The Failure of Soft Power to Destroy or Degrade the Islamic State

Location: Waterloo, ON University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada

I wrote this analytical report for an assignment I had in 'PACS 605: Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding' for Professor Nathan Funk Ph.D, at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo during the Winter 2015 term. The outline for this assignment was a 7-9 page retrospective assessment of a yet unresolved conflict, analyzed in the context of class themes.

My analysis is not meant to be exhaustive, but is the first of three parts on the topic of The Islamic State for research assignments I have this term: 1) An Analysis of Promoting Peace in a Realist Conflict: Non-Violent Attempts to Destroy & Degrade The Islamic State (IS) - [A retrospective assessment of an unresolved conflict for PACS 605: Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding], 2) Investigating The Islamic State's Unprecedented Recruitment Efforts via Electronic and Social Media(s) - [Analyzing an emerging issue in the field of security studies for PACS 635 - Security Ontology: Issues And Institutions], 3) Formulating a peace-building strategy for conflict resolution in the retrospective assessment case study for PACS 605.

The use of soft power to destroy and degrade The Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) has failed to attain any measurable result. While the path to conflict cessation in Iraq and Syria might require the use of military force, the road to recovery and a lasting peace in the region ultimately demands the use of soft power and non-violent peacebuilding.

Please let me know what you think. All feedback is greatly appreciated.



An Analysis of Promoting Peace in a Realist Conflict:
Non-Violent Attempts to Destroy & Degrade The Islamic State (IS)

          Amidst the collapse of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, a militant extremist jihadist group has emerged, seizing control of a large territory encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq. The group in question is known to the majority of the world as ISIL/ISIS - or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Since their swift chain of military victories in 2013 and 2014, ISIL/ISIS has shortened their name to just the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). The brutal tactics of this Islamic extremist group embodies the Machiavellian principle that “it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two.”[1] The civilian death toll at the hands of IS has grown at an unprecedented rate, effectively “killing faster than statisticians can count.”[2] In 2014 alone IS was responsible for an estimated 21,000 to 47,000 deaths, civilian and combatant, continuing a trend of doubling year over year since 2012.[3]

          Although the military advance of IS across the Levant region have been nearly unimpeded, efforts have been launched to resolve the regional conflict outside the context of a military intervention. The UN has attempted to bring about conflict cessation through conflict mediators, regional forces such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have used a mix of military and non-lethal support, and grassroots efforts have been deployed on a local level. This retrospective analysis of peace-promotion efforts will evaluate the attempts to bring about conflict cessation, without the use of overt hard power[4], in the context of IS aggression in the regions of Syria and Iraq. However, the historically inhospitable environments of Syria and Iraq, have and will, remain a substantial hindrance to cultural liberalization and the cessation of conflict.

The Rise of the Islamic State (IS)

          Known as the Syrian Uprising, the current conflict in Syria began in the spring of 2011 between pro-democracy protesters and the Syrian regime in the context of the Arab Spring.[5] The power vacuum left by U.S. forces and coalition troops after the withdrawal in neighbouring Iraq, in December 2011, enabled the influence of IS to proliferate in the ensuing chaos.[6] After the heavy military offensive IS launched in the summer of 2014, estimates suggest that the IS controlled territory in Iraq and Syria are roughly “equivalent to the size of neighbouring Jordan.”[7] IS has encountered hard power military resistance from three primary sources: Syrian Security Forces, the Iraqi Military, and the Kurdish Peshmerga. The Syrian Security Forces are engaged in a large-scale conflict nation wide and have not devoted full attention of force towards IS, leading to their capture of oil fields and large cities – such as the IS capital of al-Raqqa. The U.S.-backed and trained Iraqi military has largely crumbled under the advance of IS fighters, resulting in the capture of Mosul, an Iraqi city with the population of over 1 million residents.[8]

          Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the self-declared Caliph of the Islamic State, encompassing the duties of military command, spiritual leadership, as well its public face. Al-Baghdadi is an Iraqi-born Salafist Sunni Muslim with a claimed PhD. in Islamic Studies with alleged ties of descendancy to the Prophet Mohamed’s Quraysh tribe.[9] Although IS began as an autonomous al-Qaeda affiliated group, in February 2014 “al-Qaeda’s central leadership announced that it had severed ties with ISIS” due to their excessively brutal and unforgiving tactics to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.[10] IS has employed unprecedented recruiting tactics across multiple social media platforms, drawing fighters from the Middle East and Western Nations alike. 2014 was a whirlwind year for IS, putting their force size at “an estimated 20,000 to 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria,” with fiscal assets, gained from looting and extortion, estimated to be around the “$2 billion (USD)” mark.[11] [12]

Tracking Soft Power Efforts for Conflict Cessation

          On 21 April 2012, the United Nations adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2043.[13] UNSC Resolution 2043 was not directed towards IS, but rather at the Syrian conflict as a whole, “reaffirming [the UN’s] support to the Joint Special Envoy for the United Nations and the League of Arab States.”[14] However, citing an “increasing militarization on the ground and the clear lack of unity in the Security Council,” Annan relinquished his role amidst the continuance of open hostilities between Syrian Security Forces and the rebel groups.[15] Following the departure of Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi assumed the role as Joint Special Representative, but still encountered the fatal roadblocks experienced by Annan.[16] Matching the instability of the Syrian environment, Brahimi likewise relinquished his position in the summer of 2014, resulting in the appointment of the current Joint Special Representative, Staffan de Mistura, in July of 2014.[17] The three Joint Special Representatives have been largely unsuccessful at implementing conflict cessation in Syria, with Syrian Security Forces and IS both ignoring any attempts for diplomatic peace-building efforts.

          Descending a step in the scale of approach, outside the context of the UN an anti-IS coalition was formed by upwards of 62 nations: 21 of the 62 nations have provided lethal military assistance, while 13 of the 62 nations have provided, exclusively, humanitarian support totaling over $100 (USD) in the form of medical supplies, blankets, and foodstuffs.[18] The conflict in the IS-controlled regions of Iraq and Syria has prevented an effective deployment of aid workers, whether foreign or domestic. In the cases where journalists and western aid workers did operate in Iraq and/or Syria, they were kidnapped, held as hostages for ransom, and ultimately executed. IS is indiscriminate in their targeting, repeating this macabre process regardless of nationality, religious affiliation, or gender.[19] While IS continues to repel outside intervention, in some instances, they have provided aid and public works to the denizens of their controlled territory, especially in areas hit hard by the Syrian regime.[20]

          The path that IS took when coming to power increasingly solidified their foothold in local arenas. Mimicking the Syrian regime’s brutal response to peaceful demonstrators, IS likewise erased any potential opposition by targeting local civic clubs, opposing religious sects, and private and public education institutions. Citing an extremist interpretation for the strict adherence to Islamic tenets, specifically that of shirk or idolatry, IS has destroyed cultural treasures and historic artifacts in an indiscriminate fashion.[21] Civil society organizations and grassroots movements often rely on existing social and civic infrastructure as a foundation for advocacy or activism. The tactics employed by IS demolished the already fragile social and civic infrastructure in regions IS now controls. As a result, the presence of organic local resistance to IS is practically nonexistent. One of the lone outliers of the non-violent anti-IS approach is the story of Suad Nofel, a female Muslim schoolteacher in the Syrian city of Raqqa.[22] Armed with only a cardboard sign and steadfast determination, “Nofel made her way to ISIS’s headquarters every day for three months” during the summer of 2013.[23] Despite her determined ethic, Nofel conceded that “unfortunately not enough people have joined my effort in resisting and that’s why [IS] grew stronger.”[24]

