What to do about Islamic State

Fuck. Over 120 innocent people murdered in Central Paris. Islamic State, a terrorist organisation in charge of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility. Francois Hollande, the French President has declared the attacks as “an act of war”. Social media has blazed with messages of support, as have Western powers. The USA especially has promised to do “anything… for our oldest ally”.

The question is, what do IS want? And how should the West respond… how can the West respond? What follows is my 2c, which judging by how long I’ve allowed this to get presents particularly good value for words-per-cent.

What do IS want?

The skim: terrorise Europe, mobilise recruits and existing members, polarise debate. All of this to tempt the West into a war, and further their plans for world domination/the end of the world. Yes, really.

This particular attack probably had three aims:

  • Terrorise Paris directly, and Europe by implication

This one’s pretty simple. Attacking places Parisians like to relax – sports stadiums, restaurants and concert halls – robs them of any feeling of safety. It also sends the message that if France continues to launch extensive airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, their citizens will be targeted.

For the rest of Europe, the message is similar: you are not safe. It could be you next.

  • Mobilise supporters and drive recruitment

A hollywood budget attack like this inspires current fighters, who get the impression that IS is striking the heart of the Western imperialist enemies. Similarly, it encourages more people to join up, because IS is getting results. One fascinating change in recent years  is that organisations like IS can use Twitter in much the same way as a corporate brand would: raising awareness through creating news stories and spreading viral, easily sharable content.

  • Polarise the debate.

“the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.

Dabiq (IS’ magazine, late 2014)

IS wants people to draw the battle lines between Muslims and Non-Muslims, for Muslims and refugees to be blamed for the horror Paris experienced. They want western Muslims to feel that they can only truly be at home at the Isis Caliphate. IS militants have enough money to get into Europe through safer routes than the migrant stations in Greece: I suspect it was no accident one or more of the attackers were sent through a major migrant route. Almost all of the young Muslims heading off to Syria became alienated from Western culture: a rising tide of Islamophobia will only increase that.

More broadly, IS probably want the following:

  • Western armies to get boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria, which will cause chaos and provide no quick victories, allowing them to position themselves as bringers of stability and enemies of the hated West.

And even more broadly:

  • Restore Islam to its lost glories and right the wrongs of the past by consolidating their Caliphate, a form of Islamic government. They claimed to have established their territories as a Caliphate last year, but many Islamic scholars disagree. ‘Caliph’, if we’re to get etymological, originates from the Arabic word ‘khalīfah’, ‘successor’, and is generally thought to be a shortening of ‘khalifat rasul Allah’, ‘successor to the messenger of God’. This is important as it hits home that they want to revive the political organisation Mohammed established: a return to Islam’s roots. They see their state as the continuation of his ideas and hopes.
  • There’s also an increasingly popular view amongst academics and researchers that IS is an apocalyptic cult: that they are following a divine vision to bring about the apocalypse, where the forces of good (them) and evil (tbc) will have a final boss battle to decide the fate of the world in Dabiq, Syria. That’s another tangent for another day, but this article and this article explore it in interesting depth.

What do we want?

This is a punt, but off the top of my head in rank of importance:

  1. No more terrorist attacks against our citizens
  2. The annihilation of Islamic State
  3. A more stable Middle East to stop the humanitarian crisis and stem the flow of refugees
  4. Leaders our leaders can do business with

[Note: a cynic would swap 3 and 4]

So what you gonna do about it?:

Before we dive into the possible options for dealing with IS in the wake of the Paris attacks, there’s a few things worth considering first. This is definitely not comprehensive: I don’t talk nearly enough about the Syrian Civil War, because that’s a book in itself. In fact, looking over this section I don’t talk nearly enough about anything. The skim: the region’s politics are really, really complicated: there are no quick fixes.

  • The Middle East is the most unstable region in the world. Many of the states that make it up, such as Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are full of internal factions constantly trying to outmanouevre, undermine and overthrow each other, and on an international level those same internally fractured, unstable states are constantly trying to outmanouvre, undermine and overthrow each other. Think Game of Thrones, only with more backstabbing in the families.

