Apparently the U.S. Special Operations Command is wrestling with the question of what makes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria “so magnetic, so inspirational.” This is an interesting question to ponder, but it’s not as puzzling as the military makes it out to be.
At one level, obviously, ISIS has some ideological appeal by claiming to represent the forces of “true” Islam. By creating a modern-day caliphate where their fundamentalist version of sharia law will be enforced with brutal force, ISIS has tapped into a deep vein of longing in the Muslim world for the return of a golden age when Islamic states were the richest in the world–a far cry from the perceived humiliations that Islam has suffered ever since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.
But this appeal exists mainly among those not actually living under ISIS control–among a small minority of far-away Muslims who have the luxury of romanticizing what these thugs and killers are up to. There have been numerous reports, by contrast, that Iraqis and Syrians actually living under ISIS control are unhappy about the group’s brutality and its inability to deliver even minimal governmental services. So why don’t ISIS’s subjects revolt?
In the first place because ISIS has the guns and they don’t. The group has shown how high-profile atrocities can cow a larger subject population. But there is another, practical aspect to why ISIS manages to retain control of a vast territory the size of Great Britain: it has managed to make itself into the leading defender of Sunni interests against Shiite oppression.
This is the true key to the group’s ideological appeal and it will not be dispelled by fuzzy American propaganda campaigns excoriating ISIS for its atrocities or putting forward moderate Muslims to proclaim that ISIS does not speak for the religion of Mohammad. The only way to dispel ISIS’s core appeal is to show that Sunnis can be protected against Shiite depredations without flocking to ISIS for protection. And that in turn will require the U.S. to show that it is willing to fight against Iranian-backed Shiite extremism as much as it is against Sunni-backed ISIS extremism.
Instead the Obama administration has given every indication that it is trying to accommodate an Iranian power grab in both Syria and Iran. The president has further reinforced that impression with an interview in which he said that Iran can be a “very successful regional power” if it gives up its nuclear program.
But whether Iran has nukes or not, it is seen by Sunnis as an existential threat because of its attempts to dominate the region. Indeed Iran-backed forces in both Iran and Syria have carried out terrible atrocities against Sunni civilians, yet the Obama administration is cooperating with the Iranian-backed regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and doing precious little to aid the Sunnis who could in theory launch another Awakening movement to overthrow ISIS.
To truly sap ISIS’ ideological appeal, the U.S. needs to stop flirting with Tehran and start acting to mobilize a Sunni rebellion against ISIS with guarantees that Sunni communities will have their rights respected after ISIS is overthrown. This could, for example, involve engineering a deal in Iraq to give Sunnis a regional status akin to that of the Kurds. Until that happens it will be nearly impossible for the U.S. military, no matter how tactically skillful its efforts may be, to defeat this terrible threat..