The rise and spread of ISIS* has made international news for more than three years now. This brutal, militant form of Sunni extremism quickly conquered large pieces of Iraq and Syria, and regional forces, with support from a coalition of 68 countries around the world, have been fighting to take back the territory ever since. Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for horrific terror attacks committed all over Europe and bleeding into the United States.
ISIS attracted many young people into its ranks both in the Middle East and in western countries. Surprisingly to many, ISIS actually attracted many well-educated, economically well-off youth in addition to more traditionally disenfranchised people. As its numbers and territory grew and its terror attacks became more frequent, ISIS inspired a great deal of fear throughout the world. Within areas controlled by ISIS, native people suffered greatly, and in the West, people feared more terror attacks and the organization spreading further.
For years, at least to me, it’s felt as though the international community has made little progress in taking ISIS down. ISIS would lose territory and then gain it back, all while continuing to commit terror attacks. However, there has been a recent turn of good fortune – the leaders of both Iraq and Iran have declared that ISIS has been militarily defeated in both Iraq and Syria. I am honestly skeptical of this; the news is new and in fights such as this, victories are seldom so clear-cut. However, ISIS’s loss of Mosul in July signaled the beginning of significant territorial losses for them, and for once, ISIS really does appear to be losing ground.
I am incredibly pleased that ISIS is retreating and that native Iraqis and Syrians are beginning to get their countries back. However, based on all of the research I’ve done this semester, I think it’s incredibly important that western powers who’ve been assisting regional forces in Iraq and Syria militarily to attempt to solve the root causes of terrorism, rather than just the symptoms. Military victory is fantastic, but because ISIS is just as much an ideology and a rallying cry for many who feel disenfranchised, I fear that military victories will be temporary. Western responses to terrorism often treat the symptoms of terrorism but fail to tackle the larger roots: economic inequality, ineffective and ill-thought-out foreign policy, and social unrest, to name a few. Admittedly, these issues will be significantly more difficult to tackle, but I think this makes them all the more important. Yes, we need to fight back against ISIS with military strength, but I think that we also need to fight back with ideas.
Obviously, I am but an undergraduate biology major with an interest in foreign policy. I fully recognize that my statements above are an oversimplification of these complex, multifaceted international events and issues. I by no means claim to be an authority here; I would simply like to start a conversation about these issues. I think that terrorism has many root causes, and work on tackling those, rather than fighting the fires that emerge as a result, has the potential to affect real, lasting change. The difficulty, of course, lies in figuring out how exactly to go about fighting those root causes.
*There are many names for this organization, and what is most widely accepted continues to change. Throughout this post, I’ve chosen to use ISIS for simplicity and because this term is widely recognizable to the American public.