James Fromson. Global Politics and Strategy. Volume 57, Issue 3. 2015.
ISIS’s four principal manifestations—as a guerrilla army, Sunni political movement, millenarian cult and administrator of territory—suggest a strategy against it: aggressive containment.
The American-led coalition has reached a turning point in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Where previously the campaign was framed in defensive terms—the need to protect Iraqi minorities and prevent the fall of Baghdad and Erbil—the emerging narrative in Washington now centres on a well-advertised ground offensive to retake the ISIS stronghold of Mosul and, implicitly, to break the organisation’s back. The time is ripe for strategic reassessment—or, perhaps more accurately, an open-source assessment that did not occur during the first rush to action in summer 2014.
The flood of analysis since last summer has not provided clarity. We now know much about ISIS’s lurid particularities, but there has been relatively scant consideration of the group’s long-term political trajectory in Iraq and Syria or, more importantly, of the threat posed by ISIS to core American interests in those places. This analytical void has created space for the emergence of divergent views on the nature of ISIS and the most effective US policy response to it. The American debate is particularly rancorous because ISIS’s rise has resurrected many of the most contentious and emotional issues in Middle East policy since 9/11.
For hawks such as US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, ISIS is the product of successive failures of American will—firstly, to maintain a sizeable combat presence in Iraq after 2011 and, secondly, to intervene decisively either in Iraq or against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. A second camp comprises those—mainly think-tank analysts, journalists and former government officials—who have an emotional or analytical stake in the success of the Syrian opposition, and see in ISIS both the bitter wages of failing to heed their counsel to intervene, as well as an opportunity to reshape the Syria debate. The crux of this argument is that US President Barack Obama could largely solve the ISIS problem by first eliminating Assad and his sectarian, Alawite regime, after which liberated Sunnis would dispense with the Islamic State. Traditional realists and neo-isolationists, meanwhile, have found themselves in an uncomfortable marriage of convenience, with both camps seeing ISIS as a largely inevitable product of local circumstances—circumstances originally engendered by American incompetence and miscalculation in invading Iraq. This diagnosis, implicitly favoured by the White House, has produced the current cautious approach. Finally, some unreconstructed neoconservatives support the deployment of American troops to Iraq and Syria for the deterrent message it would send, and for the supposed credibility dividend the US would receive.
The politicisation of the debate is especially unfortunate given ISIS’s analytical complexity. Part of the problem is that the ISIS phenomenon is over-determined; one can plausibly argue the overriding importance of nearly any aspect of the organisation, which in turn invites further agenda-driven analysis. This has led to a contradictory set of assessments of ISIS’s current condition, each bearing correspondingly divergent policy prescriptions.
Yet, ISIS’s four principal manifestations—as a guerrilla army, Sunni revanchist political movement, millenarian Islamist cult and ruthless administrator of territory—do suggest a strategy against it: containment. Those features which, in the near to medium term, make ISIS impossible to destroy from without also appear to make its gradual decline from within nearly inevitable. This is not the contradiction it might appear to be; ISIS, in its current guise (after the June 2014 declaration of its ‘caliphate’), is still a young organisation, and time has only just begun to expose its structural fault lines. As was the case during the Cold War, containment is more than mere passivity: complementary international missions to degrade ISIS from the air, and train and equip the group’s local adversaries, are key to this aggressive form of containment. Containment of this kind is a policy geared to ISIS as it exists in reality, rather than how the group would like to appear in our collective imagination.
An Islamic Army
‘You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army.’ So claimed the masked ISIS killer dubbed ‘Jihadi John’, before beheading American journalist James Foley in August 2014. This reality had become apparent two months earlier in June, when ISIS swept across Iraq to the gates of Baghdad and Erbil. To some, the ISIS blitz appeared unstoppable, and otherwise reputable analysts went so far as to proclaim the impending conquest of Baghdad. Neither city fell, as ISIS’s momentum broke against the bulwark of motivated, massed Shia and Kurdish forces, and non-Sunni local populations. That such a scenario was taken seriously, however, speaks to the centrality of ISIS’s military prowess to its rise and apparent staying power. Battlefield ability is the element that sustains the group’s other activities—political, ideological and social—and is thus the foundation for a broader understanding of the group.
Three aspects of ISIS’s fighting machine—its number and quality of troops, sophisticated materiel and sheer aggressiveness—explain the group’s military progress to date. ISIS’s total manpower is a source of controversy, even within the US government. In February 2015 testimony to Congress, Director of National Intelligence General James Clapper estimated the group’s fighting force as numbering between 20,000 and 30,000. The Pentagon has reportedly settled on the figure of 17,000. Alternatively, senior Kurdish officials dismiss those numbers, and claim that ISIS’s strength is as high as 200,000 deployable troops. The truth inevitably lies somewhere in between. The low-end figures strain credibility, given ISIS’s ability to rule as many as 7-8 million people between Iraq and Syria (although this number, too, is disputed, but those who put forward higher numbers also have ample incentive—the quest for money, weapons and recruits—to exaggerate the threat. (Occasionally, inflated estimates are also the result of sloppy research, as in one analyst’s claim that ISIS’s ‘elite’ units alone total 15,000, which appears to rest upon faulty translation of Arabic sources. Whichever estimates are correct, there is little doubt that ISIS is the biggest player in the fragmented landscape of Syrian and Iraqi Sunni militant groups.
ISIS cadres are also well led and highly motivated. Although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sits atop the ISIS hierarchy, the group’s military strategy is dictated by a coterie of second-and third-tier leaders, many of whom were Ba’athists and officers in the military or intelligence services under Saddam Hussein. These professional military men have also been instrumental in establishing what is reported to be a sophisticated training system for new recruits. In addition, the US intelligence community estimates that ISIS now includes approximately 20,000 Foreign fighters have paid dividends foreign fighters, many of whom fill out ISIS’s combat units. The foreign fighters’ presence has paid both strategic and tactical dividends for the group, with many (such as Abu Omar al-Shishani, reportedly head of ISIS’s military council) arriving with prior combat experience, and others, mostly inexperienced recruits from the West, deployed as suicide bombers.
ISIS has also proven itself a skilled battlefield scavenger. Possessing little in the way of heavy weaponry before 2012, it has amassed an arsenal that Iraqi Shia and Kurdish forces are only now beginning to match, with extensive aid from US, European and Iranian stockpiles. The turning point came in summer 2014, when ISIS claimed several Iraqi divisions’ worth of weaponry, as well as spoils from the major Syrian military base at al-Tabqa. This included significant amounts of Russian-and American-made heavy weaponry, including tanks (largely Russian T-55s and T-72s, but also a handful of American Abrams M1A1s), Humvees, artillery, and guided anti-tank and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles (primarily SA-7s). Kurdish forces, in particular, have found themselves outgunned; according to one Kurdish fighter in October 2014: ‘They got so many weapons from the Iraqi military that they’re taking some to Syria now.’ ISIS’ssophisticated weaponry has, in turn, played a crucial role in shaping its offensive operations, which rely on mobility and the element of surprise. The group’s hybrid style of warfare, combining columns of fast, armed pickup trucks with a few heavier tanks, has allowed it to marshal forces quickly and thereby achieve local superiority, even when outnumbered overall.
ISIS has also benefited from its persistently aggressive combat style and uncompromising commitment to expansion. These attributes are a function of the organisation’s eschatological yearnings, but they have also had an important role in shaping the battlefield. By refusing to compromise with any of its competitors—including other jihadists who share ISIS’s basic ideology and worldview—ISIS has produced a significant bandwagon effect, in which many fence-sitters have chosen to join the group rather than be crushed by it, or simply marginalised. ISIS’s military competence has made this, at least temporarily, a viable approach. For instance, in July 2014 the Daoud Brigade, an Islamist-leaning faction originally aligned with the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), transferred its allegiance en masse to ISIS, as the latter was solidifying its control of northern Iraq and Syria. Similarly, an FSA unit led by Colonel Munir al-Matar in eastern Syria defected to ISIS, along with his ‘officials in charge of ammunition depots’, as its area was overrun in June 2014. ISIS has rejected all proposals of informal cooperation by those groups that seek to mollify it without actually joining; the group’s self-styled statehood renders such peer relationships ideologically problematic. ISIS has been quite pragmatic, however, in accepting band-wagoners who pledge bayah (‘allegiance’) back into the fold, even if they were formerly at odds. Indeed, ISIS let it be known that former members of the Sunni sahwa (‘awakening’) forces who rose up against its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), were welcome among its ranks. Many of those tribesmen, seeing no better alternative from the central government, are now fighting with ISIS.
In summer 2014, an ideologically and ethnically disparate coalition formed to block further ISIS advances. In Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias known as al-hashd ash-shaabi (‘popular mobilisation’) filled the void left by the crumbling Iraqi army with tens of thousands of volunteers, many of whom had prior combat experience fighting US forces or, in the Kurdish case, those of Saddam Hussein. More surprisingly, the ISIS threat prompted the United States and its allies to assemble a coalition of nearly 60 states (including four Sunni Arab powers) that have provided training, intelligence and close-air support to Kurdish forces and the mostly Shia Iraqi army. In Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)—an offshoot of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK—have fought a desperate battle for survival, while the Assad regime has been forced by ISIS’s advances to conduct significant, if limited, operations in response.