To demonstrate, here is (hopefully) every major conflict, excluding coups or relatively bloodless revolutions, that has been going on since the Second World War:

  • 1919-2003 Iraqi-Kurdish conflict
  • 1928-1948 – Sectarian conflict in Mandatory Palestine
  • 1946 – The Iran crisis
  • 1948-present Arab-Israeli conflict
  • 1954-1960 Jebel Akhdar War (Oman)
  • 1962-1970 North Yemen Civil War
  • 1962-1975 Dhofar Rebellion
  • 1963-1967 Aden Emergency
  • 1970-1971 Jordanian-Palestinian Civil War
  • 1974 – Turkish invasion of Cyprus
  • 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War
  • 1976-1982 Islamic uprising in Syria
  • 1979-1980 Iranian Revolution and Consolidation
  • 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War
  • 1984-2013 Turkey-PKK conflict
  • 1986 – South Yemen Civil War
  • 1989-1996 KDPI Insurgency (Iran)
  • 1990-1991 Gulf War
  • 1994 – Yemen Civil War
  • 2003-2011 Iraq War
  • 2004-2014 Shia insurgency in Yemen
  • 2004-present Iran-PJAK conflict
  • 2006-present Fatah-Hamas conflict
  • 2008 – Lebanon conflict
  • 2009-2015 South Yemen insurgency
  • 2011-present Yemeni crisis
  • 2011-present Syrian Civil War
  • 2011-present Sinai insurgency
  • 2011-present Iraqi insurgency

[Note: bloody hell. Yemen doesn’t half have a lot of civil wars.]

  • The Syrian Civil War is really complicated, and isn’t likely to end any time soon. According to The Atlantic:

The political-science professor Barbara F. Walter has pointed out that since the end of World War II, civil wars have lasted an average of 10 years, but that the number of factions involved is likely to prolong this one.

Here’s a handy infographic of some of the more important conflicts being played out in the Syrian Civil War:

This doesn’t even half-capture the complexity as the rebels – IS included – are fighting each other, donors in the Gulf States are backing several different horses, and the Turks are trying to undermine the Kurdish forces.

SO AS A RESULT, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT: any talk of grand coalitions, of allies and moderate rebel forces, will have to work in this environment of ever-changing, overlapping intrigue and conflict. It also means that allies will probably want different things to each other.

The Military Options (I can think of):

Declare war on IS and invade their territories

The skim: like waking up in the morning and drowsily thinking how wonderful it would be to have a threesome with two of your ex-girlfriends.


  • It will allow the far-superior Western forces to properly engage with and destroy IS military units rather than dropping missiles at stuff that looks reasonably important from a mile up in the sky.
  • American troops’ presence in the Middle East has a wonderfully shining popularity with Iraqi people.


  • How can you tell who is a hiding IS fighter and who is a local dude with a beard that doesn’t look especially happy to see you because of generations of bred resentment?
  • Getting sucked into local power politics: rival tribes snitching on each other for their own advantage
  • The Gulf Arabs (Kuwait, Qatar etc) are economic giants but military dwarves, and almost certainly won’t commit troops, leaving mainly european faces on the occupying soldiers.
  • Getting mixed up in the Syrian Civil War, where Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are directly funding opposite sides.

Declare war on IS and intensify air strikes

The skim: like paying just the interest on a loan in hindsight you shouldn’t have taken out. It’s manageable and it feels like you’re making progress, but it’s ultimately expensive and you’re actually going nowhere.


  • Avoids the awkwardness of having boots on the ground: jets going at 500mph are less likely to get bogged down in local politics.
  • This approach buys time and keeps IS in check, giving time and space to build up forces or find proxies to win the ground battle for you.


  • This is pretty much what is already happening. It’s certainly not destroying IS, and it’s very debatable as to whether it has degraded them. The Kurdish Peshamerga are having more success in gaining IS territory (although admittedly they are making use of Western air support).
  • These bombing runs actually rarely find something worth dropping a bomb on:
    • “Seventy-five percent of the sorties that we’re currently running with our attack aircraft come back without dropping bombs, mostly because they cannot acquire the target or properly identify the target,” said U.S. Army General (ret) Jack Keane in testimony before the U.S. Senate last week.

Support local political and military powers in their attempts to destroy IS

The skim: like trying to get 20 university students in the same place and the same time without utilising threats of violence. They also all hate each other, and you.

Moderate Syrian rebels:

  • hahahahaha. There are no moderate Syrian rebels. The 3 main rebel groups, which account for almost all of the c.100,000 rebel soldiers are Al-Nusra (Al-Qaida affiliates), Islamic Front (jihadis supported by Saudi Arabia) and… you guessed it, Islamic State!

The Kurds:

  • America’s only reliable allies and darlings of the Western media, the Kurds are great (except for the alleged war crimes they’re committing).
  • They’ve secured territory, fought Islamic State back in the famous Battle of Kobane, and just the other day captured the strategically important city of Sinjar. No one can say they are not fighting effectively and smartly.
  • It is interesting that the Kurds have been successful, as like IS they are ‘non-state actors’: national armies are evidently far inferior to these internal militias.
  • HOWEVER, they have few ambitions for territory beyond areas they have historically lived in, not least because they would likely face resistance from locals in traditionally Sunni and Shi’ite areas.


