Accepting Syrian Refugees to Defeat ISIS

In the course of a month, ISIS has launched a series of attacks across the globe resulting in almost 500 civilians dead–that includes the Russian plane that was downed in Egypt.  Instead of providing a chart, New York Times published a year long chart of attacks by ISIS, along with the articles.  Consequently, Western governments have answered ISIS’s violence by directing policy toward the influx of Syrian refugees.  However, these policies are misguided, and play into ISIS’s hand.

“Separating Syrian Refugees from the Counterinsurgency goals of Western Governments is Counterintuitive to fighting Terrorism.”

Understanding counterinsurgency (COIN) is complex, and takes in many factors.  Hence, why only a small cadre of military professionals understand COIN, and how to employ it.  The U.S. government has historically failed at COIN.  Indeed, Vietnam was a war that started on a COIN premise, and eventually morphed into traditional warfare inevitably leading to the U.S. drawing out.

Today, Iraq and Afghanistan have both had stints where the U.S. has committed, albeit temporarily, to COIN tactics.  During these stints, he U.S. has been able to degrade, and defeat terrorist in both campaigns.  Since then, the U.S. has ousted some of the top military commanders who are considered masters of COIN: General Stanley McChrystal, and General David Petraeus.  Two generals, one whom I served under in Afghanistan, who have left a void in COIN military tactics, and strategy.

Consequently, the U.S. has made a series of wrong policy decisions regarding the attempted degradation, and defeat of ISIS.  Further, surging to the surface is the flawed idea that slowing, ousting, or outright eliminating the flow of Syrian refugees into the U.S. serves the dual purpose of national security, and defeating ISIS.  This framework is flawed, however, because it ignores what ISIS has announced its goals are–a Caliphate.

The ISIS Caliphate: Territory and People

To defeat ISIS, it is imperative to first understand what ISIS is.  Like al-Qaeda, ISIS is a terrorist organization; however, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS believes that it must rule under the premise of a Caliphate.  ISIS has derived the idea of a Caliphate by a passage(s) in the Qur’an, where it states that muslims should strive to live under a nation of Islam.  To that end, ISIS has developed two foundations to their Caliphate: Territory and People.

Of note, it is necessary in recognizing that this is a version of, or a stylistic interpretation of, Islam, and the Qur’an.  Recently, a handful of scholars and journalists have voiced the dismissal of ISIS, and the version of Islam they preach.  However, this is a misplaced argument.  The version of Islam that ISIS subscribes to, and prescribes is, indeed, a version of Islam.  A more correct statement is that the version of Islam subscribed and prescribed by ISIS does not resonate with the majority of muslims.

Territory, People, and Legitimacy: With the foundation of ISIS’s caliphate clear–the requirement of territory and people–there is only three ways to degrade, and defeat ISIS.  In no particular order of significance, policy should be directed at (1) removing people under ISIS territory, (2) decreasing or eliminating all territory held by ISIS, and (3) legitimize governments in those territories held by ISIS.  Thus, more succinctly, ISIS will fail and collapse on itself without territory, or people to govern.

ISIS's Global Strategy; Syrian Refugees
ISIS Declares its Caliphate goals for territory. Map provided by Institute for the Study of War

Syrian Refugees As a Policy Goal

To be legitimate under the terms of a Caliphate, ISIS must have people to govern.  Here, ISIS not only needs people to govern to align with the definition of a Caliphate, but it must also have people to govern to continue terrorist operations.  Indeed, people under the Caliphate have three choices: (1) adopt their stylistic version of Islam, (2) die or be enslaved, and (3) pay a tax.  It is still unclear if ISIS taxes those who have adopted their stylistic version of Islam.

Thus, with people to govern ISIS continues to deliver, and spread their narrative.  Moreover, with ISIS’s continued pursuit and maintenance of territory, ISIS has developed a pipeline of taxes to help sustain their operations.  Therefore, policy directed at helping Syrian refugees flee, and find safe harbor would help destabilize ISIS, and possibly mitigate their radical narrative.

Additionally, without policy directed at helping Syrian refugees flee and find safe harbor, the opposite effect would occur.  Here, shutting down outlets for Syrian refugees forces them back into ISIS controlled territory allowing ISIS to continue its taxes, and its narrative.  Furthermore, this opposite policy would be delivering more people under ISIS’s control.  Thus, the adoption of a policy that does not provide Syrian refugees help or safe harbor, consequently bolsters ISIS, and their goal of a Caliphate.

COIN represents one of the hardest sets of warfare possible.  It requires deliberation, time, resources, and risk.  Without patience, or the proper policy, Western governments run the risk of failing to degrade, and defeat ISIS entirely.  Indeed, the past year has been a year of victory for ISIS, where ISIS has been able to sustain the military involvement of Western militaries.

Therefore, to help degrade and defeat ISIS, Western governments must commit themselves to COIN, and understand what ISIS’s goals are.  To that end, an overhaul of policy is needed to align itself with breaking the ISIS Caliphate that seeks territory, and people to be legitimate.  Separating Syrian refugees from the COIN goals of Western governments in counterintuitive to fighting terrorism.  Thus, policy directing help and safe harbor to Syrian refugees would erode a main pillar of the ISIS Caliphate, and shut down the current tax pipeline supporting ISIS terrorist operations.

Authored by: Jonathan J. Cianfaglione