This haphazard coalition has blocked ISIS’s advance within Iraq and has retaken limited amounts of territory. As a result, some observers have been quick to proclaim the turning of the military tide. There is ample evidence to support this claim. Above all, the Kurdish victory at Kobane—a small Syrian town near the Turkish border—inflicted heavy losses (killing as many as 2,000 ISIS fighters, according to some reports). ISIScommitted fully to the battle and paid for it in blood, and in the loss of its aura of invincibility. Elsewhere in Syria, regime forces have succeeded in stymieing ISIS advances in Deir ez-Zor and around crucial gas fields in Homs province. Particularly noteworthy has been the Syrian regime’s pragmatic cooperation with Islamist rebels against ISIS’s April incursion into the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, which, to some degree, belies more tendentious claims about Assad’s alleged unwillingness to confront ISIS under any circumstances. In Iraq, Peshmerga and Shia militia forces (with some Iraqi-army participation) have made significant progress in recapturing demographically favourable areas. In fact, the Kurds have reconquered all of the land usually considered part of Kurdistan and then some, with the capture of Kirkuk holding a special symbolism in much the way Jerusalem did for Israelis in 1967. Shia forces have largely cleared the belt around Baghdad, and have made progress in Diyala province to the east. The Pentagon estimates that these combined defeats have cost ISIS 25% of the Iraqi territory it controlled at its peak. The methodology underpinning this number is not clear, but it reflects a growing consensus that ISIS is on its heels.
Yet ISIS’s apparent military reversals obscure a more mixed reality. The organisation has shown a consistent ability to maintain the battlefield initiative by opening new fronts even as it is pressed on others. For instance, in January 2015, ISIS forces launched a massive surprise offensive against Kirkuk, despite global media focus on the all-consuming maw of fighting in Kobane. The offensive was repulsed, but only after at least one senior Kurdish general was killed. A March 2015 ISIS offensive in Ramadi, launched at the same time as the government mobilisation against Tikrit, emphasised the same point: ISIS has retained a cancerous ability to spread, and can manoeuvre under fire. This phenomenon is even evident in Syria, where the battlefield is more fluid. Anarchic conditions in Syria give ISIS the strategic depth that al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have had in the tribal regions of Pakistan. The weakness of the various Syrian rebel factions in comparison to Shia and Kurdish forces in Iraq makes Syria—particularly areas of Homs province and the country’s eastern desert—‘low-hanging fruit’. In particular, ISIS’s takeover of the Yarmouk camp illustrated the relative ease with which it can operate, mainly through local allies, in even those areas of Syria distant from its eastern strongholds.
ISIS has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to fight opponents to a stalemate, even when outnumbered. This quality was first on display in the struggle for the principal Iraqi oil refinery at Baiji, where government forces repeatedly claimed victory only to suffer reversals shortly thereafter. ISIS toughness at Baiji foreshadowed its resistance to the March 2015 operation to clear Tikrit—a Sunni-majority town that bears particular sectarian significance as Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and burial site—where mostly Shia forces became bogged down despite their certitude that victory in Tikrit would pave the way to Mosul. (Despite having initially been kept unaware of the operation by Iraqi officials, the US military quickly came around, with one officer quoted as saying, ‘We’re really looking at this as a spring training run for Mosul.’) With little apparent preparation, Iraqi leaders massed approximately 30,000 troops to launch the first Shia assault on the Sunni heartland. (Most fighting heretofore had taken place in Shiamajority or mixed areas.) Of this force, more than 20,000 were militiamen operating under a loose command structure eventually led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Suleimani; only about 3,000 troops belonged to the Iraqi army. Facing them were several hundred ISIS fighters. Quick advances almost immediately gave way to stalemate, notwithstanding Iraqi government attempts to portray the flagging effort as a tactical pause. ISIS had booby-trapped the city centre with thousands of improvised explosive devices, and held off Shia advances with snipers and suicide bombers. According to some reports, more than 1,000 Shia troops, or about 5% of the total militia force, were killed in the first three weeks of fighting.
Although the Tikrit operation limped to a successful conclusion (at least in operational terms) in early April, the ‘dry run’ for the invasion of Mosul has, if anything, split Shia ranks and caused some fighters to question the wisdom of pushing beyond the Shia heartland. The clearest manifestation of this split was the internal ISIS is militarily-containable controversy over whether to request air support from the US-led coalition, which had spurned the offensive as an Iranian-inspired sectarian power play. After Abdulwahab al-Saadi, the top Iraqi general in Tikrit, acknowledged the need for coalition air support, Hadi al-Ameri, commander of the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, rebuked him as one of the ‘weaklings in the army [who] say we need the Americans’. Instead, Ameri said, ‘Qassem Suleimani is here whenever we need him.’ ISIS had shown this assertion to be hollow, however, and Iraqi-requested US airstrikes began on 25 March. These, in turn, led three of the main militia factions—approximately one-third of the total anti-ISISfighting force in Tikrit—to briefly depart the battlefield. Although airstrikes provided an opportunity to showcase the potentially decisive effects of American airpower, the need for them also revealed the incapacities of Iraqi forces and Shia militias.
Given the contradictory indicators of ISIS’s current military state, the most likely outcome in the near to medium term is a rough stalemate that, as one diplomat put it, ‘is like World War One along that 1,000km-long border’. Each side’s difficulty in operating outside its sectarian base is likely to deepen this reality. This is problematic because the longer ISIS holds territory, the more plausible its caliphate and accompanying ideological pretensions become. Nevertheless, it is clear that ISIS is militarily containable within the confines of Sunni Iraq and Syria (leaving aside, for the moment, the possibility of ISIS off-shoots appearing overseas).
This leaves the question of ISIS’s long-term military trajectory. The three main sources of its military dominance outlined above suggest a tentative answer: the very drivers of ISIS’s initial battlefield success bear within them the seeds of the group’s gradual decline.
The conventional wisdom that manpower is an inadequate gauge of ISIS’s long-term durability is correct, but the group’s reliance on a zealous vanguard of troops and an even smaller coterie of competent commanders does provide an opening to gradually erode the group’s military capacity. As of March 2015, the US military estimated that coalition bombing raids alone had killed approximately 8,500 ISIS fighters, while Iraqi analyst Hisham al-Hashimi claimed that 17 of the group’s top 43 battlefield commanders were dead. As some analysts have observed, these numbers are likely overstated. If true, they would imply that 20-30% of the ISIS fighting force had been killed in airstrikes alone, which, given ISIS’s continued battlefield performance, seems unlikely. What is more, ISIS continues to replace its cadres of foreign fighters at approximately 1,000 per month, a rate sufficient to maintain a sizeable force. Nonetheless, green fighters and commanders—particularly inexperienced zealots from Western nations—are unlikely to be as potent a battlefield force as those veterans now dying in droves. Moreover, the turnover incurred by such losses is likely, over time, to expose the underlying fractiousness of ISIS’s coalition. Above all, the short-term benefits of having assimilated an ideologically and politically diverse assortment of bandwagoners may produce unexpected turmoil, as less committed members are asked to make increasingly large sacrifices for the caliphate. Already, reports are emerging of small-scale armed clashes between local fighters and foreign jihadists over issues such as pay disparities, living conditions and the perception that locals are disproportionately forced to serve in the bloodiest battles. There is already evidence that some of those who joined ISIS for monetary reasons or out of an instinct for self-preservation are fleeing the ‘caliphate’, rather than be sent to the front. The penalty for desertion is beheading. ISIS has even begun employing child soldiers to meet its ever-increasing personnel needs. Such trends do not bode well for the ISIS military machine’s longevity.
ISIS’s edge in battlefield hardware is also likely to diminish with time. In part, this is because the group’s Kurdish and Shia opponents have open supply lines, whereas ISISmust depend on existing stocks. Western nations and Iran have sent significant amounts of heavy weaponry to both the Kurds and the Shia militias, and this aid is likely to increase in parallel with planned offensives on ISIS territory. ISIS’s own stocks can probably sustain the current intensity of fighting for between another six months and two years, according to a UN Security Council report. This may seem like a long time, but the report makes clear that its estimate is based on the group’s small-arms supply. It is less optimistic regarding the durability of ISIS’s heavy weapons, observing that ‘the maintenance of complex and sophisticated weapons systems may prove too much of a challenge’. The logic is simple: spare parts for captured American armoured vehicles and artillery are unlikely to be forthcoming, as ISIS is increasingly hemmed in on all sides. Attrition of its armoured and light vehicles, combined with decreased ability to manoeuvre due to the threat of coalition airstrikes, will force ISIS to adopt a more defensive posture. Although the group has proven effective in defence, ISIS’s offensive capabilities are important to both its ability to punch above its weight on the battlefield and its ideological claim to keep ‘remaining and expanding’ (baqiyah wa tatamadad). Losing battlefield hard-ware and capacity for manoeuvre will inevitably erode ISIS’s all-important momentum.
Finally, the corollary to ISIS’s aggressive style is its remarkable ability to make a diverse and powerful array of enemies; it is no small feat to find oneself simultaneously in combat against al-Qaeda (in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria), Iran and the United States. Add to this the Iraqi government and its militia allies, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Syrian Kurdish YPG, various Salafist and nationalist Syrian rebel factions, and the Assad regime, and the military balance appears outlandishly weighted against ISIS. In purely military terms, this is undoubtedly the case. Yet, tempting as it may be, a purely military strategy will be counterproductive, given the sectarian dynamics in Syria and Iraq which ISIS so expertly exploits.
