By Dr. Doron Pely
On October 4, 2014, when President Barak Obama made his famous speech about U.S. strategy to counter ISIS’s meteoric rise and expansion, he repeated one phrase that caught the attention of many, within and without the United States. He said: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL.”
With this catchy phrase, President Obama was probably trying to erase in a hurry the terrible impression left by his earlier comment that “we don’t have a strategy yet.”
The catchphrase caught the attention of observers and analysts around the world. Attempts were made to decipher the deeper meaning behind it. That’s commendable, but it appears that there was nothing more meaningful behind the phrase. It reflected (possibly still reflects) America’s strategic perspective of the best way to deal with the ISIS threat, namely: we are going to take our time, chip away at ISIS gradually, and ultimately we will destroy it.
Fair enough, but this is a bad strategy. It’s bad primarily because it gives ISIS plenty of breathing space to continue operating, to cause enormous pain and suffering right now. Even worse, it allows ISIS to sow the seeds of quite predictable future tragedies by being allowed to continue orchestrating multiple “victory” narratives, and consequently, to continue drawing many vulnerable, impressionable, and ultimately miserable but also dangerous youngsters from across the world.
Not a week goes by without all of us being bombarded by news items that frame ISIS’s narrative as a successful, enterprising, out-of-the-box, West-challenging organization. Nearly every move they take is used by them (and amplified by event-hungry Western media organizations) to poke more than a finger at the “crusaders” and tell them a story that carries at its tip the message: we’re coming to get you.
ISIS’s killers could have executed the 21 Coptic Egyptians anywhere in the vast landmass of Libya; they chose, instead, the seashore of the Mediterranean Sea, facing tantalizingly nearby Europe (the southern tip of Italy), using their theater of the macabre to further buttress their narrative of expansion and success and to tell their huge audience across the world: “we are expanding, we are on the move, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us. Look, we’re already at Europe’s doorstep!”
The week after the horrific Libya executions, audiences across the world were exposed to news about a new ISIS offensive in Iraq. But when it comes to what the forces opposed to ISIS are doing, we learn that they are planning a “spring offensive” to try to route ISIS from its many hold points in northern and western Iraq. What to do about ISIS in Libya, nobody seems to know.
Back to the impressionable youngsters: as long as ISIS is allowed to continue to produce its victory pictures without a serious challenge, in deed and narrative, these youngsters will continue making their way to ISIS territory, buoyed by images of success and victory. By the time many of them realize the bitter reality – as opposed to that painted by ISIS’s supremely talented public relations architects – it is going to be too late for many of them, for their families, communities and countries of origin.
This is why the word “degrade” should be removed from the strategic philosophy of those arrayed against ISIS. If they think that this is an organization, a movement, a message that needs destroying, they should destroy it; they should not allow it a moment more breathing time than is absolutely necessary. Every such moment is detrimental to vulnerable young multitudes and all of us by extension. To them, President Obama and the anti-ISIS coalition bear no less responsibility than those directly impacted by ISIS in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
Dr. Doron Pely is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center in Israel. Doron studies and teaches Muslim customary conflict and conflict management practices. His experience combines military (Lieutenant), police intelligence (field and analysis), business intelligence, executive duties, and academic and field research. Doron earned his PhD in Middle East Studies from King’s College, London.