Anything sound familiar to the recent grumblings about war? The lyrics of "dismantle, defeat, and destroy" continue to resound in our collective discourse and consciousness. Another Authorization of Military Force has been proposed and most of Congress appears to simply be debating the parameters of an AUMF rather than alternatives.
Meanwhile after over seven months of bombing and using our "diplomatic" power to organize more bombing along with cursory efforts at disrupting the financial and human flow to ISIS, the following has occurred. 1) Recruitment has actually increased significantly from a mere 10,000 to upwards of 30-50,000 if not more. Further, groups in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Algeria have identified allegiance to ISIS. 2) Blowback is spreading not only with beheadings but also attacks in France, Denmark and Libya. ISIS itself is part of the predictable line of blowback from the Iraq wars, the war on terror, and the Afghanistan war against the Soviets in the 1980's that spawned the Taliban, Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. We can draw the exacerbation line back further as well. Even if we "dismantle, defeat, and destroy" ISIS with arms, we will almost certainly exacerbate the bitterness and hostility that will create another similar group or movement. 3) Perhaps, most importantly we are becoming less and less attentive to human dignity and the value of human life, as we waive our human rights laws restricting who we give military aid to, and as we drop our "near certainty" standard for ensuring civilians are not harmed by our bombing.
I along with many other religious leaders have identified specific ways to engage this conflict, with a recent webinar and action alert. One of the key ways is a political track that involves a regional approach including Iran, but also identifying people of influence with members of ISIS. These people can create lines of communication with low, mid and perhaps in time with upper level leaders to identify grievances or needs and seek to peel away support. The reality is that lines of communication have already been happening but in a minimal and peripheral way. Multiple negotiations (ex. with the Peshmerga, Turkey, Jordan, U.S. citizens, etc.) have occurred with ISIS over hostages from different state and non-state actors. Members of ISIS are still human beings. I want to focus on a three key methods which are also not getting adequate public or congressional debate, and should become central parts of the overall strategy.
This suggestion is based on the evidence of research that nonviolent resistance can be effective even against the most ruthless, because it doesn't necessarily require the oppressor(s) to have a "change of heart." Not only is nonviolent resistance over two times more successful than violent revolution, it is also much more likely than armed resistance (10 times or higher) to cultivate a society that can form a durable democracy.
We need to provide funding and training for local civil society actors in the vast array of methods of nonviolent resistance. The local civil society actors need to decide what tactics would most likely be effective, fit with their culture and illuminate human dignity. It will be incredibly challenging, as some, not all, dissenters have already been killed. But there is hope as Iraqi and Syrian civil society groups have already built a base of such strategic actions (ex. local ceasefires even with ISIS), on which to build.
Although Syria and Iraq have some important differences, some general examples of those tactics to make the occupation more difficult and deny the occupiers necessary support could be:
a. Diminish human resources: This could include local efforts to encourage people not to join ISIS and to offer opportunities to have their needs, such as jobs, education, respect for religion, political influence, trauma healing, adventure, etc., met in other ways. This could also include creating lines of communication with members of ISIS at various levels in order to build relationships that can lean members toward lowering their support or leaving ISIS to get their needs met in other ways. For example, many former Baath party members or Sunni's have particular needs, such as a job, respect for religion, political inclusion, trauma healing, social reconciliation, which could be better met outside of ISIS. The international community should continue and increase efforts to prevent persons from joining ISIS.
b. Diminish human persons with key skills/knowledge: This would be a more focused effort on creating lines of communication with persons within ISIS who have key skills, such as former Baath party officials or soldiers, technology experts, financing experts, mobilizing experts, outreach experts, women, etc. Discerning their needs and how to meet them outside ISIS would be important.
c. Diminish their capacity for sanctions: This would include local direct engagement with armed police or soldiers in ISIS to continuously encourage them to harm less as a way to better maintain their order. They fear losing control, so initially there needs to be willingness to work within the system to defuse this fear and thus the hostility. This could also include creating neighborhood monitoring teams as an alternative that ISIS may permit and which would gradually lower the harm done to persons in the community. Thus, creating more operating space for civil society to organize.
d. Diminish their authority and legitimacy: This could include discreet conversations and perhaps small group meetings that raise questions about their authority and legitimacy. It may involve texting, emails, social media, websites, etc. It may involve locals calling on them to develop more transparency or even when the time is right some kind of a broader political process. The international community should continue and increase such efforts more broadly.