Politics by Other Means
ISIS’s military success to date would not have been possible without its parallel role as a political vehicle for Sunni grievance—mostly in Iraq, but also in Syria. This is not necessarily how it wishes to be seen—that would be far too pedestrian—but it is the reality. This is not to say the group is popular among Sunnis, but enough prefer its rule to that of the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government or the Assad regime in Syria to enable ISIS to repress those who do not. This reality underpins former US secretary of defense Robert Gates’s comments that defeating ISIS is both ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unattainable’. It is also why Iraqi Ba’athists—historically no friends (if occasional partners) of Salafi jihadists—populate the group’s upper military and political echelons, and why the Iraqi and Syrian tribes have mostly acceded to ISIS as long as it maintains their traditional grey-market prerogatives, such as cross-border smuggling. US policymakers must not delude themselves into thinking that ‘destroying’ ISIS will be a limited fight against a single organisation; rather, such an uncompromising approach will mean taking on a broad swathe of Sunni Iraq and Syria.
Since its early days under Jordanian jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ISIS has been ideally suited to capitalise on the poisonously sectarian environment in Iraq and Syria. Fear and the thirst for revenge are twin emotions that have rendered a group as unpalatable as ISIS seemingly necessary to Sunni Iraqis. As one put it, ‘Saddam Hussein did the same thing to the Shia that [the Shia are] now doing to the Sunni.’ The implication is clear: reconciliation will not be forthcoming since, at root, Iraq and Syria are witnessing the tearing down of one sectarian order to be replaced by another. The tectonic social forces at play defy easy political solutions. Sectarian divisions that were once latent have, under conditions of state collapse and with the nudging of elite ‘sectarian entrepreneurs’, been activated such that normal politics is subordinated to the demands of communal solidarity. This was not necessarily the case even during the peak of Iraq’s bloodletting in the mid-2000s. Then, when ISIS’s predecessors deployed the strategy of specifically targeting Shi’ites, they met pushback both from Iraqi Sunnis and from their nominal superiors in al-Qaeda. In one particularly revealing letter, then-deputy leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, reprimanded Zarqawi for his sectarian excesses. Regarding the latter’s insistence on stoking sectarian war, Zawahiri wrote,
Questions will circulate among the mujahidin and other [Sunni] influentials about the correctness of the clash with the Shi’a … Will the mujahidin be able to kill every Shi’a in Iraq? Has any Islamic nation in history attempted this? Why kill ordinary Shi’a when their ignorance excuses them?
Although Zawahiri’s advice went unheeded, his analysis proved correct, and the Islamic State of Iraq paid the price for its excesses in the form of a sharp popular backlash. Yet, the current sectarian environment in both Iraq and Syria is much more poisonous, with Sunni resentment peaking only after extreme Shia chauvinists sidelined Iraqi Sunnis, even as Syria descended into sectarian civil war next door.
Sectarian solidarity is also what binds together ISIS’s otherwise diverse coalition. As mentioned above, ISIS coerced many of its rivals into backing it, but the group’s status as the most capable Sunni political-military actor keeps the ungainly assortment of ex-Ba’athists, tribesmen, nationalist insurgents and frustrated youth in its orbit. As former Iraqi army general Moataz al-Hiti, now linked to an ISIS-affiliated grouping of Sunni tribes called the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, explained:
What happened is a compulsory convergence [with ISIS] between tribes and Sunni clerics who have faced al-Qaeda for years and fought wars with this group that presents itself today as ISIS. The reason behind this convergence is that the Baghdad government has failed for years to convince Sunnis in Iraq that it represents them and that it does not seek to humiliate and kill them.
Some Sunni tribal sources have claimed that hard-core ideologues represent only 10% of ISIS’s total fighting force. That number may be an underestimate, but it captures the reality that ISIS has broad support from many Sunni constituencies.
The most significant Sunni alignment has been that between ISIS and former Iraqi Ba’athists. Secular-leaning groups populated by ex-Ba’athists such as the Jaysh Rijal al Tariqa al Naqshbandiya (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Way), led by the recently dispatched former Saddam confidant Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, have signed on as junior partners. This convergence, over time, has been built into the ISIS hierarchy. As one ISIS defector put it: ‘All decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans. But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.’ There is even evidence of ideological cross-pollination, likely stemming from the time Ba’athists and jihadists spent together in US military prisons, and some ex-Ba’athists, such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s now-deceased deputy Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, have evidently embraced Salafi-jihadi beliefs. Nonetheless, Sunni resentment against the new Shia order and its discriminatory practices remains the key driver of ISIS’s support.
ISIS’s ability to play the sectarian card has served it well in the face of increasing military pressure. Sectarian polarisation complicates the political- military effort against ISIS in two ways. Firstly, it appears less and less likely that Shia and Kurdish forces mobilised to reconquer Sunni Iraq can be sufficiently motivated to make the sacrifices such an effort will require, particularly as casualties mount. These forces were marshalled on the basis of communal self-defence—and defending one’s home turf is psychologically and practically very different from occupying a seething population. There is little reason to think such forces will perform significantly better in offensive operations than did the largely Shia Iraqi army divisions that melted away rather than defend Mosul, and its Sunni population, against ISIS’s summer 2014 blitz. As one senior Kurdish commander put it:
In the Kurdish areas [that we retake], we will never ever let Arabs control them again … But when it comes to liberating [Sunni] Mosul, we will just support them because we do not want anyone to say that Kurds are fighting Arabs. The [Iraqi] government understands that Mosul is not our battle or Shiites’ battle.
Under these conditions, Sunni Iraqis are scarcely likely to view Shia and Kurdish fighters as saviours. Although the militias’ sectarian character is obviously an issue, reports of rampant abuse in battle or afterwards have not helped. As one Anbari tribal sheikh commented: ‘ISIS has been in control of Anbar for a year and the Shiite militia has not advanced even one kilometer … [But that remains] better than Iranian Qasem Soleimani and the savagery of the militia who displace people in the name of fighting ISIS.’ The fiercely sectarian nature of the Shia militias (and Iraqi army units that are militias in all but name) that will bear the brunt of the fighting nearly ensures that Sunnis will be terrified of their advance and seek to resist. Rafa al-Rifa’i, the Sunni mufti of Iraq and by no means a supporter of ISIS, reflected the prevailing view of the Shia offensive and his community’s will to resist:
It’s a sectarian movement, and they want to remove the Sunnis [from our areas], but they will never do it. I’m saying this so that those Sunni people who are cooperating with them will wake up … Because right now, they are helping [the militias] fight their own people.
The Shia militias’ own rhetoric tends to substantiate this dour outlook. When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a general mobilisation of Shia men to defend Baghdad against ISIS, he clearly intended to bolster the Iraqi armed forces. Sistani, the leader of the Najaf hawza (the Shia religious establishment), is, for religious, political and historical reasons, no proponent of Iranian domination in Iraq; he was likely not pleased—if perhaps unsurprised—when his call amounted to a recruiting drive for the most rabidly sectarian Iranian proxy militias such as the Badr Brigade, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizbullah. Since taking charge of the battle against ISIS, these forces have framed themselves as avenging angels eager to take blood for blood. Hadi al-Ameri, the top Badr commander, described the operation to retake Tikrit as ‘the battle of the revenge for Speicher’—a reference to ISIS’s June 2014 massacre of more than 1,000 Shia Iraqi Air Force cadets. Rank-and-file fighters are even more Manichaean in their self-conception: ‘[We] are what separates good from evil. Here you see the flag of Imam Hussein [the Prophet’s grandson and a key figure in Shi’ism] and there you see the black flags of ISIS.’ Nor do the militiamen disguise their ultimate purpose. Said one fighter: ‘When I withdraw my forces now, the Sunnis will come back and they will become an incubator for ISIS again. When I liberate an area from ISIS why do I have to give it back to them? Either I erase it or settle Shia in it.’ Tellingly, the forces of this so-called hashd sha’abi (‘popular mobilisation’) have, in some instances, declared allegiance to Iran and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as opposed to the Iraqi state. In one recent instance in Tikrit, militiamen emblazoned a wall next to an ISIS flag with graffiti in Persian, declaring that ‘Khomeini’s army defeated ISIS’.
Evidence, albeit contested, of battlefield abuses by Shia and Kurdish militiamen does not inspire hope. Militia operations to take back Iraq’s eastern Diyala province have been marred by reports of revenge killings and ethnic cleansing of Sunni civilians. A March 2015 Human Rights Watch report also documented a systematic campaign of arson by Shia militias in the Sunni environs of Amerli after ISIS’s expulsion. The nominally joint Iraqi Army- Shia militia operation to clear Tikrit has proven a particularly important test case, having been put forward as a model for how Mosul might be retaken. In reality, reports of widespread looting, arson and revenge killings by militiamen have quieted most optimists, despite ISIS’s clear battlefield defeat. Claims that the worst reprisals were carried out by the militias’ Sunni tribal allies must also be considered, but there is little doubt that these took place under the supervision of Shia commanders. In northern Iraq, even the Kurds—often held up in Western capitals as relative paragons—have launched their own campaign of territorial engineering and possible ethnic cleansing at the expense of Iraq’s Sunnis. In short, neither Ayatollah Sistani nor Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s repeated calls for moderation in dealing with Sunni civilians have been sufficient to prevent the seemingly inevitable results of the militias’ sectarian frenzy.
