How Multilateral Diplomacy Can Defeat ISIS How Multilateral Diplomacy Can Defeat ISIS
Defeating ISIS requires a multilateral approach with a specific agenda and a clear mandate. Such an approach could defuse broad interpretations of states’ long-term or self-interested goals behind conducting their wars against the terrorist group.

Kayhan Barzegar
Winter 2017

Although ISIS, the self-claimed Islamic State or Daesh, has gradually become weaker due to losing territory in Iraq and Syria, most recently in the Mosul area, the complete defeat of the terrorist group requires further cooperation by states involved in the crisis. This cooperation should be based on a multilateral context and with a specific agenda in order to defuse any broad interpretation of states’ geopolitical interests in conducting their battle against the terrorist group. 

The common wisdom among the regional analysts dictates that ISIS is a long-term phenomenon because it has rooted itself in the pre-existing sectarian and ideological conflicts in the region, like as those between Shias and Sunnis, and Islam and the West, the chronic problems in the Arab world, such as lack of democracy, authoritarian regimes, incompetent governance, and even the continuation of old conflicts like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. From this perspective, defeating the terrorist group requires solving the current regional problems in a broader regional context, and through political-security cooperation of all concerned states.  

This perspective holds that defeating ISIS will take a long time. Such holistic interpretations of defeating ISIS  in recent years has given the terrorist group the opportunity and the necessary ideological justification to recruit new volunteers in the context of an ongoing sectarian conflict (Shia and Sunni) or a jihad with the West through creating a so-called “caliphate” in the broader Middle East region.

Yet, another view perceives ISIS a short-term phenomenon which has emerged as a result of political crises emanating from the power vacuum in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the weakening of the Syrian government in the light of the Arab Spring. From this perspective, the diminishing of organized state systems in these countries caused the emergence of this terrorist group at the first stage. Thus, the possible replacement of political systems in Iraq and Syria has provided the ground for geopolitical rivalries between regional and trans-regional actors such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and the United States and Russia on the other. Consequently, ISIS has used this competition and power vacuum to increase its activities in the broader Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and Caucasus region, and from there to Europe, the Americas as well as South Asia and East Asia.  

The reality, however, is that the legitimacy of ISIS, due to creating increased insecurity and implementing inhumane acts, is being widely challenged at both the regional and global level, and presently defeating this terrorist group, as a common and imminent international threat, has become states’ top foreign policy agenda and priority. 

Yet, the main problem for states to enter into such cooperation is related to how to manage such cooperation so that a common ground can be created to coordinate the battle against the extremist group, while the geopolitical interests of various states are, at the same time, preserved. The main obstacle at present are the possible geopolitical and even ideological implications of conducting wars against ISIS by states which can impact the future status and role of states in the broader regional politics. 

At present, each of the current coalitions are the U.S-led coalition, also known as the Western coalition, the Saudi-led coalition, also known as the Islamic coalition, the Iranian-Russian-Syrian-Hezbollah coalition, also known as the axis of resistance block, and the Turkish independent war against ISIS which simultaneously prioritizes their war against the Kurds. These are based on preserving these states’ geopolitical interests and national security goals at the regional level. 

For instance, the Saudi-led coalition against ISIS is more created to challenge the Iranian-Russian-Hezbollah coalition in monopolizing and possible winning of the battle against the terrorist group which can shape the future of their role in the region. This is particularly aimed at containing Iran’s increased regional role and influence after the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, known as the JCPOA. Other conservative Arab countries in the region are also joining this coalition mainly due to their view in the necessity of strengthening a Sunni coalition under the leadership of the Saudis, and even for the sake of their own regimes.

Similarly, Iran is not interested in any cooperation with the U.S. in a broader regional context because it perceives it to be more in the benefit of the U.S. rather than its own regional interests. Iran’s main concern is that such cooperation will intensify its neighbors’ sense of rivalry, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey which will pave the way for the U.S. intervention in Iran’s national power issues, such as increasing expectations for limiting the country’s missile capability (deterrent power), or putting pressures on Iran’s regional friends such as Hezbollah, consequently decreasing the strategic value of Iran’s regional role.  

Turkey, especially after the July 2016 coup  sees the battle against ISIS more in the context of its national security and especially handling its Kurdish problem in northern Syria. Turkey is currently involved both in Syria and Iraq, and tries to balance the role of Iran and Russia in regards to ISIS in its own favor. For this reason, Turkey wants a role, along with the Iraqi army and the international coalition, in Mosul mostly for preserving its geopolitical interests in the area.  

The U.S. which is currently interested in suppressing ISIS and bringing stability in the region is cautious of increased Iranian and Russian role in Syria and Iraq in the course of combating ISIS. Washington also perceives the issue of ISIS in Iraq and Syria differently. While it is intensely negative towards this terrorist group in Iraq mostly for handling the post-conflict situation in the country as a matter of legitimizing its long invasion in Iraq, it is cooperating with the so-called “moderate” opposition in Syria in order to manage the future of political system in Syria and this rather makes the line of battle with ISIS unclear from the U.S. side. 

Russia perceives the issue of ISIS more in the context of its regional role and national security. While Moscow has taken the opportunity of battling the terrorist group to contain the role and influence of rival actors like the U.S. in the region, it is genuinely concerned of the spread of this terrorist group to its sphere of influence, particularly in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and more importantly its own territory. In this respect, Russia teamed up with Iran to conduct the war by air and by land. 

In other words, these states are acting in favor of their political and strategic considerations and accordingly defining and implementing the degree and strength of their battle against ISIS. Such a situation has led the involved states to conduct independent wars against the terrorist group. This situation ultimately decreases their collective strength and this lengthens the complete defeat of ISIS. Such competing fronts might weaken ISIS, but it will not totally defeat the terrorist group. Instead, it might let them regroup and start their activities in another area in the greater region, like in Afghanistan. Experience shows that such terrorist groups have the potential to transfer forces and conduct operation from another region, like North Africa or Central Asia.

Defeating ISIS requires a multilateral approach with a specific agenda and a clear mandate. Such an approach could defuse broad interpretations of states’ long-term or self-interested goals behind conducting their wars against the terrorist group.  The presence of all countries, big or small, is of great importance, mainly due to the necessity of introducing a common regional problem, thereby involving all aforementioned groups. This collective effort can also prevent the compartmentalization of regional politics between big regional powers, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, such a situation can itself be a source of distrust for smaller countries. Adopting multilateral diplomacy can also be a confidence-building measure for further cooperation on issues of common interests.


Source: DiscourseAn Iranian Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, Winter 2017

For Academic Citation:

Kayhan Barzegar, "How Multilateral Diplomacy Can Defeat ISIS", DiscourseAn Iranian Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3, Winter 2017.


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