The strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) needs to address its territorial, political and ideological dimensions. Given the multitude of actors on the ground, their divergent interests and the intricacies of such a strategy, this task requires strenuous efforts. However, a post-IS era might prove to be an even more challenging environment for the people of Iraq, Syria and the region. Currently, the presence of IS acts as retardant of several potential conflicts. The way in which the Caliphate will be fought, defeated and replaced, will ultimately determine whether the end of this conflict will only mark the beginning of several others.
It is not much contested that at present, we are still far from having conceived a strategic framework to confront and defeat the Islamic State. We are still in the process of adding ‘so called’ prior to Islamic State, in order to deprive the group of what they have successfully managed to become: an entity which is sovereign over a large territory and offers basic services to its population by maintaining a functioning government[i].
More than a state which uses unprecedented execution tactics against Prisoner Of Wars (POWs), or attacks aimed specifically at civilians, IS has become an extremely successful militant Salafist franchise[ii]. Under the Wilayat (province) system, IS has managed to bring several groups under its umbrella who benefit from its networks, reputation and notoriety. Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai, Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria, Jundallah in AfPak, IS in Libya, as well as groups and individuals in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the North Caucasus and Europe have all sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr-al Baghdadi; IS’ Caliph.
Al-Qaeda has its own network which includes Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Shabab in Somalia and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria with its core located in South Asia between Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, the grainy amateurish, cave-located videos which portrayed Osama bin Laden and now Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, cannot compete with IS’ perfectly produced, edited, promoted videos and material. Young radicalised Muslims are flocking to the Middle East from across the world to join IS and become mujahids, despite the intensive airstrikes that are pummelling the latter’s territory on a daily basis. Although it began as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, IS has become a franchise of Islamic jihad which is unrivalled in its attractiveness, complexity, structure, outreach and size.
Drafting a strategy to ultimately defeat IS should address three main dimensions. The first dimension is the territorial one. IS controls a large territory with an estimated population ranging from 2.8 to 8 million people[iii][iv]. There is a need for a ground force to invade, defeat and occupy the territory controlled by the Islamic State. Airstrikes reduce the organisation’s manpower and resources but given the current rules of engagement and the targets that are being picked-off, they have a limited effect on the actual outcome that they can achieve if they produce civilian casualties. Indiscriminate bombings, such as the one Russia has been accused of carrying out[v], only impair Western countries’ efforts to address the second important dimension of the Islamic State. A ground force needs to invade, neutralize and conquer IS controlled land and be prepared to suffer significant casualties (and the political cost that these will entail) and remain there for a lengthy period until what ought to replace this geopolitical void comes in place. Given the length of the stay, the ground force needs to be mostly comprised of a Sunni Arab force. Such an army would enjoy greater legitimacy and is less likely to engage in retaliatory, sectarian and abusive acts against the local population. The type of army/power that ought to engage the territorial dimension of IS conceptually leads to the strategy’s second dimension.
The political dimension is the most important element in the war against IS. Despite having amongst its ranks seasoned Iraqi officers, (battle-hardened from the anti-US insurgency that was waged from 2003 onwards) access to resources through donations, taxation, extortion and looting and a somewhat developed government structure, IS would not be able to survive without local support or at least tolerance. Having been disenfranchised, marginalised and persecuted under Shia governments in Damascus and Baghdad, IS appears as the lesser of two evils to Sunni Syrians and Iraqis. The 1982 Hama massacre is indicative of such practice in Syria and al-Maliki’s entire rule from 2006 to 2014 is ridden with sectarian policies and actions that alienated Iraqi Sunnis. The United States have spent considerable blood and treasure in Iraq to ever smoothly accept its fragmentation, Iran would not tolerate the dissolution of the Shia crescent running from the straits of Hormuz to Israel’s northern border, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries would welcome a new Sunni entity interrupting the aforementioned Shia ‘arch’. Overall, unless the Sunnis of Nineveh, Al-Anbar, Raqqah or Dayz az Zawr are offered a better political framework under which to live, IS will be harder to uproot.
The third and final main dimension that needs to underline any strategy to address the presence of the Islamic State is an ideological and propaganda one. Very much linked to the political dimension, the appeal of militant Salafist ideas need to be countered both in the Middle East by the rest of the Sunni community and in the West to prevent lone wolf attacks, the creation of local terrorist cells and the flow of foreign fighters. For it to be effective, it needs to come third in sequence after the territorial and political dimension. The preaching of moderate Imams in the Muslim world and in the West will not be effective to dissuade religiously inspired violence if high-quality propaganda material is readily and widely available online. Execution videos, staged military parades on Toyota pick-up trucks and shootout footages need to stop being produced altogether. For that to happen IS needs to be uprooted from the territory in which it carries out such filming. Beyond the theological dimension, there is a need to tackle IS’ propaganda, social media and web activity. There is a need for a counter-argument to radicalisation, which is conveyed in an equally successful way, not limited to pointing out IS’ barbarity which has been the case so far. For disenfranchised, disillusioned young Muslim men and women, living in stagnant jobless neighbourhoods in the Middle-East, Europe or Russia, hope of socio-economic advancement and inclusion is urgent.