Of course, the proposal currently under consideration in the Iraqi parliament to build a national guard of reconstituted Sunni sahwa forces would—if it were possible to implement it—be an ideal solution. In seeking Sunni ownership of the fight against ISIS, it correctly diagnoses the key political-military problems that face a Shia-Kurdish offensive. It is unlikely, however, that a second sahwa will be forthcoming. Even setting aside ISIS’s comprehensive efforts to quash internal Sunni opposition, there is no evidence that either the removal of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, or ISIS’s own depredations, can compensate for Sunni Iraqis’ (and the tribes’ in particular) lack of faith in Baghdad and its forces. The poor results of Iraqi military efforts in Sunni-majority Anbar province, and the unexpectedly difficult slog in Tikrit, bear this out.
Some Anbari sheikhs have been supportive of the proposal, but the forces of sectarian mistrust appear likely to cripple it. On the one hand, the wound left by Maliki’s refusal to integrate Sunni sahawat (tribal ‘awakening’ militias) into the security forces after the US departure from Iraq in 2011 is still fresh in tribal leaders’ minds. What is more, the increasing power of Iran and its sectarian proxies casts further doubt on Abadi’s ability to deliver where Maliki refused. On the other, Shia leaders are deeply sceptical about whether such tribal levies would actually use new arms and training to fight ISIS, and fear that the result would instead be an armed push for greater Sunni autonomy from the central state. In effect, they fear creating a Sunni Peshmerga—but one that would be actively hostile to the Shi’ites. That such increased autonomy may be the only way to accommodate Sunnis, and eventually roll back ISIS, is not likely to make the Shia warlords any less likely to oppose it.
In light of this, indications that the long-term US strategy against ISIS is predicated on a replay of the 2006-07 Sunni awakening are cause for concern. In October 2014, General John Allen, who has been tasked with coordinating US action against ISIS, predicted that
there will come the time when ISIS cannot tolerate the tribal structure within ISIS territory, because that tribal structure is in direct opposition to the full exertion of ISIS influence over the population … ISIS will turn on the tribes as sure as the sun will come up tomorrow. The tribes recognize this in a very real way, and I think, within their own capabilities, we are already seeing tribes that are rising up against ISIS.
This expectation underestimates the differences between Iraq now and in the mid-2000s. Above all, the relationship between ISIS and the tribes is no longer a mere marriage of convenience, as it was during the American occupation; rather, Iraqi Sunnis appear to have made a strategic decision against cooperation with the central state. ISIS has also been much more subtle both in cultivating tribal leaders—there is now an ISIS ‘ministry’ devoted to tribal affairs—and in targeting those who would oppose it. Finally, without US financial and military incentives to cooperate with Baghdad, or US troops to mediate and enforce local bargains, most Sunni leaders will be twice shy about relying on either the US or the authorities in Baghdad.
These dynamics point to the most difficult conundrum of all: how to frame a political bargain and make it stick. It has become conventional wisdom that efforts toward a new Iraqi political compact are the sine qua non of progress against ISIS. Unfortunately, political success is significantly less likely than military gains, even considering the substantial hurdles the military campaign faces. To some degree, this is because Shia military success is likely to further inflame the mutual sectarian animosities and fears that fuel Iraqi political failure. More important, however, is the fact that many Sunnis preferred ISIS rule to accommodation with the chauvinist Shia state-building project that has defined post-2003 Iraq and has systematically excluded Sunnis from the sectarian mukhasasa (quotas) system that regulates the distribution of state resources. Proposing a simple political deal as the solution to ISIS is to mistake the group for a cause, rather than a symptom, of Iraqi political failure. It is not some monster from the void; Iraqi Sunnis’ initial framing of it as a ‘revolutionary’ force attests to its authenticity as the dark side of Sunni despair over their communal fall from grace.
Iraq and Syria’s current sectarian battles are driven by deep political, emotional and psychological forces, a fact often neglected in coverage of ISIS. A narrative has taken hold that Maliki was somehow uniquely illsuited to governing, and thus unrepresentative of Iraqi Shi’ites in general. This perception neglects just how popular Maliki was, even through his final days in office. It also fails to recognise that Maliki reflected a deep current within Iraqi Shia consciousness of righteous chauvinism: the sense that centuries of repression confer a licence to rule as one wishes. This sentiment is not true of all Shia politicians, but many other leaders of former Iraqi Shia exile parties, such as Da’wa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq—to say nothing of the more brazenly pro-Iran parties—would likely have behaved just as Maliki did once in office. This chauvinism is linked with deep insecurity about the staying power of Shia rule, as reflected in Shia leaders’ continued refusal to permit any kind of cohesive Sunni armed force, even one that would presumably take the fight to ISIS. Although the opinion is never expressed publicly, many Shia leaders’ actions suggest they would rather see a failed ‘Sunnistan’ ruled, in part, by a weakened ISIS than a revitalised Sunni community with the ability to realise its revanchist fantasies.
Many Sunni leaders have fed these fears by maintaining a view of their role and entitlements in the post-2003 political order that has been at least as counterproductive as that of the Shi’ites, and unquestionably more delusional. Despite constituting only Iraqi Sunnis have been terribly served one-sixth of Iraq’s total population, Iraqi Sunnis have not accommodated themselves to their diminished influence in politics. In fact, most do not even admit that they are in the minority at all, much less a relatively small one. Ali Hatem al-Suleimani, sheikh of the powerful Dulaimi tribe, reflected this myopic irredentism in an interview that implicitly endorsed ISIS as a revolutionary Sunni movement: ‘Iraqis are prepared to accept help from any party in order to defeat the gang that is ruling Iraq. We are Iraqis. We can change Maliki and his rule, and we will change the whole political process in Iraq.’ Such rejectionism is particularly potent because Iraqi Sunni identity—unlike those of out-groups such as the Kurds and Shi’ites—has historically lacked cohesion, beyond the simple fact of being in power. Dating back to the British mandate (and, in a different form, even under the Ottomans), Iraqi Sunni identity was the state, and vice versa. As Iraq scholar Douglas Ollivant has rightly noted: ‘For many Sunni, the core grievance with the Baghdad government is that they are not the ones running it.’ This sentiment began the minute Saddam Hussein was driven from power; one need only recall the Sunni community’s near-total boycott of Iraq’s 2005 parliamentary elections to illustrate the long-standing nature of Sunni post-2003 rejectionism. Maliki’s abuses fuelled this, but did not cause it. Instead, Iraqi Sunnis have been terribly served by a leadership that believed casting their lot with ISIS could plausibly be more beneficial than making the painful compromises required of them.
In Syria, ISIS has benefited from an inverse, but equally intractable, process of sectarian reshuffling. There, a Sunni majority is seeking power commensurate with its numbers against the opposition of a minoritarian Alawite regime. Forces of paranoia and fear similar to those of Iraqi Shi’ites characterise the ruling Alawites’ zero-sum approach to the prospect of power-sharing with the Sunnis. And, although often forgotten, Syrian Sunnis have not always been repressed; from the period of Ottoman rule to the first half of the twentieth century, they were the ruling elite (notwithstanding French attempts to pack the army with Alawite officers). Thus, one can see the current Syrian-Sunni struggle as a roughly analogous quest for lost power, even if, in this case, it has a demographic basis.
This dismal picture shows why enthusiasm about Abadi’s efforts at greater inclusivity is probably misplaced. He is up against forces—Sunni grievance and paranoid Shia chauvinism—that cannot be reversed simply through policy tinkering. The current scapegoating of Maliki’s admittedly inept governance neglects the broader reality that neither Iraqi Sunnis nor Shi’tes have yet accommodated themselves to the painful psychological and material compromises inherent in a meaningful political settlement. The same phenomenon also explains why efforts at political compromise in the Syrian civil war are even less hopeful; as long as Alawites and other Syrian minorities fear massacre at the hands of Sunni Islamists, it is highly unlikely they will make a strategic shift away from the battlefield. Historian Joshua Landis’s description of these processes as a continuation of the ‘Great Sorting Out’ of the Middle East—in which formerly intermixed ethnosectarian communities retreat to unitary enclaves, through a bloody process of combat and ethnic cleansing—captures the historical forces at play. Despite this dismal picture, many of the less ideological members of ISIS’s awkward coalition might in theory be peeled away if some of their grievances could be alleviated. One Kurdish commander recently sounded a hopeful note: ‘There are not a lot of real Islamic State fighters here. It’s an exaggeration. All Sunnis are now called “Islamic State” but they’re not.’ But the course of the campaign against ISIS appears to be deepening, rather than reducing, the sources of sectarian grievance and thus ISIS’s hold on its Sunni allies. The Shia militias are undeniably responsible for checking ISIS’s advance, but their victories also further institutionalise Iranian power in Iraq, even as their pattern of abuses discourages pragmatic Sunnis from reconciliation. The US and its partners thus find themselves facing a dilemma, wherein the military campaign is hopeless without the militias, but their advances appear to be equally damaging to political reconciliation.
The question of whether the US-led international coalition should continue its tacit support of the Shia militias has grown into an emotional policy battle, with some in Washington making the case that the militias are the greater long-term threat to Western interests, due to their Iranian backing and anti-American record. Some go so far as to morally equate them with ISIS, often using provocative descriptions of abuses to make their case. This, on the basis of the relative scale of atrocities and historical precedent, is overstated. Unlike ISIS and much of the Sunni community, the militias share a common interest with the West in preserving the Iraqi state—even if that state is fundamentally flawed.