  • Western powers do not want to be too closely associated with Iran, not least because of an unfriendly history but because close allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are absolutely opposed to the state of Iran.

The Iraqi government

  • The mainly Shi’ite Iraqi government caused half the crisis by discriminating and persecuting Sunni Iraqis. This attitude has evidently not changed that much, as the U.S.-backed legislation that would authorize a Sunni national guard remains stalled in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi parliament.
  • The US-trained Iraqi army almost immediately collapsed in their first outing against IS: around 1,500 IS soldiers occupied Mosul, scaring off a force of around 30,000 Iraqi soldiers. Men are not prepared for the idea of Iraq. They are prepared to die for the Islamic State.

The Syrian government

  • Do we really want to support people who have tortured tens of thousands of people, and drop barrel bombs on their own people?
  • Most Western powers have made it very clear in the past they want Assad gone. However, Russia has made it clear Assad should stay. Hmm.

Contain the Islamic State

Transparently showing my bias, this is the option I’ve found most interesting so it has received more words.

The skim: IS’ theology and operation is incompatible with running a modern state. If it is forced to act like one, the weight of internal contradictions will collapse it. – or – making that annoying person who keeps talking about homeopathy use only homeopathic remedies to combat their own metastatic pancreatic cancer.

The argument goes as follows:

  • Islamic State is not a powerful regional actor. Whilst it has a lot of social media, it’s only managed to attract about 30,000 people from abroad. Its territory has few resources and little industrial power. As soon as it goes outside Sunni areas it hits heavy resistance from Shia militias and Kurdish fighters, and so has effectively stopped expanding.
  •  If it is contained, and forced to stay in the area it has already occupied, not only will its strength start to dwindle, but it will start to settle into a state with definite borders and institutions. This will be something much more clearly defined and so, easier to attack.
  • IS follows a strictly dogmatic approach to Jihad: it does not accept borders, and it does not engage with secular governments (for they have repeatedly said the Koran forbids these). If it ends up having to engage on these terms, their political reality will be incompatible with the theology central to their reason for existence.
  •  Allow refugees out, so that the region occupied by IS starts to bleed itself white.
  • It will be brutal, no one likes seeing heads and hands being cut off, but if the only way to kill insurgents is to blow them up, often killing innocent people nearby, what kind of alternative is that?


  • We all remember Rwanda. Western powers stood to one side, and with little more than machetes 500,000 people were massacred over the space of a couple of weeks. Maybe there’s a reputational risk.
  • It still involves some degree of regional cooperation: if only to agree on which borders to police.

Not do anything

The skim: lying on the cold asphalt of the school playground, the school bully has just punched you in the face and is standing over you. You opt to give him the silent treatment.

  • This isn’t realistically a possibility. Hollande cannot turn to the French people and say that, on reflection, maybe if they close their eyes IS won’t see them. IS is trying hard to make itself Europe’s problem.
  • Interestingly, whilst people decry IS for trying to create a narrative of Good vs Evil, I suppose Europe is doing the same. For proof, examine the adjectives the Daily Mail uses to describe IS fighters.

So What?

This blog post was partly to make sense of my thoughts on the situation, and on possible solutions. Every hour new insights into the Paris attacks come to light, and I just cannot stop thinking about it. I can’t stop writing this either. It’s half past one in the morning.

What most people agree on:

  • Islamic State are a danger to regional and European security. Something should be done about that.

What no one can agree on:

  • What to do.

After looking through each of the military options, none of them feel particularly realistic. [Note: there are a lot of more politics-based solutions I have unfairly not tried to cover.] The basic truth is this: the West is no longer confident enough to properly militarily impose its will on the Middle East, because armies cannot create legitimate alternatives to the structures we rush in to knock down. Additionally, increasingly powerful regional powers, buoyed on oil money, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, have their own ideas for how the region should look. There is a cognitive dissonance in the West: traditionally we have seen ‘evil’, be it communist, nationalist or religious, and we have swooped in and dictated what will happen next. So that is what we immediately think, we think: “we must do something”. But our governments realise our opinion is not the only one that counts any more.

So what next?

Only one thing is guaranteed. People will die in their tens of thousands, sovereign states will collapse if they haven’t already, and new alliances and emnities will form.

The Middle East has painfully exposed the limits of the West’s influence. We no longer have the control we once enjoyed, took for granted. We have to do something, but we are just another regional interest. The truth is this: newspapers and politicians will talk about feels right to do, but they do not have a fucking clue how they’ll realistically achieve that.


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