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Turkey’s recent decision to permit American warplanes to use the Incirlik base to launch air attacks is a much needed shot in the arm for the Obama administration’s battle against ISIS. But alone it is unlikely to be the game changer the United States hopes for. Any strategy is doomed to failure if it ignores that ISIS is not merely killing people, but also killing the ideas that have served as the region’s defense mechanism against Islamic extremism for the past several decades.
While the U.S.-led coalition is focused on rolling back ISIS from territory it has captured in Iraq and Syria, it is missing the fact that this group’s strategy is to systematically destroy the idea of the nation and nationalist identity as the organizing principles for the Middle East. And ISIS is playing out this strategy in Syria and Iraq, currently the soft underbelly of the Arab world, where national bonds have already been weakened by colonial legacies and civil wars. Unless ISIS’s strategy is countered, it is quite possible that the ideological carnage could spread more widely throughout the region, weakening even stronger countries with more coherent national identities, like Turkey and Egypt.
While the United States can’t fight the ideological battle directly, by using military and diplomatic means it can buy the time necessary for regional leaders to marshal a response and launch a more effective ideological counterattack. If this doesn’t occur, it is possible that the ideological damage inflicted by ISIS could become permanent, even if the group itself is eventually defeated.