Western policymakers must therefore decide where their priorities and interests lie. If the containment and degradation of ISIS takes precedence, there is simply no realistic alternative to tacit cooperation with the militias, however problematic this may be. Basic competency remains a distant goal for the Iraqi army. The alternative of pressuring the Iraqi government to oust the militias by withholding support is a non-starter. Apart from the breathing room this would provide to ISIS, it would disregard the genuine, broad-based support the militias enjoy in Iraqi Shia society. It would gainsay a history of US cooperation with these militias throughout the occupation of Iraq; US military commanders routinely cooperated with police and military units known to function as de facto arms of the militias. A similar logic applies to those who propose the toppling of Assad in Syria as the key step toward diminishing ISIS’s appeal. Ousting him from power would be unlikely to change the military and organisational fundamentals that make ISIS so powerful, and would instead give it an ever-more-chaotic space in which to expand.
Although ISIS may soon find itself militarily contained, there is little doubt that some kind of political compromise will be necessary to make the battlefield gains sustainable. The chances of this are poor in the near term, but there may yet be reason for hope in the long term—particularly on the Shia side. Critics frequently note that the Shia militias’ role guarantees them—and their Iranian sponsors—a powerful role in Iraqi politics for years to come. Yet, Shia militias and Iranian influence were both present at the birth of post-2003 Iraq. Observers tend to underestimate the long history of Iraqi Shia identity separate from that of Iran. There has been unprecedented convergence in the past decade, but that will not necessarily remain the case as political conditions stabilise with the passage of time and ethno-linguistic, cultural, political and even religious divisions between Iraqi Shi’ites and Iranians resurface. This may be of little comfort to policymakers in the short term, as it is not clear how to get past the current sectarian stalemate. But it should also reassure pragmatists that rhetoric about a ‘Shia crescent’ is overblown. Once all sides get tired of killing and dying, there may still be a chance for a local, Iraqi modus vivendi.
Masters of Judgement Day
ISIS grounds itself in a highly selective and especially violent reading of Islam’s Salafi-jihadi school. In this regard, to answer the question that has dominated the last year of public debate, it is certainly ‘Islamic’. This reading of Islamic doctrine and praxis has only ever appealed to a small minority of Muslims worldwide, and public-opinion polling demonstrating ISIS’s severely limited appeal suggests this is likely to remain the case. Fears of a mainstreaming of ISIS’s bloodthirsty creed are not grounded in reality.
There are other reasons, however, why ISIS’s ideology must be taken seriously. There is a temptation among analysts to view ISIS’s antediluvian worldview as merely one more manifestation of the group’s sophisticated propaganda and recruitment machine. After all, the thinking goes, how could anyone truly subscribe to such cartoonishly violent and retrograde beliefs? From this perspective, ideology must be a cynical cover for the group’s ultimately political objectives. It is, of course, impossible to know whether ISIS leaders believe their own rhetoric about the impending apocalypse. Regardless, ISIS’ public framing of itself as a harbinger of that apocalypse gives ideology an inherent role in shaping the group’s strategy; having raised eschatological expectations, there is enormous pressure on ISIS from its supporters to live up to the rhetoric.
ISIS is capable of making highly practical calculations; the group’s battlefield performance to date and the presence of old-guard Ba’athist practitioners of realpolitik in its upper echelons are sufficient proof of this. Its innovation, however, has been to use pragmatic tactics in the service of a wildly ideological—even apocalyptic—strategy. Indeed, ISIS’ apocalyptic inclinations—as well as its success in applying its ideology—are what gives the group its unique appeal to jihadists. Nonetheless, its ideological rigidity also stands to pose future problems, some of which have already begun to surface.
The opening sura of the Koran (surat al-fatiha) refers to Allah as ‘malik yom al-din’—the Master of Judgement Day. Despite this, Islam does not have an agreed-upon eschatological document, such as the Christian Book of Revelation. This has opened the way for ISIS’s leaders to become the masters of their own apocalyptic narrative—to read and interpret Islam’s vast alternative corpus of apocryphal prophesy to suit their agenda.
ISIS’s theology is exceptional even in the relatively marginal world of Salafi jihadism. More traditional jihadist ideologues look down on ISIS’s apocalyptic vision as emotional and irrational. (Salafist readings of Sunni Islam have a strong tradition of a ‘scientific’ approach to exegesis of religious texts.) The privileged backgrounds of Osama bin Laden and jihadists of his ilk produced surprisingly elitist conceptions of theology; al-Qaeda media outlets presented the apocalypse as inevitable, but certainly not impending. As scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu has noted, ‘Al-Qaeda, so far as one can judge from its internal correspondence, was for many years impervious to apocalyptic temptation.’
This has not stopped ISIS, in any of its iterations from 2004 to the present, from pursuing what amounts to an ideological insurgency within Salafi jihadism. Emblematic of ISIS’ emotive core (as compared to the relatively staid al-Qaeda) was its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s formulation of the apocalypse allowed him to inscribe his role as ‘sheikh of the slaughterers’ within the ‘framework … [of] conflict as an absolute life or death scenario’. His successors in the ISI were even more wedded to the possibilities offered by an apocalyptic worldview. In one notable 2007 episode of jihadi whistle-blowing, ISI’s chief jurist Abu Sulayman al-Utaybi wrote to al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan to complain about the ISI leadership’s overweening apocalypticism:
Among [ISI’s] errors is the incorrect understanding of the signs of the [Final] Hour. If the issue were limited to this, it would be easy to solve, but the problem spills into [our] jihadist work in the field. For instance, [their claim] that the Mahdi will appear in less than a year led [them] to claim that we would control the entire land of Mesopotamia [i.e. Iraq] within three months. So they issued an order [to the fighters] against withdrawing from the battlefield until the [apocalypse] comes to pass. This is dangerous for the brothers.
Although ISIS’s current leadership have avoided their predecessors’ precise predictions, the idea of the apocalypse has been no less powerful in animating their doctrines, recruitment and even battlefield strategy.
ISIS has found fertile ground for its apocalyptic doctrines in some portions of the Muslim world. This has, to some degree, insulated it against attacks by more traditional, al-Qaeda-aligned scholars such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini. For instance, a 2012 Pew poll found that 51% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa expected imminent arrival of the apocalypse. Even greater numbers in South Asia held similar views. What is more, Islamic eschatology abounds in what scholars have referred to as ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ signs of the apocalypse. ‘Lesser signs’ are sufficiently vague to permit non-scholars to connect personal experience to the apocalypse. In one rendering, the apocalypse will be preceded by a period of tribulation and communal strife (fitna). Some saw the Arab uprisings of 2011 and their subsequent descent into sectarian conflict as fulfilling this requirement. Other apocalyptic prophecies emphasise signs ranging from natural disasters to rising criminality, giving the predisposed ample material with which to plan their own Armageddon. The ‘greater’ signs have been even better suited to ISIS’s narrative; in particular, the centrality of bilad ash-sham (modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan and parts of Iraq) to the unfolding of the Islamic apocalypse gives particular symbolic meaning to ISIS’s presence there. According to one hadith (a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad): ‘Go for Sham, and if you can’t, go for Yemen … (though) God has guaranteed me Sham and its people.’ Another states: ‘There will be … strife in Sham that begins with children playing, after which nothing can be fixed.’
ISIS has also married apocalyptic prophecy to its two defining strategic priorities: declaring a caliphate and attacking its sectarian opponents, especially the Shi’ites. According to Islamic tradition, the refounding of the universal caliphate is a prerequisite for ushering in the end times. A hadith attributed to the Prophet is frequently cited in this vein:
Prophethood will be among you as long as God intends, and then God will take it away if He so wills … Then there will be a tyrannical monarchy. It will be among you as long as God intends, and then God will take it away if He so wills. Then there will be a caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.
This phrase—‘a caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method’—has become both a kind of unofficial ISIS motto and a source of prestige.
In turn, the revival of the prophesied caliphate allows ISIS to make gran-diose claims of power, and is used to justify its extreme violence. While ISIS views its caliphate as having existed since 2006, when it first declared an Islamic state, it is only with the conquering of significant territory that the group’s claims have become plausible. Since then, ISIS has declared itself the only legitimate government for Muslims worldwide and has demanded pledges of allegiance (bayah) from the global ummah (‘community of Muslims’). In a speech titled ‘hadtha wa’d Allah’ (‘This is the Promise of God’), ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani claimed that ‘it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the khalifa Ibrahim [that is, Baghdadi] and support him. The legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilafa’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas.’ The obvious implications are troubling not only to the governments of Muslim nations, but also to other jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda, who compete for the same pool of followers.
In addition, ISIS uses the prophetic mandate of the caliphate to justify its brutality; here, the ends justify the means. In particular, a 2004 tract called ‘Idarat al-Tawahush’ (‘The Management of Savagery’), by ideologue Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym), lays out the process by which jihadists should attempt to build the caliphate. Above all, extreme violence is needed to create ‘regions of savagery’—governance vacuums—in which to expand jihadist control. Although Naji did not focus on apocalyptic prophecy to the degree ISIS has, his formulation of creative destruction was certainly apocalyptic in nature:
Regrettably, the youth in our Umma … no longer understand the nature of wars. One who previously engaged in jihad knows that it is naught but violence, crudeness, terrorism, frightening [others], and massacring … [Moreover, he knows] that he cannot continue to fight and move from one stage to another unless [there is] a stage of massacring the enemy and making him homeless.
