In light of recent events, it’s evident the threat of terrorism is growing. Western countries, insulated for so long from the chaos in the Middle East, have increasingly confronted a scourge that is all too common in the rest of the world. The 800% increase in attacks over the past five years correlates squarely with five years of abject failure to achieve strategic goals in Syria. 470,000 people have died in the conflict, almost half the country has been displaced, and yet assistance efforts remain hobbled by a potent mix of inadequate vision, leadership, and resources from those countries trying to help. Syria is hardly the first example of such failings—Iraq and Libya spring to mind—and regrettably it appears that little will change any time soon.
The American response to recent American terror attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando was typically not a good-faith effort to get at the root of terrorism. It instead lumped them into another iteration of a larger fight on gun rights. Subsequent attacks in Mogadishu, Al Mukalla, Wardak, Baghdad, Nice, Kabul and many, many other cities offered ample reminder that the unifying thread of most terrorist attacks today is not the instrument of destruction used or the reason why attackers are receptive to radicalization. What unites those that would undermine free society in this way is their allegiance to ISIS. Therefore, any “solution” to terrorism that doesn’t engage with ISIS itself is as futile as a Band-Aid on a broken bone.
So, how can the US lead the world towards lasting victory over ISIS? It starts with understanding what they really want. The organization derives immense legitimacy from achieving three goals: the real-world implementation of a radical interpretation of the rules of the Salafist faith, the defense of the physical territory the burgeoning caliphate occupies, and ultimate victory against its foes in a final, apocalyptic battle. If ISIS achieves those goals, it can much more successfully target those on the fringes of society for indoctrination, ultimately building a social feedback loop that builds up the jihadist cause.
Ultimately, none of the three objectives can be achieved if ISIS is defeated militarily in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. When moderate forces retake land, ISIS cannot claim to be expanding their caliphate, winning battles, or even applying their religious law to the region any more. Not only does military victory do enormous damage to the recruitment process that feeds lone-wolf attacks, the growth of new cells, and the replenishment of losses on their front lines, it makes it harder to finance and organize terrorism from the top down. While ISIS is not exempt from the pattern of increased violence accompanying the death throes of an insurgency, such efforts by the central organization can only be sustained until its network is shattered by defeat.
War, however, accommodates no shortcuts. Simple bombing campaigns and limited ground support from the US so far in Syria and Iraq have seen nominal success in reducing the group’s territory, but slowly enough that total victory will come only after many more innocent deaths. Meanwhile, the forces filling the void that ISIS leaves are those of a brutal incumbent dictator or one of many equally unacceptable militias. It takes a massive boots-on-the-ground effort to shatter terrorist networks, as was so painfully demonstrated by events surrounding the surge in Iraq. A robust intervention would include ground forces, more covert operations, more air support, more substantial assistance for allied militias, and more serious political pressure on other stakeholder countries to support moderate factions. Critically, the US and allies should also embrace safe zones.
The idea of safe zones, peaceful regions which are constructed in a war zone by intervening powers to give citizens some respite, has proven quite divisive. For years, many observers of the Syrian conflict have criticized the proposal as too costly, too hard to implement, or too likely to be co-opted by perverse forces.
Opposition comes from a serious lack of clarity about what is meant by the phrase “safe zone.” It is wholly distinct from the much more strategically versatile “buffer zone.” A safe zone is not code for capitulation to Turkey’s regional ambitions, and it certainly ought not be thought of as inherently unsafe. The sensible safe zone is small enough to maintain a high standard of safety for all inside at a sustainable price. It is the product of cooperation between multiple key national interests.
The bare-bones model of the safe zone, once understood, can be further improved to what might be called a “City on a Hill” model. It is not enough for a small segment of the Syrian people to be safer than the rest of the country; they must also be a thriving demonstration of the principles for which moderates fight; in current conditions it’s no wonder there could be a bit of a morale problem. There is some value in setting up a space for the displaced to live in relative peace without risking a perilous emigration journey, yes. But it is of much greater strategic importance to be able to demonstrate to the world what the opposite of ISIS control actually is.
An ideal “City on a Hill” is a small, densely populated region that occupies a strategic military position and has access to valuable natural resources. The US and allies should establish an extremely heavy military presence there, extending constant vigilance to every block in the city. Then, once security is all but guaranteed for those in the safe zone, the intervening country should support steady jobs with good wages through large public works projects. As high demand for resources to continue the projects and increased consumer demand from well-paid workers create markets, a once- shuttered local economy will spring back to life. Oversight and governance could improve trust in the local government, and give allied militias a chance to refine their governance credentials.
It is not enough for a small segment of the Syrian people to be safer than the rest of the country; they must also be a thriving demonstration of the principles for which moderates fight
In time, a gleaming example of life in a world defined by traditional values and modern prosperity will arise in opposition to the world ISIS promises. Even as the radicals are repudiated on the battlefield, a lifestyle that is more attractive to the vast majority of Syrians will shine forth, winning hearts and minds while insulating against future radicalism.
Manbij is a city of 100,000 which was held by ISIS for over two years until early August, when the Syrian Democratic Forces retook the city with some US air support. Manbij is reasonably central, and has large natural gas reserves nearby. In the past, it has been a major center for the energy industry and transportation in general because it sits on a major crossroads.
The SDF is a coalition of militias that have so far mostly focused on fighting ISIS, but 50,000 of their 80,000 soldiers are members of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units— a fact which makes Kurdish interests in moderate, pro-US statehood a dominant feature of the alliance. Although Kurdish soldiers were vital to winning the city, Turkey has been insistent that the Kurds not hold territory in that region. That means that the “holding force” that will protect the newly liberated city from ISIS’s characteristic increase in violence after withdrawal will be small and ill-equipped to secure the Manbij pocket alone.
This is a textbook opportunity for the US to innovate. A highly important city in just about every metric is in dire need of targeted defensive support. Why not make Manbij America’s city on a hill? The US has the chance to invest in Syria, not just for war but for what comes after. Instead of a string of demoralizing and destructive defensive failures, Manbij would be witness to real growth.
The US can act now and develop airtight security for the city’s citizens, build a military base, and invest in rebuilding the energy and transportation infrastructure. It can give people a reason to believe that it isn’t playing some endless game of terrorist whack-a-mole. It can create a city even more worth fighting for—a potent symbol of security, prosperity, and self-determination conquering the backwards destructiveness of ISIS.
The best part? This proposal doesn’t just look good on paper. “City on a Hill” safe zones are already being tried, with great success, on a much larger scale. What other name can be given to China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy? When it invests $46 billion in the infrastructure of its violence-ridden neighbor Pakistan, it does so in great part to stem terror there. That program is working.
So long as ISIS continues to exist, the West will continue to take losses. Defeating them will require sacrifice, innovation, and a commitment to a productive long term relationship with the citizens living on the front lines.