Will the Islamic State’s East Syria Sanctuary Outlast American Involvement?

Damascus City, Syria in 2014.

Damascus City, Syria in 2014.

ISIS crucifying Christians in Syria.

ISIS crucifying Christians in Syria.

After the announced authorization of American airstrikes on Islamic State checkpoints and convoys threatening Erbil, a conversation began almost immediately asking if the limited military action accepted by President Obama would be enough to stop the spread of the Caliphate. The questionable utility of airstrikes on only one side of a border to defeat a transnational state with regional and global aspirations and supporters was asked rhetorically August 11 by Rachel Maddow, who put it in these terms…

Can it [degrading ISIS] be achieved by bombing them on only one side of a border that the group does not acknowledge exists, when the group exists fluidly between the two sides of that border?(4:00-7:00 segment, US in support role of fraying Iraqi state).

Organizations like IS thrive in zones of conflict where little government authority and human security exists. Weapons can then be bought and exported, or looted freely and cross provincial and national borders to promote the influence of the most violent actors at the expense of local actors that have an interest in nonviolent measures and reconciliation. In an atmosphere of AK47’s (and now American armored vehicles and M4s) only the most violent actors can find liberation — liberation from the rule of law, market economy, and social choice. The East Syrian sanctuary of The Islamic State can only upset the White House and Baghdad’s objective of maintaining Iraqi sovereignty. The Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan evokes an unsettling comparison.

From the invasion of Afghanistan and forward the U.S. has been continuously frustrated by its inability to successfully isolate and root out the Afghan Taliban insurgency. The mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Zone (FATA) on the other side of the East Afghan border in Pakistan continues to be a hotbed of Taliban resistance, which has only grown fiercer as American troops draw-down their presence.

Like the Islamic State, the Af-Pak Taliban disregard what they see as an artificial border dividing Pashtuns, and have been able to successful use the territory to mount a comeback in South and East Afghanistan. The same trouble could come to Iraq if a transnational strategy with regional and global actors isn’t crafted to augment not only the Iraqi government but the Syrian as well. The main difference between these two Islamic groups is that the Taliban have only a national scope, reconquering Afghanistan. ISIS seeks the entire Mideast.

The poor performance by Iraqi forces stunned the international community, the American government that trained them for a decade, most of all. Couple that with the improved weaponry and East Syria sanctuary for militants (not to mention politics back in Baghdad), the odds of the Iraqi forces reclaiming territory is not good unless that sanctuary can be shut down. Opening a channel for dialogue with the Syrian government on the issue of terrorism will allow American officials to meet on the sidelines to discuss more broadly ending the war in Syria and stabilizing the region.


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