Most often, ISIS has channelled this savagery toward the Shi’ites. Attacking Shi’ites is an ideological end in itself. As noted above, ISIS’s anti-Shi’ism was pioneered by Zarqawi, who was reprimanded by Zawahiri for his overly enthusiastic commitment to the doctrine of takfir (‘excommunication’) and, more generally, his zeal for butchering Shi’ites. But Zarqawi viewed attacking the Shi’ites as both an inherent good and a key part of his strategy of rallying Iraqi Sunnis around the future caliphate, as he expressed in a February 2004 letter to Zawahiri:
I come back and again say that the only solution is for us to strike the religious, military, and other cadres among the Shi`a with blow after blow until they bend to the Sunnis. Someone may say that, in this matter, we are being hasty and rash and leading the [Islamic] nation into a battle for which it is not ready, [a battle] that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled. This is exactly what we want, since right and wrong no longer have any place in our current situation. The Shi`a have destroyed all those balances … Whether they like it or not, many Sunni areas will stand with the mujahidin.
ISIS has not deviated from this sectarian approach, but rather has more explicitly grounded it in apocalyptic theology. The sectarian outlook is rooted in hadiths that were composed in the early years of Islam, a time of fierce internecine fighting between the followers of the Prophet’s family (Shi’at Ali: the Shi’ites) and the Umayyad dynasty. These point to a period of intercommunal strife as a prerequisite for the apocalypse. (Of course, proper historical context is not ISIS’s priority, particularly when an emphasis on only the most sectarian hadiths furthers both its political goals and self-image as the executor of centuries of apocalyptic prophecy.)
From the beginning, ISIS’s ideology has excited the jihadist grassroots. Since 2006, many jihadist websites have included digital tickers recording the number of days passed since the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq. A typical formulation reads : ‘[a certain number of] days have passed since the announcement of the Islamic State and the [Muslim] community’s coming hope … and it will continue to persist by the will of God.’ The June 2014 declaration of the caliphate, however, brought ISIS a new wave of enthusiasm. As one Syria-based jihadist put it: ‘If you think all these mujahideen came from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken … They are all here as promised by the Prophet. This is the war he promised—it is the Grand Battle.’ What makes ISIS’s caliphate particularly appealing is that it makes prophecy a lived reality rather than a hypothetical goal, as it is for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda, as it existed under bin Laden, was an elitist vanguard movement operating from a position of implicit weakness, as the employment of classic terrorist tactics would suggest. ISIS, by contrast, tells its supporters: we are strong; we are winning; and we will wait for nothing and no one in fulfilling the prophecies of old.
Sunni-on-Sunni internecine conflict is not a part of ISIS’s apocalyptic narrative, but it has been arguably its most significant direct product. (Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis would likely be fighting Shi’ites for political power regardless of the ideological justification.) ISIS’s rise has caused the division of jihadists worldwide between old-guard al-Qaeda loyalists and the ISIS ‘New Man’. This dynamic is the product of more than a decade of history: al-Qaeda and ISIS have viewed each other with simmering hostility from the very beginning; the relationship of Zarqawi and his successors with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was only ever a marriage of convenience. Ideological differences regarding the doctrine of takfir, the declaration of an Islamic state and the targeting of the Western ‘Far Enemy’ (as opposed to regional regimes) were each a source of contention. More pointedly, Zarqawi and his followers never truly considered themselves a part of al-Qaeda and blatantly disregarded most of the orders sent from Pakistan. This pattern of ideological incompatibility and personal animus led the late Adam Gadahn, al-Qaeda central’s propaganda chief, to advise bin Laden in 2011 that:
it is necessary—sooner or later, and preferably sooner—to announce that [al-Qaeda] has cut its links with [the so-called Islamic State of Iraq], and that the relationship between the leadership of al-Qaeda [and ISI] has been functionally cut off for years, and that the decision to announce the State was taken without consultation with al-Qaeda leadership, and that their jurisprudential decisions have caused divisions among the muhajideen.
It was only in the lead-up to ISIS’s declaration of the caliphate, however, that this latent conflict burst into the open. As noted above, the fundamental claim of the caliphate is that it supersedes all existing Muslim political entities—both state and non-state. To al-Qaeda, this represents an unacceptable power grab. In fact, it poses a potentially existential threat, since ISIS argues that al-Qaeda must now swear allegiance to its former affiliate. ISIS has proven fundamentally unwilling to coexist with groups whose existence implicitly challenges its global authority, even those to which it owes at least part of its organisational and ideological heritage. The group demonstrated this in the February 2015 issue of Dabiq, its online magazine, which featured a long article titled ‘The Extinction of the Grayzone.’ Of particular irony—although it appears to have been lost on the author—is the article’s reverential citation of George W. Bush’s formulation, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’ That a sentence which marked the beginning of the United States’ war on al-Qaeda could now be appropriated for use against it by a jihadist rival indicates just how deep the divide between ISIS and al-Qaeda has become.
This broader split first became evident in Syria. In the early days of the Syrian uprising, Zawahiri urged Baghdadi to send a contingent of Syrian ISIS fighters across the border. These men, under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, formed the nucleus of what would become Jabhat al-Nusra (‘The Support Front’), and by the end of 2012 had become the most effective anti-Assad battlefield force. As their success grew, Baghdadi tired of the pretense that Jabhat al-Nusra was an independent organisation and, in April 2013, issued a statement that it was a part of ISIS. Despite its apparent merits, Jolani immediately objected to Baghdadi’s claim, and sent the matter to Zawahiri for arbitration. Zawahiri sent trusted emissaries such as Abu Khalid al-Suri to mediate, but ISIS rejected these efforts, underscoring its rejection by killing Suri in a suicide attack. This led to the outbreak of fierce factional fighting between Jabhat al-Nusra loyalists and newly arrived ISIS members, which remains ongoing and has killed thousands of men on each side. In February 2014, Zawahiri decided to take Gadahn’s long-standing advice and released a statement announcing the severance of all links between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Predictably, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani escalated in a sarcastic response titled ‘Sorry, Amir of al-Qaeda’, in which he repeated the claim of ISIS universal leadership, called Zawahiri ‘senile’, and demanded that he ‘pledge … allegiance to [the Islamic State]’.
The al-Qaeda-ISIS fissure over Syria has led to a global scramble to win the allegiances of jihadist affiliates. ISIS currently has the upper hand, and its ideology and material resources mutually reinforce its advantage. The ideological excitement over the declaration of the caliphate that has drawn thousands of individual volunteers to ISIS appears to be having a similar pull on local jihadist outfits across North Africa and the Middle East. That ISIS’s ideological momentum is also backed by a significant resource base—with the implicit possibility of material support—makes joining the group even more appealing to jihadists fighting on the margins of local conflicts.
In November 2014, ISIS accepted pledges of bayah from jihadist groups in Algeria, Libya and the Sinai Peninsula. In March 2015, Nigerian Boko Haram also joined the ISIS fold. These developments have suited ISIS’s strategic and ideological requirement to be continuously ‘remaining and expanding’. Indeed, the incorporation of new wilayat (‘states’) into the caliphate appears to have offered ISIS overseas options even as it faces increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria, a narrative bolstered by overheated commentary from many Western analysts.
Nevertheless, ISIS’s ultimate victory in this fight is by no means a foregone conclusion. The new wilayat add up to less than meets the eye. ISIS’s Algeria-based affiliate (Jund al-Khilafa) is, in reality, a small splinter group from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is already a relatively weak and disorganised al-Qaeda franchise.
The same applies to ISIS supporters in Yemen, who have failed to bring along the rest of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In Libya, where fears of ISIS’s expansion around the town of Derna have been particularly acute, ISIS faces fundamental limits to its expansion—in particular, the salience of local issues as opposed to ISIS’s global ideology. What is more, al-Qaeda’s decade-long Al-Qaeda may find opportunity in ISIS weakness experience with the franchise model (which is what ISIS’s wilayat functionally amount to) suggests that such affiliates may be more trouble than they are worth. It may therefore be that—to paraphrase Mark Twain—reports of al-Qaeda’s death have been greatly exaggerated. There are many ways al-Qaeda could fail to meet the ISIS challenge, but it may equally prove to have a more effective long-term strategy—one that finds opportunity in weakness by letting ISIS absorb their mutual enemies’ blows even as al-Qaeda rebuilds itself while the spotlight is elsewhere. Such an approach would make a virtue out of al-Qaeda’s more understated ideological and operational orientation, and position it to outlast and outcompete ISIS.
The irony of the al-Qaeda-ISIS split is that it has become deeply ideological when, in reality, the worldviews of the two organisations are cut from the same cloth. This is mostly due to ISIS’s uncompromising commitment to building the caliphate to the exclusion of productive relations with other jihadist groups. The global battle is likely to continue until one side or the other achieves a clear strategic victory. Even in local arenas such as Syria, where tactical cooperation between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS might be useful to both, there is, if anything, evidence of increased competition as the former regains its momentum of 2012. While ISIS’s competition with al-Qaeda may end up being a necessary step to ultimately replacing it, it is clear that the split is hurting the group in the near to medium term. Besides the obvious problem of losing thousands of fighters on the battlefield, the division also stands to tarnish the brand; some recruits have already returned home disillusioned at the reality of having to kill brother Sunnis. Ultimately, this strife is the product of ISIS’s pursuit of a caliphate, its greatest source of momentum and legitimacy. Yet, even this—in the longer term—may become problematic. If the caliphate can be rolled back and picked apart, the ideological edifice of apocalyptic anticipation that supports the ISIS project will be crushed.
