Bombs alone won’t crush ISIS: what could?

I recently spent week with a group of academics and policy makers in Washington D.C., some of whom are tackling the question of how to effectively put an end to ISIS.

So far, western countries — Canada included — have taken the position that military offensives are the only suitable means to root out the ISIS threat. We hear periodic news stories celebrating the retaking of Palmyra or the killing of ISIS’s finance manager. Our political leaders point to these limited successes as indications that a single-track military approach is the correct method to combat a group that understands nothing but force and is not amenable to any form of negotiation.

In fact, when I asked a high-level official involved in negotiations between the Syrian government and rebel forces whether ISIS occupies a seat at the table, I was told that the terrorist group was not invited, nor were there any plans to include them in negotiations in the future.

The West’s singular reliance on military force to combat ISIS is misguided. Despite periodic and short-term victories, this approach perpetuates ISIS’s aggression. Killing one ISIS leader or recapturing one swath of land may affirm the West’s strategy of ‘force or nothing’ — but it’s not much help when ISIS captures another piece of land or replaces one slain leader with someone else.

​Unanimous, non-binding votes in democratic assemblies declaring ISIS’s actions to be genocidal may look nice in the morning headlines, but they have little, if any, tangible effects on the ground. Likely, such actions only invigorate ISIS’s resolve — proving to its members that it is fulfilling its mission of purifying the Caliphate of infidels.

While speaking in Washington D.C., I proposed that the international legal community — now represented by established ad hoc tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) — should forego its timidity and pursue prosecution of ISIS leadership.

The ICC’s prosecutor, in a statement last year, communicated her office’s decision to not pursue ISIS leaders because Syria and Iraq, where the group’s leadership resides, are not member states to the Court. While technically Syria and Iraq are beyond the Court’s jurisdiction, France and Belgium — where ISIS agents recently have undertaken attacks killing scores of innocent people — are members of the Court.

I believe that the ICC (or the United Nations, if it decides to establish an ad hoc tribunal) can and should assert its jurisdiction over ISIS. The attacks in France and Belgium, coupled with ISIS’s human rights violations in Iraq and Syria, are all part of one ongoing conflict. By attacking states that are members of the Court, ISIS has subjected its entire organization to the ICC’s jurisdiction.

I am not suggesting that the act of prosecuting ISIS leadership in international courts will defeat ISIS on its own. But legal action must be taken in addition to military and diplomatic approaches. Why doesn’t ISIS have a seat at the table in negotiations between warring Syrian forces? Unfortunate as it is, ISIS has an influence in that region and ignoring its voice will only encourage the group to continue its expansion. President Obama came to power with the proposition that the United States will engage even with its enemies.

Engaging with ISIS might not be politically popular — but it might be necessary, if its continued acts of aggression against innocent civilians are to be stopped. At such a moment in history, we need political and legal courage as well as military power to defeat this most unique of enemies.

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