e. Diminish the intangibles: This could include publicly acknowledging legitimate grievances and trauma that many in ISIS have, but also challenging the elements of their narrative that are incorrect. For instance, this could include the use of Islam, the unsustainability of violent revolution and control, and their treatment of women and other minorities. This can be done at both the local and international level. Providing educational material, social media, and key thinkers to influence key actors within and around ISIS would be examples.
f. Diminish material resources: This would be challenging but when the timing is right and the locals decide it could include strategically delaying payment or paying only a portion of payment of any tax/fee to the oppressor. These local efforts could be joined with present international efforts to restrict the funding of the oppressor. Locals could also restrict their labor and consumption to disrupt ISIS's economic levers of power.
g. Alternative institutions: When the timing is right, this could include creating local street, neighborhood, town committees as they did in South Africa under Apartheid. These committees would run alternative, perhaps very secretive in ISIS controlled areas, such as education, courts, media, clean-ups, etc. In Sunni dominated areas wishing to contest ISIS these could be particularly promising.
h. Dispersed disruptions: This would be challenging but when the timing is right and the locals decide it this could include organizing slow-downs of work for five minutes/hour/half-day or organizing slow-downs of travel such as vehicles on the streets, etc.
See here for a broader list of 198 methods (though I wouldn't condone a couple of these, such as humiliation tactics).
Unarmed Civilian Protection
Unarmed civilian protection actors are less escalatory and have often gotten better access to the armed actors in a conflict zone, particularly when armed actors have a command structure, which ISIS uses. ISIS's command structure has even arrested some of its own members for being too extreme.
At this stage, UCP units could assist community efforts in areas with displaced persons, refugees, aid workers, local community organizers, and human rights workers, including perhaps persons documenting atrocities. The UCP organization along with the local community partners would determine who the best persons to serve would be, but likely not U.S., British, or French for example. For instance, the Nonviolent Peaceforce has gotten funding from UN agencies and other notable governments for past UCP work. So, they have traction and would welcome US government funding. Further, as an example, NP officers recently directly saved 14 people from being killed by an armed militia in S. Sudan. They also have successfully prevented rape and sexual assault by accompanying women searching for food, water, or firewood in dangerous areas of South Sudan. The EU has recently granted 2 million to Nonviolent Peaceforce and Cure Violence to partner with and train Syrian civil society members in local unarmed civilian protection, but more such efforts are needed.
Our failure to do robust social reconciliation is one of the main reasons ISIS developed in the first place. Today, we must do better and wisdom is needed to determine location, timing and actors. But the objective would include setting up circle processes that include Sunnis, Shias, Christians, secular, etc. to identify wounds, needs and ways of healing, which includes genuine accountability. You could have some circles with only Sunnis, some with only Shias, etc. You could also mix them in some circles. These can be small groups of 4-5 or larger 8-10. They can be multiplied in various social spaces to defuse hostility and increase trust. In Iraq, Ninevah province seems like a promising location in light of the diversity. These small circle processes should begin now to help defuse mistrust, hostility, and the likelihood of some actors joining ISIS. This could also contribute to diminishing the participation of some ISIS actors either by relatives/friends communicating to them about their experience or some ISIS actors participating directly in some circles. Eventually it will likely be helpful to work towards a Truth and Reconciliation type of process, which includes genuine accountability and structural reform. Work with local Iraqi and Syrian organizations to mobilize this work. Catholic Relief Services is in Iraq and many Syrian refugee camps, and could be one organization to help coordinate; but they would need help with other facilitators trained in circles, such as the Salaam Institute in DC.
Participatory theater is also an emerging peacebuilding practice worth considering and scaling up. In this practice, actors learn and act out key conflicts in the community. Then community members can choose to participate in the scene to experiment with nonviolent ways of transforming the conflicts. Search for Common Ground is one organization that mobilizes such a practice.
In sum, broad or limited war is not the only relevant debate, nor our best options. I have elaborated on three key methods that need more attention and provided links to a broader set of lines of efforts that should become central parts of the strategy. Members of ISIS remain human beings and we need to respond in a more effective, healthy, and humanizing way, less we repeat the damage of the 2001 and 2002 AUMF's.
*A condensed version of this article was originally published in The Hill.