Anti-ISIS Coalition: Nurturing the Next Monster

06/24/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

In 1905, the Spanish-American intellectual George Santayana observed: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". His observation seems to materialize once again today in the current campaign by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition

Current discussions about what is now commonly known as "countering violent extremism" take place at three main levels: The first level focuses on the strategic imperative to militarily degrade, dismantle and defeat ISIS. The United States, said Barack Obama in a Press Conference in September 2014, had "a critical role to play in rolling back this savage organization." This policy remains in essence that of the anti- ISIS Coalition.

On a second level, strategists and policymakers increasingly engage in "soft" campaigns aimed at countering radicalization - the psychological and sociological mechanism that induce young people to wage jihad in Syria, Iraq and other places. The plan is to create so-called "counter-narratives", assuming that such narratives would offer disenfranchised youths a peaceful alternative to ISIS's apocalyptic and violent worldview promoted online through social media. Advocates of this discursive approach hope that young men and women, if offered such narratives, would turn their energies to more productive activities.

On a third level, it is currently en vogue to label ISIS by all sorts of derogatory terms. Those involved in such semantic efforts sometimes seem to engage in a veritable competition of calling ISIS labels, such as Da'esh (apparently an insult for ISIS fighters), or fahesh, an Arabic adjective meaning "obscene" or "vulgar", as it was the case in a recent al-Arabiya debate at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos.

It is certainly a priority for the sake of peace and stability to win the military campaign against ISIS. Beyond the spread of counter-narratives, it is further imperative to address the structural factors that create a conductive environment for radicalization of young men and women to occur. These factors include high levels of youth unemployment in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as social marginalization of Muslims, lacking opportunities and racist Islamophobia in Europe and the United States. But the campaign of dehumanizing ISIS by calling it monsters or savages risks creating conditions in the long-term that might be much less conductive to peace and stability in the region.

A bit of historical context might be helpful: After the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the declaration of the "war on terror" by George W. Bush, U.S. policymakers and legal theorists ventured to create the category of "enemy combatants". This allowed the United States to extract terrorists from the framework of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The Geneva Conventions were signed by 209 signatory states, including the United States, and established the normative framework of international humanitarian law that should prevail during times of war. In the wake of 9/11, US policymakers argued that, given the new strategic context, international humanitarian law was out-dated. The fabrication of an extra-normative legal category such as "enemy combatants" allowed the US to torture prisoners in detention facilities such as Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca. These facilities would later act as the very incubators for the engineering of the ISIS project and the formation of is core leadership circle.

Today's single-minded focus on defeating ISIS militarily, combined with the parallel rhetoric campaign of dehumanization, while emotionally appealing, carries inherent risks. In the short-term, it might lead to a situation that can be called a "symmetry of violence." This is already happening in case of the less mediatized, but in terms of savagery similarly brutal atrocities committed by Shi'a military units under the command of the Iraqi Prime Minister. As a result of such atrocities, the US was compelled to cut off funding to a number of these foreign military units under the provisions of the Leahy Law.

To be clear: Nothing exonerates ISIS from the brutal crimes against humanity it is committing on a daily basis against the civilian populations of Syria and Iraq. But undermining the vision of regional peace and stability in the long-term for the sake of short-term military results will result in a situation that renders national reconciliation much more difficult to achieve in the future. By ignoring international humanitarian law, already completely disregarded by ISIS, and by not guaranteeing a minimum level of humanity in times of war, the Coalition risks to allow for more seeds of frustrations to be planted that might very well turn into an even more gruesome ISIS monster later on.

If policymakers are serious about not only defeating ISIS, but also working towards peace and stability in the Middle East and the world, the Coalition needs to a create the conditions where a minimum level of humanity can prosper. An affective way of doing so is to include the already existing and widely accepted normative framework of international humanitarian law as an integral part of any global strategy aimed at "countering violent extremism". Otherwise, Santayana's observation might - sadly - once again be vindicated.