The Dubious Paradise of Apocalypse Now
A caliphate is a kind of state, and—like all states—it must be governed. In this vein, there is a gathering narrative that the unsustainability of ISIS’s governance and funding will, more than any other factor, be the group’s demise. There is ample initial evidence to support this position, but one must also be careful not to overstate it. As analysts should have learned from the American battle against the Islamic State of Iraq in 2007-08, merely demonstrating a jihadist group’s inability to govern is insufficient to fully eradicate it. ISIS’s organisational and ideological core has proven its durability in the face of such setbacks several times before. As Brian Fishman has written:
Although ISIL has some characteristics of a state now, it still has the resilience of an ideologically motivated terrorist organization that will survive and perhaps even thrive in the face of setbacks. We must never again make the mistake that we made in 2008, which was to assume that we have destroyed a jihadist organization because we have pushed it out of former safe-havens and inhibited its ability to hold territory.
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that undermining ISIS’s caliphal aspirations will help diminish the group’s grandiose public image, as well as the resource and personnel base upon which its advances depend.
As the reality of governing becomes increasingly challenging, it is not clear that ISIS has fully considered the caliphate’s trajectory if its promised apocalypse fails to materialise in time. These challenges stem, in part, from the apparent contradiction of an ultra-violent millenarian cult attempting sustainable governance. Ruling with an eye toward the end of the world is not conducive toward establishing the kinds of daily services required to secure the long-term consent of the governed—particularly since most of its subjects do not share ISIS’s abbreviated eschatological time frame. A limited and dwindling resource base, incompetent administration, and international economic and military pressure have exacerbated ISIS’s predicament. These factors only stand to increase in severity as time passes. Yet, ISIS has staked everything on the success of the caliphate. It has fired the imaginations of jihadists across the globe and given the group access to an unprecedented level of resources. In an April 2014 message, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani went so far as to wish destruction and death upon the entire enterprise if the caliphate cannot be sustained: ‘O Allah, if this State is a State of the Khawarij then break its back, kill its leaders, forgo its banner and guide its soldiers to the truth.’ Despite the short-term benefits ISIS derives from the caliphate, there is reason to hope Adnani may come to rue his words in the near future.
The timing and nature of the caliphate’s return has long been a source of ideological contention among jihadists. ISIS’s declaration is the single greatest driver of fitna within jihadist circles. No less a jihadist than bin Laden opposed, on practical grounds, the dash for a caliphate. Ironically, the man who, in death, remains a militant lodestar objected during his life to previous caliphal aspirants, and would almost certainly have condemned ISIS’s current attempt. In this respect, bin Laden emerges as an unexpected champion of good governance, jihadi-style. For instance, in a letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), bin Laden mentioned the former’s offer to build an Islamic state in Yemen. Wuhayshi had written, ‘If, one day of the age, you want Sana’a, today is the day.’ Bin Laden’s response must have disappointed his subordinate. He began with an acknowledgement of the jihadist movement’s continuing inability to hold territory, writing: ‘The greater enemy [the US] … still possesses the criteria that enable it to topple any state which we undertake.’ What is more, bin Laden wrote, to preserve an Islamic state, the jihadists must provide ‘what suffices to meet the needs of the people’, without which a nascent jihadist state will ‘lose their sympathy’. In short, he wrote, ‘No one will tolerate seeing their children die of hunger … One must take this into consideration before taking countries or cities by force.’
The history of jihadist statelets is abortive and unhappy; bin Laden’s nominal subordinates would have been well served by heeding his guidance, but more often they did not. State-building attempts by the Islamic State of Iraq from 2006-08 and AQAP from 2011-12 bear this out. Each had its own trajectory to failure, but three key elements characterised both: alienation of the governed population, animosity from the local tribes and a powerful coalition of enemies, including the United States. In both Yemen and Iraq, generally moderate Sunni populations bristled at the implementation of harsh sharia-based punishments (hudud), despite AQAP’s efforts to learn from ISI’s failures. More importantly, both were ultimately routed by tribal militias fed up with the jihadists’ high-handed treatment of them and arrogation of their traditional prerogatives. In both cases, a combination of US troops (in direct combat in Iraq and support roles in Yemen) and air support backed up the offensives. In the end, both experiments in jihadist governance ended up creating ‘paper states’, with Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the operational leader of ISI, having to defend his organisation from his own wife’s stinging critique: ‘Where is the Islamic State of Iraq that you’re talking about? We’re living in the desert!’
Both organisations, in effect, ran into what political scientists have termed a ‘jihadist governance dilemma’, in which the administration of territory—despite the caliphate’s exalted status within jihadist ideology -becomes an Achilles’ heel. As one scholar put it: ‘Paradoxically, when these groups appear strongest—when they gain control of state-like assets -their greatest weaknesses are exposed.’ ISIS has made significant efforts to escape this dilemma by learning from its own bitter experiences of the—mid-2000s, as well those of other jihadist groups. Its answer, however, has been to base governance on the shaky foundation of outright repression, pseudo-legitimacy and the appearance of effectiveness.
Above all, ISIS’s rule rests on its sophisticated repressive mechanism, and the seemingly limitless application of violence. Massive retaliation against any internal opposition is the group’s trademark. ISIS eschews proportionality; rather, it escalates, conducting grisly massacres against restive tribes, and nightmarish public executions of individual transgressors. When members of the Shuayat tribe of eastern Syria revolted in August 2014, ISIS crushed the uprising and then killed hundreds more in retribution. In daily life, ISIS uses its reading of Islamic law to create the infrastructure for repression. In particular, the group exploits the Koranically defined system of hudud to target the accused with punishments including lashing, disfigurement, crucifixion, stoning and public beheading. Despite traditional restrictions on the implementation of hudud, ISIShas used the system as cover for targeting anyone who poses a challenge—real or imagined—to its rule. Like the rest of ISIS’s Bureaucracy disguises a brutal reality governing apparatus, the veneer of organisation and bureaucracy thinly disguises a brutal reality. As one reporter found in speaking with residents of Raqqa, Syria (ISIS’s de facto capital), ‘None of the Raqqans I talked to was sure whether ISIS’s sharia courts actually listen to evidence, but several noted that gruesome punishments are sometimes meted out on the spot to instill fear.’ ISIS also incorporates rudimentary versions of traditional police states’ more precise methods into its system of control. For instance, ISIS has established an extensive network of internal informants—including children—who report on the activities of their families and neighbours. Similarly, ISIS leaders prevent mid-level officials from gaining independent constituencies by rotating them from location to location. What is more, ISIS’s ability to monitor communications has grown so extensive that people have taken to deleting potentially incriminating pictures from their phones. That ISIS has developed such capabilities is not surprising, given the intimate involvement of Saddam-era intelligence operatives in the organisation’s founding and management.
Repression has worked particularly well for ISIS when balanced with a rough kind of legitimacy. The absence of a viable Sunni alternative, combined with the largely Shia Iraqi central government’s ongoing inability to take meaningful steps toward inclusivity, make revolt an unappealing prospect; ISIS is, relatively speaking, the most legitimate player in an Iraqi-Syrian political landscape otherwise populated by the likes of the Badr Brigade and the Assad regime. ISIS has also demonstrated a politician’s instinct for appeasing crucial constituencies, the tribes above all. For instance, ISIS has provided fuel subsidies to convince important tribes to accede to its control, and has used targeted cash bribes of tribal leaders to the same effect. In adopting a carrot-and-stick (not merely its previous sticks-and-more-sticks) approach to the tribes, ISIS demonstrates that it has learned one of the key lessons of previous Legitimacy stems from providing services failed jihadi experiments in governance.
ISIS’s relative legitimacy also stems from the provision of rudimentary goods and services, and, above all, security. The same governance void that paved the way for ISIS’ military conquests also led to conditions of insecurity across most of Sunni Syria and Iraq. The result was the rise, particularly in Syria, of banditry and small-time gangsterism as various militias competed for power. ISIS has replaced this with industrial-scale gangsterism, but, by largely monopolising the use of force, it has also temporarily eliminated the sources of internecine conflict responsible for many residents’ complaints. As one resident of Raqqa told the New York Times, ‘I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs.’ In Mosul, some residents expressed similar sentiments, although the target of their ire was the marauding of Iraqi security forces rather than militias. Said one: ‘The situation is quiet and normal now in Mosul. There is no pressure from ISIS. Yesterday there was a parade by them in the streets to show off the weapons that they took from the Iraqi army. Schools and hospitals have opened. People … feel safe.’ Although one must be sceptical given the enormous socialisation pressures on those under ISIS’scontrol, such state-ments appear in quantities sufficient to suggest that they are based in some reality, if only partial.
ISIS also found quick initial success in enriching itself and using some of those funds to provide rudimentary public services. Projecting the image of a functioning, even prosperous, state is key to its foreign-recruitment efforts; in the absence of a true paradise, ISIS’s caliphate is the closest its followers will find in the present. For instance, in one photo disseminated on Twitter, a group of women in black abayas and niqabs pose casually on a white BMW under the heading ‘chillin’ in the khilafa, lovin’ life’. That they are also brandishing AK-47s is in keeping with ISIS’s media strategy of juxtaposing oddly domestic scenes with brutal violence. All of this is part of the effort to portray hijra (migration) to ISIS’s caliphate as a ‘five-star jihad’.