In the long term, western societies will have to redefine their identities in such a way as to ensure that their underlying and historical values and traditions are safeguarded while at the same time allowing for the inclusion of citizens of different racial and religious profiles. The practical and conceptual difficulties of this third dimension and its long-term nature are evident, but success in this domain is essential to the sustainability of any strategy. In other words, the appeal of militant jihadism is not going to dissipate anytime soon and the ‘franchise’ ownership will pass on to a different contender after IS is gone.
If the difficulty of attacking the aforementioned pillars upon which IS stands appears to be mesmerising, it is dwarfed by the complexity of a strategy to ensure the smooth transition to a post-IS Middle East. Ibrahim al-Badri[vi], formerly an avid football fan with a Masters in Quranic recitation before he proclaimed himself ‘Caliph’ in June 2014, is leading an organisation which delays a series of other conflicts in the Middle East.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), de juris an autonomous region of Iraq, is increasingly acting as an entity preparing itself for independence. It has its own military force, the Peshmerga, who proved to be one of Iraq’s few reliable fighting forces after the collapse and unorderly retreat of the US-trained and equipped Iraqi Army. While the US has invested significant efforts to maintain Iraq as a single entity after its botched strategy of swiftly transforming it into a democracy, recent developments indicate that once IS is gone, the Kurds of Iraq might have another opportunity at achieving statehood (the last ones being in 1920 and 1991). In early December 2015, Turkish troops entered north Iraq at the request of KRG’s President, Masoud Barzani without the approval of Baghdad. While Turkey is relentlessly battling the PKK’s insurgency on its soil, it appear to have amicable relationships with Erbil. In case of independence, the Iraqi Kurds will most likely be unable to export hydrocarbons and other products via Basra, rendering Turkey the only viable route through which to do so.
Moreover, clashes between KRG’s Peshmerga and the Shiite Popular Mobilisation Force militia (al-Hashd al Shaabi) around the city of Tuz Khormato in November 2015[vii], is indicative of how territory liberated from the Islamic State is then contested between the different operating forces that are already thinking ahead. Some aid workers in North Iraq have even argued that the Peshmerga attempted to change the ethnic composition of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk after defeating IS forces in the area, in order to establish a claim on it in the future[viii].
The Popular Mobilisation militias, which receive direct support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) elite Quds Force and its General, Qasem Soleimani[ix], are not the only Shia actor in the country. Iraq’s Prime-Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Iraq’s Sadrists, with the support of the US, find themselves pitched against Former Prime-Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Badr Organisation and the PMU which want closer ties with Iran[x]. Strangely, both Abadi and Maliki are part of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party. The makeup of the force that liberated Ramadi, a Sunni city in Al-Anbar province 65 kilometres to the east of Fallujah, is critical in understanding the intra-Shia dynamics currently in place in Iraq. Prime-Minister Abadi was eager for Shia militias to be relegated to a secondary role during the operations in order for the victory to be achieved by the country’s Armed Forces rather than a militia with a distinct sectarian undertone. The military credentials attached to battling IS will largely define the level of legitimacy and power of different actors in a post-IS era. Overall, the KRG, government-affiliated Iraqi Shias and Iran-backed Iraqi Shias are all anticipating the liberation of Iraq and fighting IS in such a way as to entrench themselves accordingly for the brinkmanship that will follow in a post-IS Iraq.
For those Iraqi Sunnis that are under IS occupation or internally displaced, the future is looking particularly bleak. In the case of IS’s defeat they will find themselves leaderless, under the rule of a Shia government and prone to revanchist policies. For Saudi Arabia, Sunni Gulf countries and Turkey, these Sunnis will be become a potential proxy in order to gain leverage on Iraq. The relationship between the US and Iran will be crucial in the way that negotiations over the outlook of post-IS Iraq and its power-sharing framework will be decided. In the aftermath of the defeat of IS, the international community will have spent significant human, economic and diplomatic capital in order to achieve the concentrated effort required. If war resumes in Iraq given the aforementioned differing interests, there will be little willingness to address conflict yet again. Deterministic perceptions over the impossibility of sustainable peace in the area will underline any mediation and peace effort which is bound to be underwhelming. Iraq might once more plunge itself into violence of a sectarian nature.
