Talking to the Islamic State: Co-opting Jihadists into a Political Process


As the Islamic State continues to cede territory in Syria and Iraq, exploring viable ways to eventually end this conflict is critical. It is very unlikely that the group will simply disappear as a result of successful coalition military operations. Al Qaeda in Iraq was nearly eradicated by the end of 2009, but it later respawned into the virulent Islamic State. The United States must now anticipate how the Islamic State will adapt and survive after its caliphate in Syria and Iraq is defeated.

As the conditions on the ground shift in favor of pro-government and coalition-backed forces, American strategy must shift as well. To ensure a durable victory, the United States must co-opt Islamic State fighters and factions, draining some of the organization’s lifeblood. That strategy should include creating entry points into the political process for jihadist militants willing to negotiate, while maintaining military pressure on the group as a whole.

Bringing Islamic State Members into the Political Process

Excluding the Islamic State from the Vienna peace talks helped world powers achieve some notable outcomes, including agreement on the broad framework for a political transition in Syria and the implementation of a partial ceasefire. It also communicated to Islamic State militants, however, that they had no future in Syria (and, by extension, Iraq) other than to continue fighting. Though it may seem counterintuitive to consider incorporating such brutal and seemingly unrepentant militants into a political process, transforming the relationship with these adversaries is critical to minimizing their enduring threat to Syria, Iraq, and to the rest of the world.

The 2001 Bonn Conference for Afghanistan is an instructive example of how excluding the principle adversary ultimately undermines progress towards peace. Like the Vienna peace talks, the Bonn Conference brought together world powers to engineer a power-sharing and transition plan for Afghanistan, but excluded the Taliban. Tough negotiations yielded meaningful results with various Afghan factions and its regional neighbors, but the agreement, combined with years of foreign military stabilization operations, never led to lasting peace. The Bonn process failed to offer the Taliban entry points into the political process. U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, a key negotiator in the Bonn Conference, later admitted, “the Taliban should have been in Bonn. I call it the original sin.” Had the Taliban movement or at least some of its factions been given a role in this process from the beginning, rather than being approached for a peace deal about a decade later, Afghanistan might look very different today.

The Syrian peace talks present the powers involved with similar choices. Excluding the Islamic State may have been a political necessity at the first conference in October 2015, much as few could imagine tolerating the Taliban in Bonn in 2001. Still, the ongoing peace talks would be far more likely to succeed with an opening for factions and militants aligned with the Islamic State that are willing to negotiate in exchange a place at the table. If the United States can now countenance talking to the Taliban after its members stained their hands with American and Afghan blood for a decade, why can it not do the same with the Islamic State and other extremist groups in this conflict, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Indeed, these would not be the first such peace negotiations first deemed impossible that later bore fruit. The scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “’Impossible’ is usually defined by our theories, not given by nature.” The Oslo Accords, South Africa’s transition from apartheid, and the Northern Ireland peace process are poignant examples of how national attitudes shifted on both sides and negotiations became acceptable over time. Deciding how to deal with Islamic State militants in order to avoid a protracted insurgency, or a more dispersed global network, should be an urgent priority.

Negotiating with an adversary is somewhat counterintuitive. But there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. If ongoing negotiations with the Taliban could potentially serve or protect U.S. interests, then bargaining is worthwhile. Similarly, if allowing Islamic State militants into the political process minimizes their threat to U.S. interests and helps bring peace to the region, then it is a worthy task.

Some might bristle at the idea of cooperating with Islamic State militants given that their values and goals are abhorrent and contrary to the international system. But it may be that engagement will split factions from the core of the Islamic State and serve to moderate the behavior of some portions of the group, if not the Islamic State as a whole, and diminish its military capacity.

Providing entry points into the political process for Islamic State factions need not put them on immediate, equal footing with Syrian opposition groups in negotiating Syria’s political transition. But offering jihadist militants a voice in Syria’s future has the potential to fragment the Islamic State. The Syria peace talks should outline criteria through which Islamic State militants can choose to be a part of Syria’s future, including accepting the political process and joining the ceasefire. Militants join the Islamic State for a variety of reasons; their reasons for leaving may vary, too. To cast all Islamic State fighters as millenarian zealots ignores a crucial part of their story: The Islamic State arose amidst civil war, and its emergence is not only an expression of a grand plan for regional conquest, but also of more basic desires for work, and for the preservation of self, identity, and community. This does not excuse the Islamic State’s methods, but it does suggest that appealing to elements of the organization that have legitimate political demands can speed the group’s collapse, particularly as it comes under increasing military pressure.

Continued Military Pressure

The coalition military effort must continue to pressure the Islamic State; and the Islamic State must understand that violence is the only alternative to political settlement. While the history of successful negotiations with insurgents is mixed, war-weariness and mutually painful stalemates often preceded negotiations. Military force can be the press that drives some militants into the mold of political settlement. As with other molds, where some of the pressed material is sheared off or spills out, many Islamic State militants will resist political settlement even as military pressure continues. The coalition airstrikes and raids should thus target the Islamic State’s most hardline leaders, removing those terrorists that remain the most dangerous and unwilling to settle. This could have the cumulative effect of increasing the organization’s pliability over time, as its most intransigent leaders are killed.

But military force without a political alternative for the Islamic State’s factions of militants will lead to a protracted conflict. Terminating the war requires identifying mutually acceptable conditions in a future environment. How jihadist militants, or what remains of them, respond to those conditions will be a key feature of the new security situation in Syria. If Islamic State members see their struggle as purely existential, without any safety in disarmament or prospect for amnesty, then fighting to the death is the optimal strategy. Following the loss of territory, surviving fighters will go underground (especially those recruited locally) or move to other nations (more likely for foreign fighters). In either case, Islamic State militants will continue to kill their opponents and destabilize communities where they operate. Successful military pressure on the Islamic State that reduces its control over territory could thus drive some militants toward political settlement, if the door is open.

Talk to Your Enemies the Right Way

Isolating Islamic State militants from the political process will almost certainly guarantee a protracted insurgency in Syria and drive the group to increase its operations in other under-governed spaces around the globe. Failing to consider how to incorporate jihadist militants willing to negotiate into the peace talks would be a mistake. As foreign ministers shuttle between their capitals and Geneva, they must urgently consider criteria to allow these adversaries to participate in Syria’s future, even as military pressure helps to incentivize joining the peace talks in lieu of continued fighting. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan once observed, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” Allowances for current adversaries can help enable future peace.


Lt. Col. Ben Jonsson is an Air Force pilot and Regional Affairs Strategist. He received an MA in Conflict Resolution from the University of Jordan in 2008 and is a current member of the Carlisle Scholar Program at the U.S. Army War College.

Andrew Hill is the Professor of Organization Studies in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. He received his doctorate in business administration at Harvard Business School. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.