Reliance on Military Response Alone Cannot Defeat ISIS

Posted Nov. 25, 2015

MP3 Interview with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, conducted by Scott Harris


After the multiple terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 that killed 130 and wounded 350 more, French President François Hollande declared war on ISIS, the group which claimed responsibility for the massacre of Parisians at a stadium, concert hall, restaurants and cafes. Before a joint session of parliament, Hollande said, "The coordinated terrorist assault was an attack against our country, against its values, against its youth, against its way of life." Amid fear of new attacks, France and Belgium launched dozens of raids on the homes of suspected terrorists and their accomplices.

In retaliation for the carnage in Paris, President Hollande ordered the French Air Force to increase airstrikes against ISIS targets in the group's self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, bombing command and recruitment centers, as well as an ammunition storage base and a training camp. The French president, vowing to destroy ISIS, called on Russia and America to "unite our forces" in a coalition to defeat the terrorist group. A goal made more difficult by Turkey's recent shooting down of a Russian fighter jet engaged in combat near the Syrian-Turkish border.

In a recent article, published in The Nation magazine titled, "After The Paris Attacks, a Call for Justice – Not Vengeance," Phyllis Bennis, recounts how 14 years of war after the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. have failed to defeat terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Bennis, director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, about her view that reliance on military strategies alone cannot defeat ISIS and the domestic backlash against Syrian war refugees.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: What I'm really afraid was the response in Paris, Scott, was that was a tendency from President Hollande and other French officials which seemed to be channeling George Bush, at the moment of those horrific attacks when this horrible crime was greeted in Paris with the words, "This is war, and we will answer it with war." That was exactly the words of George Bush. It was George who told us that there is only one choice. That the choice is either go to war, or "let 'em get away with it". And since nobody obviously wanted to "let them get away with it," an awful lot of people chose war.

The problem, of course, putting aside any sense of morality and even international law issues just if we look at the question of the efficacy, what we see is that we have been using war for 14 years as a way of challenging terror. And it hasn't worked. It absolutely has not worked. If it had worked, we wouldn't have seen this escalation of terrorist attacks that we're right this minute. There's this sense that there's no option. The only debate that we're hearing about is that Washington and official circles and the official media whether or not there has been U.S. ground troops. Nobody is challenging the fundamental question of "Does war work against terrorism?" Because the bottom line is, terrorism survives war. Terrorism thrives in war. ISIS wants U.S. troops on the ground. The notion that the only debate is, "Do we send U.S. troops on the ground, or do we send Saudi troops on the ground?" That's just off.

No one is challenging the air strikes. No one is challenging the assassination program that's known as the drone strikes. No one is acknowledging that this has been going for years, and it has not worked. Terrorism has thrived throughout.

So what's needed is a very different understanding of what the options are, starting, I would assert, with what every medical student is taught in their first day of medical school: The Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. Whatever you do to your patient, don't make it worse. And of course, what the U.S. is doing is making everything worse.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Phyllis, ISIS has often been described as a death cult using mass slaughter as a strategy and a tactic to rebuild what they say is a long gone glorious Islamic caliphate that they're now trying to rebuild. There are many who view ISIS as an existential threat to Western Civilization if it isn't destroyed, and the military option, as many see it, is the only way to destroy ISIS is to achieve that goal.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You know, if your position is, "The only choice is war or nothing, war seems better than nothing. War seems better than 'letting them get away with it.'" But it's not enough to say these guys are so violent, that of course, we have to use military force against them. The answer is, "These guys are so violent we need to figure out much more strategically, how do we cut off their funding? Well, where's their funding coming from? It's coming a lot from Saudi Arabia? What kind of pressure can we put on the Saudis? Well, we're selling them billions of dollars' worth of weapons. Let's put a price on that and say, "No one more weapon. No one more smartbomb. Not one more anything unless you cut all access of Saudi money, whether it's coming from the government, from the king, prince, from some wealthy individual." That's one possibility.

We could cut off the ability of ISIS to sell the oil that they have taken. That's about half their income. Right now, the oil companies are buying and selling Syrian oil, ISIS oil, as if it was normal. There's no campaign against it equivalent to the blood diamonds campaign, for instance, of a few years ago. All of these possibilities are crucial, but none of them are really possible as long as we are focused on this kind of war response.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Phyllis, just a final question for you here, and that is, after the Paris attacks, we've seen some very ugly responses in the United States, particularly reactions from Republican candidates for president, to not only reject Syrian refugees – both by these candidates but also more than 25 U.S. governors to basically block the entry of Syrian refugees into their states. But we've also had specific proposals from presidential candidate Donald Trump to close mosques, register all Muslims in the country, issue religious-based ID cards to these Muslims. What are your concerns about this? Is something that's a temporary loss of sanity or is this some longer-term problem that we all have to address as Americans?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think it's both. What we have to face is we don't have a refugee crisis, it's a racism crisis underway. And we need to take that very, very seriously.

For more analysis and commentary on the response to the ISIS attacks in Paris, visit the New Internationalism Project at IPS at

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