The Impasse of Unrestrained Aggression

          Nonviolent peacebuilding efforts implicitly rely on good faith measures from all parties involved. Prior to IS seizing control, the Syrian regime was the sole coercive force in the Syrian regions. Syrian Security Forces have similarly acted with impunity, dwarfing the IS death toll with an estimated 200,000 dead, for all of Syria, as of December 2014.[25] The failure of the UN Joint Special Representatives was a direct result of the Syrian regime’s unwillingness to reduce their military mobilization. In the Iraqi and Syrian territories now controlled by IS, IS forces are, at this moment, the sole coercive force directly present in a local capacity. As such, IS has one of the key principles behind the concept of state sovereignty. The continued trend for the failure of conflict cessation exists due to IS’s continuance of using brutal and violent tactics as a default response to all levels of opposition, whether local, Muslim, or otherwise. Even in the Iraqi and Syrian diaspora when the unification of displaced refugees has taken place, host nations have viewed the peaceful grassroots mobilization as a security issue.[26] Compounding the struggle to regional peacebuilding is the immense regional strain that exists from the continued accommodation of Palestinian refugees.

          Regardless of the theological legitimacy of IS’s claims to Islamic principles, they themselves are determined to endeavour by any and all means to both hold and increase their influence across the Levant. In the discourse that is regional conflict in the Middle East, the language IS has chosen is unrestrained violence. The attempts to counter IS influence in the region, whether that is by completely eradicating IS or just alleviating the suffering of those under IS control, have been met by fierce and immediate IS opposition. In this Realist, ‘might makes right’ landscape constructed by IS, peacebuilding tactics are not able to take hold, let alone flourish. Denizens of IS controlled regions have largely resulted to capitulation as a method of self-preservation when engaging with IS. Empowerment of local populations appears to be unattainable when just the act of survival is a daily struggle. The result of is an emboldened IS that does not envision an impending defeat, making the thought of negotiation highly improbable.

The Failure of Soft Power

          The use of soft power to combat the influence and advance of IS in Syria and Iraq has been met with increased barbarity and continued bloodshed. Relief efforts and non-lethal assistance have been delivered to the denizens of IS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. However, the use of diplomacy, nonviolent peacebuilding, and humanitarian aid is a currency which IS refuses to trade in. The history of the violent totalitarian regimes have fostered the brutal environment in which IS now prospers. While popular uprisings, diplomatic measures, and cultural appeals perhaps worked, at least in part, with the previous regimes in attempts to liberalize or build peace, IS repeatedly greets these approaches with unrestrained violence – from summary executions to beheadings. The case study of IS represents the extreme end of a violent spectrum, resulting in the failure of soft power to bring about conflict cessation or even degrade IS control.

          The use of non-violent peace-building and soft power methods certainly has limits in this application, but they must not be forgotten. While conflict cessation or the reduction of IS control cannot be achieved by soft power or nonviolent methods of peacebuilding, the key to a lasting calm beyond the reign of IS certainly lies in these approaches. The absence of long-term conflict resolution approaches in Iraq, which bolstered the region’s instability after the American withdrawal in December 2011, is what created the environment in which IS proliferated. To make sure the continued pattern of short-sighted realism does not embark upon a successive cycle after the eventual defeat of IS, the methods previously forsaken must be applied.

1. P. 66, Machiavelli 1998
2. Schwartzstein 2014
3. Russia Today 2015
4. Hard Power is the use of economic sanctions or coercive military force from a top-down governmental approach. Ananian 2010
5. Rodgers, et al. 2014
6. The Associated Press 2011
7. VICE News 2014
8. United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Human Rights Office 2014
9. BBC News 2014
10. Mendelsohn 2014
11. Yeginsu 2014
12. Chulov 2014
13. UN Security Council Resolution 2043, Syria 2012
14. Ibid.
15. Annan 2012
16. UN News Centre 2014
17. UN Secretary General 2014
18. Wordsworth 2014
19. Referring to the cases of non-combatants: aid workers David Haines (British), Alan Henning (British), Peter Kassig (American) and Kayla Mueller (American), journalists James Foley (American), Steven Sotloff (American), Haruna Yukawa (Japanese), and Kenji Goto (Japanese).
20. Croucher 2015
21. Arango 2014
22. Taleb 2014
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Taylor 2014
26. Montoya 2015

To see the full bibliography, follow this link:


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