Wealth helps. In the autumn of 2014, ISIS’s total daily revenue stream was estimated to be between $3 and 5 million, of which up to $3m came from the production and smuggling of oil products. Some (likely inflated) estimates even accepted the group’s claim of having a $2 billion budget. What has made ISIS’s revenue streams particularly vexing for its adversaries is that they are largely internal. Oil, until the coalition bombing of the group’s Syrian oilfields and production facilities, was the largest, but it was supplemented by a sophisticated apparatus for exploiting every potential domestic source of revenue. In what amount to mafia-style shakedowns, ISIS ‘taxes’ individuals, shopkeepers and companies in order for them to stay in the caliphate’s good graces. ISIS has also received significant windfalls from more obviously criminal enterprises such as robbing banks, kidnapping for ransom, seizing the property of religious minorities and looting antiquities. Donations from abroad (the Gulf, in particular) have never been as consequential for the group as many media reports have portrayed.
These funds have supported the construction of a governmental apparatus that, at least on paper, is worthy of the best management consultants. According to one Syrian defector from ISIS’s intelligence services, the group’s leadership is carefully regimented and disciplined, with military and civilian personnel overseeing specific aspects of each province. In a particularly clever move, ISIS has left government technicians in their jobs at power plants, oil facilities and other critical infrastructure sites, even as the Iraqi and Syrian governments have continued to pay their salaries.
The group has even promised (to much fanfare in the Western media) the issuance of a new currency for the caliphate, although this has yet to materialise.
Given the ample evidence of ISIS’s success to date, one could contend that it has escaped the governance troubles that plagued its predecessors. This, however, is unlikely to prove the case in the longer term. At root, ISIS’s problem is that, despite the group’s pretensions, it has not significantly evolved from its mid-2000s iteration when it comes to governance or administrative competence. Of course, it is militarily more powerful and much wealthier, but its violent, extractive and alienating governing strategy remains fundamentally unchanged. To some degree, this continuity is what a reading of the political-science literature on insurgent governance would have predicted. ISIS (and before it, ISI) falls into the category of a relatively resource-wealthy insurgency, which has allowed it to be less discriminating in its choice of governing tactics. In particular, it has given the group leeway to use ultra-violent methods to enforce its writ even as its wealth has attracted some number of opportunists more interested in exploiting the population than in governing. (The limited number of stories that have emerged about corrupt officials suggest that the problem is more extensive than ISIS’s scrupulous self-image would admit.) In addition, ISIS increasingly faces the reality of an inherently limited and ever-shrinking resource base. Coalition airstrikes have been particularly successful at interrupting ISIS’s oil operations. Comprehensive bombing of the group’s refineries has forced it to sell at even further reduced prices (reportedly $20 per barrel), which may have cut its overall oil revenue by as much as 90% from its peak last year. Its other primary sources of revenue are even more problematic since they are fundamentally non-renewable. The supply of lucrative Western hostages has been exhausted, and the sale of archaeological artefacts faces the same inherent limits. Those realities will force ISIS to rely increasingly on taxation and the protection rackets it has operated in Mosul and its environs since 2006. While this may be sufficient to sustain military operations in the near term, ISIS will soon have to grapple with the fact that most of what it controls is resource-poor desert that is blockaded on all sides by hostile military forces (although a black market—particularly for oil—certainly connects ISIS, Turkey and the Syrian government). At a certain point, there will simply be very little left to extract. In implicit recognition of this, ISIS is already making efforts to prevent residents from fleeing with their cash, by placing bank withdrawals under officials’ direct supervision, with strict limits and additional taxes. It is unlikely to be sufficient.
Funding shortages have already begun to hit the caliphate, even if the direct effects are not yet present on the battlefield (which, for obvious reasons, will be a lagging indicator of ISIS’s fiscal health). Essential services—water, electricity, healthcare and fuel—are in short supply, and their absence hurts the group with otherwise amenable residents. ‘Compared to past rulers, ISIS is a lot easier to deal with. Just don’t piss them off and they leave you alone,’ said Mohammed, a trader from Mosul, according to the Financial Times. ‘If they could only maintain services — then people would support them until the last second.’ Yet this understates the direness of the situation. According to one report, there is hardly any potable water in Mosul due to the lack of chlorine, while Raqqa The call appears to have failed receives no more than three or fours hours of electricity daily. As one Mosul resident reportedly said: ‘Life in the city is nearly dead, and it is as though we are living in a giant prison.’ In July 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for the immigration of skilled workers, in particular ‘judges and those who have military and managerial and service skills, and doctors and engineers in all fields.’164 The call appears largely to have failed; it is difficult to make equally successful recruiting pitches to white-collar professionals and the global population of sociopathic murderers, and, given a choice, ISIS has demonstrated its preference for the latter. Yet, the failure to provide basic services fundamentally breaches the implicit contract between the state and the governed from which legitimacy derives; granted, most of ISIS’s subjects have been living in conditions of war for years, but that will not insulate the group from a long-term backlash. It is as bin Laden said; in the long term, people are unlikely to condone seeing their children starve.
Faced with this, ISIS will likely be forced to resort to increasingly repressive measures to maintain control. These may be successful in the short term, but will pose challenges in the future. Although there have been isolated incidents of localised resistance against ISIS, no organised uprising has occurred. The real threat may come when money and patronage can no longer lubricate ISIS’s military coalition—when, that is, ISIS is forced to start making choices about who gets what. Already, there is evidence of tension between local ISIS fighters and the foreigners, the latter of whom receive preferential treatment and higher salaries. Isolated incidents of skirmishes between the factions and gathering local resentment of jihadi-tourists who come to enjoy life in the caliphate without fighting for it may be harbingers of the latent tensions waiting to be exposed as the caliphate’s resources dwindle. In particular, Iraq and Syria’s notoriously pragmatic tribes may stop supporting ISIS if they feel there is more economic possibility in breaking away. This is not to claim that such actions would constitute a renewed Sunni awakening; rather, it would represent the fracturing of ISIS’s coalition. At this point, the legitimacy ISIS derives from its role as a Sunni avenger and bulwark against the Shi’ites will be put to the test.
The level of sheer resources commanded by ISIS is an order of magnitude greater than that of any previous jihadist state-building experiment, but its governance challenges—limited and diminishing sources of revenue, a severe brain drain, powerful enemies imposing an economic blockade, and a violent and apocalyptic ideology almost certain to alienate local populations—are very much the same. The violence, aggression and criminality that have made the caliphate powerful in the past year will be less and less effective as time passes. The caliphate is rotten at its core and will eventually collapse. A sensible counter-ISIS policy will recognise this and leave it to rot, focusing in the short run on weakening it militarily and restricting it geographically.
ISIS can be confined and degraded. Understanding its four manifestations—as an army, sect, cult and state—leads to the strategy of containment, now the United States’ default path. ISIS can be contained because, as we have seen, it is vulnerable to attack from the air and on the ground, faces committed adversaries and embodies a range of self-destructive behaviours.
Aggressive containment of ISIS is also the only near-term option available. The outright defeat of ISIS is not in near-to medium-term reach. The forces arrayed against ISIS are formidable, but many of its enemies—including the US, Gulf Arab states, Iran, Iran-backed Iraqi militias and the Assad regime in Syria—cannot cooperate fully and explicitly, and so are not in a position to cooperate effectively. ISIS exploits religious, ideological and sectarian issues that the US and its Western allies are not able to resolve. We can continue to press the Iraqi state to be more inclusive, but we cannot overcome the fundamental fears and grievances of Iraq’s Sunni minority—or, for that matter, the fears of Syrian minorities at the prospect of majority rule. Systemic root causes to this conflict are also beyond Western capacity to address: the US will have its hands full coping with California’s drought, for example, before it gets to Syria’s. And the alienation of some European Muslims that has aided the ISIS recruitment drive will be solved, even with the best will on both sides, only in the very long term, if at all.
And yet—while ISIS’s many enemies are unlikely to cooperate directly, they share enough common interest to keep it on the defensive. ISIS in Syria is significantly vulnerable to relatively inexpensive US unilateral military pressure. Its oil revenues are already being undercut by attacks against infrastructure. Its ability to mass forces is vulnerable to airstrikes and, if Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen are any guide, the ISIS leadership will come under drone attack as the alluvial process of intelligence collection evolves over the next one or two years. Although the anti-ISIS coalition is certain to make mistakes, and its shortcomings will become evident, US airpower and special-forces raids should be able to keep ISIS in Syria off balance and reduce its utility as safe haven for its Iraqi counterparts.
In Iraq, sights can be set somewhat higher. There should be ground forces willing and able to attack ISIS even as US airpower interdicts ISIS attempts to manoeuvre and disperses its units where they coalesce. It has already been pushed back significantly. Over time, the religious, ideological and governance pretensions of ISIS will likely wear thin, while the Iraqi regular army can, eventually, be trained and equipped, and even indoctrinated with an inclusive, multi-sectarian national ethos. This will take a long time, a great deal of money and sustained focus, three conditions that might prove unsustainable. In any case, it will be some time before it is capable of excising ISIS from Sunni-majority provinces without sowing the seeds of resurgent revolt. Meanwhile, even if the flow of European recruits has a relatively marginal effect on overall ISIS strength in the Middle East, it will loom large in European security assessments. The flow will have to be combated on the supply side: through intelligence, police work, border control and whatever deterrent effect is provided by the casualty rate among volunteers in Syria and Iraq.
Containment will not soon liberate those condemned to ISIS’s savagery. But it is an affordable and plausible approach to preserving an Iraqi state while maintaining the security of Syria’s other neighbours, especially Jordan and Turkey (despite itself), as well as of Europe and the United States.