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Is ISIL Really Contained?

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The claims that the US strategy against ISIL is not effective in containing the terrorist organization are not accurate. The strategy did indeed deprive the organization of its ability to achieve any meaningful strategic victory. Yet, it is also fair to say that in the near past there were “fair” claims that Al Qaeda was “on the run,” and that it was contained, even defeated. Different evaluations stem from different definitions of containment.
ISIL could not take Iraq’s Kurdish region or attack certain parts of Baghdad. But seen in a slightly longer time frame, that does not seem to be much of an achievement. ISIL is very much active in Syria, and it is still expanding in Iraq as is obvious by the last simultaneous attacks on Samara, Hit and Al Ramadi. The same is happening in Syria. ISIL established a presence in Al Suwayda, the most southern province of Syria. Reports from the Houran region in the province indicate that a group previously affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, deprived of arms and ammunitions, defected and pledged allegiance to ISIL in the village of Beer Qasab. This is a significant foothold in the South as it is only few miles away from the route to Damascus and to the Al Assad regime’s air base in Khalkhalah.

In other words, the accomplishments in confronting ISIL are only quantitative or nonexistent (Syria). It is true that ISIL could have expanded much faster if the US led coalition had not bombed its forces and prevented any strategic collapse in Iraq, but this is about all the containment that was achieved without underestimating its significance. To prevent ISIL from “expanding more” does not mean stopping it from expanding nonetheless. Obviously, what is happening is far from sufficient to really deprive the organization from its ability to expand at all, let alone ‘rolling it back”.

But what is sufficient? However important depriving ISIL from achieving strategic victories is, it is difficult to maintain that achievement in a little longer term. ISIL’s capturing Samara, for one example, could turn out to be a game changer in terms of sectarian-sensitive Iraq. Its ability to act in the South of Syria could lead to significant complications as well.

Therefore, the claim that ISIL is “contained” is not accurate if taken in a broader sense and if the analysis goes deeper than the shallow layers of the confrontation. People may define containment along the lines of Bill Clinton’s definition of sex. But the real thing is different.

And the real thing is a multifaceted, multilateral effort to “really” contain ISIL. The real thing is the right combination of regional diplomacy, international coordination, military action, media warfare, economic pressures, daring out of the box political steps and involvement in all the details of the developments on the ground. Without a broader concept to fight Middle Eastern and global jihad based on sincere coordination with all relevant players ISIL will continue to expand.
International efforts are underway, in the case of Syria for example, with mixed results. Bashar Al Assad met with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov on December 10th in Damascus. The Syrian opposition is divided on the issue of the UN envoy Staffan De Mistura’s initiative to implement a ceasefire in and around Aleppo. However, the opposition is now gradually tilting towards a rejection of the effort.

Therefore, there are two parallel tracks that may lead to the real thing—that is, to align the opposition and the Syrian Army with a different Commander in Chief in a joint fight, supported by the international community, against ISIL. The first is De Mistura’s efforts, and the second is the Russian-Egyptian diplomatic initiative to hold a conference in Moscow that launches meaningful talks between the regime and its opponents.

The opposition believes that a ceasefire around Aleppo will enable Assad to free up part of his military machine to bomb the opposition and his people somewhere else. It makes sense to say that Assad views De Mistura’s success as a potential move to “final victory”, whatever that is. Therefore, the opposition says that the ceasefire has to be comprehensive and monitored by the United Nations. In their opinion, a UN Security Council Resolution is needed to implement that total ceasefire. The idea of a general ceasefire sponsored by the UN should be pursued seriously.

The negotiations that went on earlier this month between De Mistura and the opposition leaders at Gazi Antep, Turkey could open the way to more in-depth coordination in order to reach a positive conclusion.

Regional coordination, however, seems to be a hard nut to crack. Recently, an “unofficial” meeting between Iranian and Saudi diplomats in Oman was supposed to be the “beginning” of a dialogue between the two countries. But the meeting, in fact, turned out to be the first and the last of a planned series of meetings. It is not impossible, however, to get to a sort of indirect dialogue, with the US playing a role. Indirect talks, through the US or the EU could pave the road to start direct talks at the proper moment in the future. This is a too important an objective to abandon.

Containing ISIL is not the job of the military alone. It is the job of the international community. It simply requires a more comprehensive and multifaceted plan from Washington. In spite of the scattered efforts done now to prevent ISIL from achieving any strategic victory, the absence of an overall multifaceted “whole” is noticeable. Until this is on the table, talking about really containing ISIL is premature.

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