1. Background
  2. Middle East & Iran, Peacebuilding

ISIS: There Are Nonmilitary Options


Military action against ISIS militants will not help build a world free of war and the threat of war. Yet that is the direction that President Trump is going.

As the president shares his plans to address ISIS, the options he is considering include sending troops to Syria.

Are there nonmilitary responses to ISIS? We offer our perspective here:

How can the U.S. stop ISIS from killing people without going to war?

Seeking an end to ISIS requires acknowledging how ISIS began. ISIS grew out of the violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and its aftermath, and the Syrian civil war. It has attracted thousands of recruits, the vast majority of whom are from Iraq and Syria, based on financial incentives, ideological promises of glory, and opposition to perceived U.S. and Iranian hegemony. A group bombed into existence cannot simply be bombed out of existence. Instead, the U.S. must act immediately through a comprehensive strategy with local and international stakeholders to prevent further violence, while ensuring that any response does not do more harm over the long term:

Stop the bombing and remove the troops

Every bomb the US drops and every new deployment of troops in the region is widely seen as a threat to local communities, especially if civilians are killed as a result. They also serve as a propaganda bonanza for ISIS in supporting their claim that these actions are an attack on the Islamic world.

Starve ISIS of weapons and supplies

ISIS is not manufacturing its own weapons. Weapons from the U.S. and Gulf countries have ended up in their hands, and reducing the arms and ammunition supply through a regional arms embargo will dramatically reduce the killing capacity that ISIS has.

Cut off funding

ISIS is one of the wealthiest militant groups in the world, financed by stolen oil, taxes, and black market sales of cigarettes, alcohol, and museum artifacts. The recent UN resolution to block sources of funding for ISIS represents one step forward in this effort. However, more work with local communities could stop ISIS from being able to use their pipelines, and more policing that can be carried out to lower profits from illegal antiquities sales and the sex trade.

Starve ISIS of people willing to fight for them

Political discontent, instability and deep poverty create conditions ripe for extremism. The civil war in Syria, and decades of bombing in Iraq, has allowed ISIS to flourish Job creation, education, financial support, and an open political process that engages local actors, and neighboring countries to create long term stability should be prioritized – not bombs.

This group is committing mass atrocities right now. If we don't respond, we're letting innocent people die. What should we do right now that's not a military response?

In addition to the proposed solutions above, the U.S. should increase humanitarian aid to the region so people have a way to meet their basic needs, instead of finding themselves at the mercy of ISIS, which is willing to provide humanitarian support in exchange for control. Refugees and displaced persons in both Syria and Iraq must also be given a lifeline. The U.S. should welcome a larger number of refugees into the States and bolster international efforts for a mass resettlement effort for refugees.

Political Process for Syria

The “freezes” declared by the United Nations to immediately halt the fighting between government and rebel forces in specific parts of Syria are a good first step. A freeze would allow civilians who have remained in the area to obtain precious food, medicine, and medical treatment.

Reviving the Geneva II process in Syria is also essential to de-escalating conflict in Syria, and will require bringing Iran to the table as an actor with unrivalled influence on the Syrian regime. A political solution that engages the Gulf States, Iran and other regional players is essential to any lasting solution. Specifically, this could mean restarting political negotiations without preconditions for the restructuring of the Syrian government.

Political Process for Iraq

Achieving a political solution in Iraq means engaging tribal and other local leaders in Sunni-majority provinces that have long been marginalized by the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. This includes Sunni-majority areas of Iraq where the U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces have committed grave human rights violations, stoking widespread resentment against both the Iraqi central government as well as U.S. military intervention.

Despite those setbacks, a vibrant civil society engaging in nonviolent activism exists in Iraq and Syria. They have an essential role in stabilizing the situation on the ground and engaging local religious and community leaders, NGOs, and the civilians themselves in a conversation of what kind of government and society they would like to live in and how we can help make it a reality. Amplifying these voices can help build resilience for the country and deny ISIS the ideological and material support it needs to hold control.

I'm appalled by the atrocities and violence committed by ISIS. How can you read these reports without wanting to act?

We agree that the beheadings, violence, and atrocities are horrific and that we must act decisively to stop ISIS and other groups and governments committing and supporting violence in the region. We have a responsibility to ensure the action taken does not result in even more deaths. Every death is a tragedy. Here at FCNL, we want to make sure the U.S. response is effective over the long term -- not just preventing violence next week or next year, but also not contributing to more killings in the future.

The military-first strategy has, time and again, left countries destabilized and vulnerable to extremist groups like ISIS. We can't accept a strategy that costs $8.5 million per day (with no clear exit) and could lead to more killings, a stronger ISIS, or the rise of the next ISIS.

ISIS is too extreme to respond to negotiations and diplomacy. How do you reason with terrorist groups?

Instead of immediately trying to negotiate with ISIS, we recommend negotiations with the nations and regional players that are enabling the atrocities ISIS and other armed groups perpetuate. The international community has contributed to this crisis by supplying money, weapons, and intelligence to armed actors in Syria and Iraq and providing unchecked military support to the Syrian and Iraqi governments. The international community can blunt the violence by cutting off these supplies and contributing to a comprehensive, political solution to deescalate the violence.

This group is not Islamic and does not represent a state. Why do you call them the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

We understand the power given by names and are considering alternate ways of identifying the group, especially given concerns about describing ISIS as "Islamic." That is why we often use the phrase 'self-proclaimed Islamic State.' At present, we use ISIS for brevity and because that is how it is commonly referred to in U.S. media.

More questions? Ask us!