Can the Islamic State be defeated without the West ramping up military intervention?

Professor Michael Kerr, director of the Middle East & Mediterranean studies programme at King’s College London, says Yes.


Islamic State (IS) can be contained without Western ground troops playing a central role in the present crisis.

Following the West’s withdrawal from Iraq, Arab uprisings, and the outbreak of civil war in Syria and Iraq, a dangerous political vacuum has been created.

In the absence of a military guarantor to the Middle East state system, the West must forge a holistic strategy to fill this vacuum and create a new balance of power.

To contain IS, it must provide military support to Iraqi Kurds; widen its diplomatic engagement with Iran and accept its role in this process; and pressure states funding IS to desist.


The alternative is to let civil wars, ethno-national conflicts and Islamist-led insurgencies run their course.

Taking the latter option will make Lebanon and Jordan more vulnerable, and lead to ethnic cleansing and regional war on a scale that makes calls for Western boots on the ground even harder to resist.

Michael Stephens, deputy director of RUSI Qatar, says No.

To defeat IS, you have to look at what has made it so successful and then ask why the region’s leaders have not been able to counter its rise.

First, the armies of Syria and Iraq have proven incapable or unwilling to fight the group. Poor morale, indiscipline and lack of modern doctrine have been the factors.

Second, IS has the support (at least so it claims) of large swathes of the populations in the regions it governs. It is not simply a terrorist group, it is a way of life, enforcing its own brand of Islamic law and expecting obedience in return.

The IS is, unfortunately, a functioning political entity, and nobody is doing enough to either undercut that legitimacy, or defeat it on the battlefield.

US airstrikes and Peshmerga advances on Mosul dam are a fraction of what is required to drive IS out of its heartlands in Raqqa and Deir Ezzour. Far more is needed to defeat the movement and that’s a step no one in the region is willing to take.

IS will be here for a long time to come.

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