeted less by regime airstrikes than areas controlled by moderate groups.

People are also being used as human shields; banned from leaving ISIS areas, especially those capable of fighting. In addition to the state of constant fear, electricity and water are the first to be cut off as supply lines are usually damaged in airstrikes. The absence of humanitarian aid and the disruption of the local economy in ISIS’s areas has made it more difficult to be financially independent, which has pushed some people to join the group as a survival tactic.

Lessons learned

The temptation of a quick victory over ISIS should be considered carefully. Eradicating the group without addressing the conditions that allowed it to flourish will likely see it replaced with another that is just as bad or worse. Although US support for the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989 achieved its goal, many people argue that it contributed to the rise of Al-Qaeda. The same thing happened when the US battled the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, without properly addressing grievances in the Sunni community, which contributed to the proliferation of ISIS.

Any strategy against ISIS should also address long-term consequences of military support and actions on the local dynamics of the conflict. For example, in the absence of genuine Arab-Kurd cooperation in Syria, all ISIS territorial losses supported by the US-led coalition have become de facto Kurdish gains, at least for now, including areas where Arabs are the majority, such as Tal Abyad in rural Raqqa. This has led to an increase in tensions between Arabs and Kurds, as the latter are perceived as taking advantage of US support as a means of expanding their territory. In addition to the tension caused by the recent fact-finding mission in northern Syria, Amnesty International uncovered a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the YPG controlling the area. Any intervention against ISIS should deal with these problems rather than treat the symptoms alone.

Finally, no military force will destroy ISIS or potentially similar groups in future unless matched with a broader strategy that addresses the conditions that have allowed ISIS to come about the in the first place. The chances of winning the war against ISIS without the support and participation of local communities are next to nil. This theory is supported by all successful attempts to eradicate extremists, such as the expulsion of ISIS in Syria from the countryside around Aleppo and Idlib, in Kobani, and the Ghouta suburbs in 2014.

However, such support will not be easily obtained unless locals have a sense of ownership of such strategies, participating in their design and implementation. This would allow a wedge to be driven between ISIS and the broader Sunni community by countering the group’s conservative religious discourse with a moderate one. It would also allow them to identify and address deep-rooted political, economic, social and cultural problems that gave rise to ISIS. In addition, people would be able create their own alternatives and solutions and will be motivated to fight for them, especially when they have hope and guarantees that what comes next will not be worse.

More airstrikes without a clear, comprehensive and participatory strategy that sets the protection of civilians as a top priority will only increase civilian suffering. Without such a strategy, civilians will continue to be the ones paying the heaviest price for having dared to ask for basic rights from a bloody regime that has forced them to live their worse nightmares.

This article was first published by NOW.