The way to defeating Islamic State is clear, yet the will is lacking

Robert Patman says the UN has to build wide support for the military strategy, as it's no longer enough to rely on a coalition of the willing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 July, 2015, 12:34pm

The Islamic State terrorist organisation can be defeated, but it remains to be seen whether the international community is prepared to make the necessary political and diplomatic commitments to do so.

Over the past year, Islamic State has extended control over territory covering one-third of Iraq and a roughly equivalent proportion of Syria. It has jurisdiction over about six million people and runs an economy that comprises oil exports, utilities, extortion, kidnapping and the sale of antiquities.

At the same time, its estimated 50,000-strong fighting force has shown skill, resilience and flexibility against Western counterterrorism efforts.

To date, the 60-plus coalition of states against Islamic State has failed to summon the political will or strategic understanding to decisively counter it.

So what kind of strategy will work?

First, it is high time that the UN Security Council formulated a resolution authorising the possible use of force against Islamic State. It is strategically vital that any military action against it should have the widest possible international backing.

In the 21st century, relying on great powers alone or coalitions of the willing will no longer work. In fact, the partisan role of external powers in the Middle East has been part of the problem. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Russian and Iranian support for the Assad regime since 2011 has contributed to the conditions facilitating the emergence of Islamic State.

Second, the international community must intensify political and diplomatic efforts to reduce the appeal of the ideas that drive and inspire the violence by groups such as Islamic State.

Recently, there have been some encouraging steps in this direction. Both US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have acknowledged the central importance of winning the battle of political ideas, and acknowledged this would be a long-term "generational" struggle.

Third, mobilising opposition to Islamic State also has a diplomatic component. After the nuclear deal between six major powers and Iran, the US should restart international efforts to facilitate a political transition in Syria.

The UN Security Council must also revive negotiations for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Islamic State exploits the anger and grievance widely felt in the Muslim world over apparent global indifference for decades to the occupation of Palestinian territory.

Islamic State can be defeated through a multi-faceted strategy, but it will be difficult to implement. This coalition faces tough choices in the near future.

Robert G. Patman is a professor of international relations at the University of Otago, New Zealand