I think a lot of Westerners might empathise with me when I cringe listening to leaders like Barack Obama say that Islamic State must be “defeated, degraded and destroyed”. However, I accept (grudgingly), that they have a point. Although (so far, anyway) the group has concentrated its efforts almost entirely on parts of Syria and Iraq, their aim is fundamentally global in nature. Establishing an Islamic Caliphate that pays no attention to existing state boundaries would be an enabler, allowing Islamic State to consolidate its position, growing stronger and bigger and being in a position to launch attacks on neighbouring countries far. For the sake of those living in regions under threat from the oppressive influence of Islamic State, and indeed the entire world, it has to be stopped. It’s critical that this is done differently from how it’s been done previously if the West is a) going to solve the problem, and b) not do its reputation in the Middle East any more damage.
Winning the hearts and minds of moderates across Iraq in particular should be central to any solution. One of the most powerful arguments against the West is that it consistently intervenes in Middle Eastern affairs without making a positive impact. You only have to look at the disasterous 2003 Iraq War to see why the above can be such a powerful argument. Just look at the mess in Libya, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Is America helping the average Muslim in those countries? Maybe in some ways, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way, especially to those actually living there and experiencing the situation first hand, rather than being fed accounts by international news organisations.
One of Islamic State’s stated aims is to liberate territories that they believe were taken from them after the Sykes-Picot Agreement after the First World War. See? Another Western intrusion, perhaps the main offender! This has to be taken into account by Western governments looking to get involved in the Middle East; to avoid being seen by the Muslim world as the same old imperialist conquerors, a serious attempt to both defend people from harm while making solid efforts to ensure fair representation of all sections of society, religious or not.
Bombing Islamic State inside Syria is surely short-sighted and counterproductive – helping Sunni groups to organise politically and showing them that participating in Iraqi politics can garner results more efficiently and without bloodshed is crucial to defeating Islamic State. Apart from the fact that President Assad’s army has highly sophisticated air defence, bombing in Syria makes little sense. There is a quote I saw emblazoned on a wall in Birmingham the other day that reads: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on”. The ideology of Islamic State will not die until those that are within the movement are convinced that life is better without it. An idea must be implanted and cultivated in the minds of Sunnis, extremist AND moderate, that armed struggle is counterproductive and that freedom and quality of life is attainable through democracy and freedom of choice. Attempting to destroy military hardware, kill leaders in the group or indeed ideology with physical attacks is not only destined to fail, but it could inflame the problem considerably.