With the airstrike campaign in its second month, the long touted end goal of "degrading and finally destroying" ISIS is far from being achieved. Part of the problem is that nobody knows what the metrics for success are. The other part is that, in a familiar turn of events, the West is on the verge of being drawn into a war of attrition with no semblance of an exit strategy. Not to mention that Western audiences are war-weary and will most definitely oppose a ground attack against ISIS - widely considered tactically inevitable. How can we escape from this apparent no-win scenario? The most logical solution may be diplomatic outsourcing.
Indeed, even if media headlines and political leaders seem to want to remind us every day of the existential threat ISIS poses for the West and the Western way of life, one should take a deep breath, brush scaremongering aside and open a map. Owing to its location in the heart of the Middle East, ISIS is encroaching on a geographical area that has historically been a sparring spot for Iran, Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Barring the off chance of Western-born jihadists wreaking havoc across European and American capitals, we are truly out of harm's way. ISIS' limited resources, already strained by the battle for Kobani, mean that the Caliphate will focus on acquiring more land, fighters and securing sources of revenue than mounting terrorist attacks thousands of miles away from its power base.
The same cannot be said about the regional powers vying for influence in the Middle East, which have seen their patience increasingly challenged by ISIS. With its endless sectarian and ethnic divides, with a history that reads more like a manual of warfare, the Middle East has proven time and time again the limits of Western intervention. Perhaps it is time for the "Coalition of the Willing" to take a step back and let the actors that have a more direct stake in this conflict undertake the brunt of the effort.
As Leslie Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts it in a Daily Beast article, "Russia, brimming with unhappy, armed Muslims, is even more threatened by the existence of ISIS than the United States". Indeed, videos went viral on social media in September with ISIS fighters personally threatening Vladimir Putin's "throne" and promising to "liberate Chechnya and the Caucasus". Meanwhile, Shia Iran's entire strategy for the region has been derailed by ISIS' unexpected rise to pre-eminence so much so that they have reached out to arch rival Sunni-Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. In September, both foreign ministers met in New York, hailing the opening of a new chapter in bilateral relations, one that transcends sectarian strife.
The fortuitous consequence of the Islamic Caliphate's push in the Middle East is that it pushes closer together countries that usually would be too busy plotting against one another. If the West were to bow out of the conflict, or step out of the driver's seat, these regional powers would have to put aside their sectarian differences and unite against their common enemy. Could Islam be finally united? The only way to find out would be to encourage regional cooperation through some well-planned diplomatic efforts.
Fortunately, Washington has an ace up its sleeve that might just prove to be the cornerstone to bringing together the Arab world: Qatar. A longstanding ally of the West, the country has a long record of mediation and peace brokerage. Thanks to its open door policy of seeking good relations with as many actors as possible, the finger-shaped Gulf state has emerged as a talking shop for conflict resolution.
Its network, which spans both the West and the Islamic world, has proven its use in the past, as the prisoner swap that freed US soldier Bowe Bergdahl shows. The country occupies a unique role in the regional puzzle, serving as the proxy negotiator for actors the West could never engage directly. In June 2013, for example, the Afghan Taliban opened an office in Doha with the consent of Washington where secret negotiations were conducted.
However, due to its pragmatic policies of backing Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood while maintaining strong relations with the U.S., an approach summed up by the Qatari Foreign Minister as "we don't do enemies", Qatar has been oftentimes misunderstood, even by its allies. Just this August, the German development aid minister, Gerd Muller, accused the state of financing ISIS. This remark caused the German government to publicly apologize a few days after, stating that as far as the Foreign Ministry "is not aware of such information".
Indeed, with the Middle East at yet another critical juncture and with a sense of common purpose emanating from the region, this is neither the time for straw man moralising or finger pointing. The West should don its realpolitik glasses and use Qatar's status in the area to give a nudge to the consolidation process currently taking place in the Islamic world. This process could reconcile the moral imperative of stemming the spread of terrorism and extremist Islam while maintaining a limited footprint on the ground. Our political leaders need to recognise that can't simply 'de-radicalize' a religion they don't understand. It is only by working with the few friendly allies we can count on in the Middle East that the vicious circle of Western intervention and retaliatory terrorist acts can be overcome.