Rushing towards Fallujah and Mosul does not sound like a great idea given the current discord of actors within Iraq. The fall of Raqqa would be equally disastrous given the current environment in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), one of the most powerful forces battling IS in Syria and supported by the West, has been attacked in the past by Turkey; the country sharing an 822 kilometre border with Syria. Sunni rebels have different allegiances ranging from the Gulf countries, to Al-Qaeda and Turkey. Loyalist troops in Syria are battling IS and the rebels, alongside Hezbollah, IRCG troops and Russia. While these groups fighting in support of Damascus are considered a coalition, current short-term interest convergence may look nothing like their plans for the future. Russia, eager to maintain its bases, presence and influence in the Middle East and repair the diplomatic damage caused in Ukraine by the annexation of Crimea, is likely to be much more conciliatory than its Shia counterparts. Hezbollah, Syria’s Alawites and Iran are eager to maintain the Shia crescent running from the straits of Hormuz to Israel’s northern border. The potential interruption of this geopolitical space by a Sunni entity (either in eastern Syria, western Iraq or both) is a red line that would prevent Tehran from freely supporting its proxies in the Eastern Mediterranean and thus have leverage over Israel.
In its current form, the best case scenario for Syria is a Bosnia-Herzegovina, double the instability and dysfunctionality, with heavily armed entities that have no power-sharing traditions or strong institutions. But even this scenario is too far-fetched of a suggestion. Moreover, the state of Saudi-Iranian, US-Iranian, US-Russian and Russian-Turkish relations will affect the feasibility of any attempt to achieve the defeat of IS and manage the smooth transition to a sustainable geopolitical framework in a post-IS Middle East. The downing of the Russian bomber, the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the lifting of sanctions against Iran, the potential election of a Republican President (or the diplomatic and public opinion blowback of USMC boats straying into Iranian territorial waters) are all indicative of the things that have, or may affect any development in the broader region.
Regional powers with the support of the international community under a clear cooperation framework will need to mount a ground offensive to defeat IS and ensure that the future of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis is safeguarded from sectarian backlash. How we will fill IS’s void needs to be decided before any offensive against the Caliphate, to avoid winning a war that will only trigger another.
Time is required for a peace process in Syria between Damascus, the different branches of the Sunni rebels and Syrian Kurds, where regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Russia need to act as responsible geopolitical patrons. The upcoming Geneva peace conference on Syria is a step towards that direction. Time is also required for Iraq’s actors to come together and negotiate on the country’s future. It would be helpful to keep in mind that the Yalta and Potsdam conferences took place before the end of WWII, in anticipation of the era that would follow. While the Cold War began immediately after the end of WWII, the aforementioned conferences were an opportunity to limit the issues that divided the Great Powers.
However, time spent negotiating will result in the continuation of war in the region creating more refugees, as well as offering IS, its affiliates or lone wolves, the opportunity to stage more attacks against targets in the Middle East, Europe or even South-East Asia (as the recent attack in Jakarta indicates). Ultimately, stabilising the current situation in the Middle East will be about whether the key players in the region decide between two paths:
- Delay IS’ defeat, incur the short term cost that this entails in human lives, diplomatic capital and destruction as a result of prolonged conflict, but take the time to build consensus on a sustainable strategy that will ensure a smooth and peaceful transition to a post-Is Middle East.
- Proceeding with the current course where the different actors battling IS have no common political and diplomatic denominator, and hope that Iraq and Syria will not once more plunge into war due to their internal dynamics.
[i] Foreign Affairs, Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group’, March/April 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/isis-not-terrorist-group
[ii] Curiousmatic, James Pero, ‘The ISIS Franchise: How the Terror Group Spreads Its Brand’, March 17, 2015, https://curiousmatic.com/the-isis-franchise-how-the-terror-group-spreads-its-brand/
[iii] “Why ISIL Will Fail on Its Own”. Politico. 29 November 2015. Retrieved 29 January 2016, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/11/why-isil-will-fail-on-its-own-213401
[iv] “How ISIS Rules”. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 29 January 2016, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/02/05/how-isis-rules/
[v] Amnesty International, ‘Syria: Russia’s shameful failure to acknowledge civilian killings’, December 23, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/12/syria-russias-shameful-failure-to-acknowledge-civilian-killings/
[vi] Brookings, Williams McCants, ‘The Believer’, September 1, 2015 http://www.brookings.edu/research/essays/2015/thebeliever
[vii] Al-Monitor, Adnan Abu Zeed, ‘Arab-Kurd Conflict Heats up after Tuz Khormato Incidents’, December 8, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/iraq-kurdistan-region-tuz-khormato-arabs-kurds-conflict.html
[viii] Foreign Policy, Sara Elizabeth Williams, ‘Destroying Homes for Kurdistan’, July 23, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/23/peshmerga-war-crimes-ethnic-cleansing-islamic-state-iraq/?wp_login_redirect=0
[ix] BBC, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, ‘General Qasem Soleimani: Iran’s Rising Star’. March 6, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-27883162
[x] Foreign Policy, Douglas Ollivant, ‘Sunnis vs. Shiites, Abadi vs. Maliki, Kurds vs. Everyone’. January 11, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/11/sunnis-vs-shiites-abadi-vs-maliki-kurds-vs-everyone/
Photo credit: Wikipedia