The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has become the world's number one generator of hatred and barbarity; it is now beyond discussion that the monster can no longer be contained, but rather must be eliminated.
Taking on IS and annihilating it, however, encompasses a deadly catch-22.
It has become common knowledge that eliminating IS will never be achieved through airstrikes alone, nor through classical counterterrorism, locally or in the Western countries. IS has to be fought in its own neighborhoods, on the ground, inside its labyrinths. Once airstrikes have done their effects, fighters will have to confront the organization's cohorts, cleanse their caches, and reoccupy the scorched land.
The problem is that this while this may be a necessary step to eradicate IS, it is exactly what the group is hoping for.
Any familiarity with the network's literature confirms that IS wants to fight the West in their own area; its ultimate tactical goal is to precisely see the West doing its own job -- namely triggering, nurturing, and inflaming the war of civilization, the clash of values, the collision of world visions. IS needs this in order to fulfill its own cataclysmic prophecy, to hasten the "end of times," and to bring down the utopian Armageddon dream it shares with so many of the region's other millenarist movements and sects.
Going there would not only render the terror network a dear service, it would also raise unbearable costs for the West and once again create endless wars in the region. IS needs its own "honeypot", the way some Western powers' strategists needed and sought theirs in Iraq yesterday and some others in Syria today. Not only our willing reluctance to meet IS where it wants us to meet it is a clever political move, it is undoubtedly also the best military option, short of seeing western armies and boys dying in the muds of the Levant for yet another ever-elusive goal.
The first and foremost step on the way to defeating IS is thus to avoid falling to its siren, and to escape the deadly trap it sets. This is not only to escape putting all society in harm's way, but it is a longer-term war strategy, one of avoidance, aimed at depriving the enemy of its preferred ideological, discursive, and even military tools.
So if this is the case, if the West must surely not fight IS face to face, how can the group be defeated? If boots on the ground are a gift to IS, but if no fight against IS can be achieved without boots on the ground, how is it possible to break the deadly paradox?
The only convincing and available answer is to find, partner, and ally with the local forces -- forces that are not only able but also badly willing to do fight IS themselves.
If IS is to be eliminated, it must be uprooted, but then replaced by freed and normalized local societies. And for this, there is no one better than the people already living there, longing to be liberated from the monster's grip and also craving for a better life. Only indigenous but satisfied populations will have a vested stake at filling these ungoverned spaces, only Syrians from IS-held lands could effectively and legitimately reclaim and run the unruled territories within which the hydra has so far extended its tentacles.
However, this imperatively means fixing the broken Syrian china, and trying to reconstruct a viable country, albeit against all odds. The promise, however fragile, of a better life for the Syrians is first the one of a life with no permanent terror over their heads; and this terror can't neither be that of the IS' barbarians today, nor that of the Assad regime's criminals and thugs they so well knew yesterday.
And here is the point: it would be full illusion to think for a minute that mobilizing Syrians -- both Arabs and Kurds -- to fight IS, only to then get back to the fold of their former executioners, will ever work. It will be assuredly impossible to embattle and mobilize Syria's society, while partnering with its ancient gaoler and, more, while promising to handle it back to its nightmarish dungeon.
The unending quest for this famous "political solution" all parties magically evoke for Syria is supposed to be exactly about this; and it is so far miserably trampling, turning around the bush of Assad's presence in the picture -- before, during, or after an elusive transition. If Syrians are to join our global effort in the war against IS, this is precisely the knot that must be untied. Sure, it is safe to assume that Assad's ouster will definitely not solve all of Syria's problems; but it will for sure give the populations under the IS' yoke the only incentive to rise up against its reckless new master, without the risk of falling into the fangs of its former one.
Short of that, there will most certainly end up with a Syria where Assad -- confined in his sanctuary -- and IS -- prospering over the squamae of ever torn and dislocated societies -- will still be there, like the sole duellists of a danse macabre, and for a long time to come. This is, most probably, what both ultimately want, like vampires living on each other's blood.
Yes, to the West should not move toward IS' appeal to meet on the battlefield; but yes, as well, we must also not confirm IS' rhetoric that "we" are egotistically only concerned about our stability, to the detriment of all other consideration. Turning eyes from the main cause of Syria's unrest and violence -- namely Assad and his clique's unnameable violence -- is another way of giving all in IS' narrative; one in which the world, the West in particular, is the main pillar for the harm and injustices made to Muslims by their local potentates, and in this case in particular, by one of the bloodiest autocrats of that century.
It is precisely because the West must not put boots on the ground that reliance on locals' boots who are so critical. They will however never do it for free. Only a durable and structural solution to Syria will incentivize free Syrians of all shades to take on both IS and Damascus' potentate.
Only such a dual and concomitant strategy would extricate us from the catch-22: between the two extremes, going all in or sitting back and wait for the monster to consume itself, there is a third way. Unwilling to fight IS alone, let the group asphyxiate it in its own habitat. Let us dry-up the unhealthy and glaucous swamp into which the monstrous shark is swimming.
Joseph Bahout is a Visiting Scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was formerly a consultant for the policy planning staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.