The short answer is no. Western intervention cannot work, as the fundamental knowledge of the geopolitical situation is completely lacking among the military and political elites of America, Britain, France and other countries. And these talks of a grand, international coalition are a fantasy. Russia don’t really want ground troops there, as they’ve got Assad’s and Iran’s troops. India and China have no real interest. And the Middle Eastern countries outside of Iran are too scared to become involved. The only opposition are Assad’s forces, the Kurdish, elements of the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians and tribal leaders who are of Shia persuasion and those of the Sunni religion who so far have given extremely timid backing to ISIS due to political marginalisation and terrorism from Shia groups.
Without getting bogged down in arguments of previous failed interventions, the fundamental issue of interventionism is Hayek’s knowledge problem. No Western leader or bureaucrat knows the geopolitical complexities and cultural differences that have led to this conflict and the creation of ISIS. The only ones who do are tribal villages and towns in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and other parts of many of the zombie countries of the Middle East. I say zombie countries as most of these countries were created through imperial map drawing that completely ignored cultural borders and the economic and political powers that existed in this region. One of the geopolitical and cultural issues that cannot be tackled by Western intervention, and can only be tackled via diplomacy and local control, is the fact that ISIS and its ideology is in many ways state funded.
The ideology that goes behind ISIS is a more radicalised version of Saudi Wahhabism, which has influenced many of the modern Islamist terrorist groups of the 21st century. The Saudi government gives many funds to Wahhabist doctrinaires who use these funds to build mosques in many areas of Saudi Arabia and the outlying parts of Iraq. Then they rely on state-funded militias to force funds into these mosques from local communities, as well as relying on Western atrocities across the Middle East to lead young men on a path of radicalism. Without this state funding and coercion, the ability for such an ideology to develop would be limited at best. Thus one way of stopping this flow would be to push Saudi Arabia to stop funding these groups, and crack down on their ability to develop by stopping local thugs and gangs and ending the funding.
The same can be said for oil. A significant amount of ISIS’s funding comes from oil revenues that have been allowed to flow out of Iraq via the Turkish border. Thus pressure should be put on Turkey to stop allowing this flow of oil to continue.
Then there are the weapons that have flowed into Syria through American arming of the Free Syrian Army. These ended up in the hands of al-Nusra, and then through al-Nusra fighters joining ISIS, ending up in the hands of the latter.
These are three catalysts that can be dealt with without military action and without Western posturing. But these of course won’t destroy ISIS, but they may certainly hamper it in the short to midterm. Fundamentally, to stop ISIS, the groups actually effected by them who have the legitimacy to defend themselves and stop this evil, despicable group will have to do so. This means peace between the FSA and its splinter groups and Assad. It means ending the bombing by the West and Russia. And it means a fundamental change in governance structures and geopolitical power in the region.
To create the first condition, all sides need to be forced to the table. With the reality that ground troops aren’t going to be sent in the near future, there is a real chance that through UN and other diplomatic channels Assad and his enemies can be brought to the table and political power can be decided in a fair way. Assad cannot last forever, even with Russian and Iranian backing. The FSA as a construct is very unstable, and thus may soon look to diplomatic solutions if it is to have any say in negotiations. But to achieve this, the geopolitical landscape of Syria will have to change dramatically. The cultural borders that have historically existed between different ethnic and religious groups will have to return, with political power being decentralised to their relevant communities, thus allowing to develop their socio-economic positions and not relying on centralised governance. This will even mean bringing in Islamists so as to give them forms of political legitimacy, the same way it has been done with Hezbollah and Hamas to an extent.
The same has to happen in Iraq. Oil profits will need to be distributed fairly, and governance needs to be decentralised to the local tribal and religious groups in Iraq. This may mean outposts of radical Jihadism, but if curtailed by a multitude of surrounding tribal and Shia groups who are armed with weapons and genuine geopolitical power, their ability to develop will be limited significantly. We have to remember that part of the power ISIS gets is from Sunni tribal leaders who were put into an extremely marginalised position by Maliki’s use of terror and repression.
In the end, the West needs to move away from centralised governments in Iraq and Syria, and away from their dreams of democratic republics with US style constitutions. These are naive, stupid fantasies. Instead, power needs to be vested in local tribes and religions, as it historically has, alongside decentralised economic power via distributed oil revenues. If there is one thing outside nations can do, it is bring people to the negotiation table, engage with marginalised groups and voices in the region and put pressure on countries to stop their implicit funding, as well as stop their own funding via the shipping of weapons into Syria. Peace should always be the aim, and bombing indiscriminately will not achieve that. It may in fact add fuel to the fire.