North Africa, West Asia

Outside the box: is the Islamic State close to victory?

Many facts belie the myth that Islamic State is on its back heel, and its longevity, proximity to Damascus, as well as the weakness of its enemies mean that it may wreak yet more havoc.

Fernando Betancor
10 September 2015

Nils Henrik/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The United States looks back on over a year of combat operations against the Islamic State. The cancer of ISIL, left festering in Syria, metastasised with hideous speed throughout the Sunni Corridor in Al Anbar province and sped on technicals (pick-up trucks mounting heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons or recoilless rifles) to take the ancient Arab city of Mosul, even as the Iraqi units assigned to defend it melted away, deserting en masse. In their wake, mass executions, beheadings, rape and despoilment.

Shocked out of ambivalence with the unexpected fall of Iraq’s second city, President Obama ordered Operation Inherent Resolve, a coalition of fifteen nations dedicated to supporting the Iraqi people and military and combating ISIL through the provision of equipment, training and air support to the Iraqi Army. Operations began in Iraq on 15 June 2014 and in Syria on 22 September.

The Islamic State is also celebrating anniversaries. On 26 June they celebrated the one-year anniversary of the new Caliphate, declared by their leader Al Baghdadi. They celebrated in style, with bombings and suicide attacks. More importantly, however, in October they will celebrate ten years of existence as an organisation. That difference in perception matters: an organisation that has lasted one year might lack legitimacy; but one that has been around for a decade shows staying power. Longevity has a value all its own, one that Islamic State propaganda has been adept at exploiting.

Initial CIA estimates put ISIL strength at between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters. This was later revised upwards to 50,000 fighters under the black standards. Russian estimates place enemy strength at 70,000 while the Kurds—who are perhaps best placed to know—report up to 200,000 effectives. Though mostly infantry, they were well-armed with captured weapons, are able to field tanks and artillery, and capable of purchasing more from the proceeds of their illegal oil sales through black marketers in Turkey as well as regular taxation of their more than eleven million subjects.

They have suffered reverses: Tikrit was lost to them; they were cleared out of pockets in central Iraq between Baghdad and Samarra; and they fell back before the advance of the Kurdish Peshmerga near Kobane and Sinjar Mountain. And yet despite 444 days of bombardment and hard fighting against Iraqi and Syrian opponents, the Islamic State is still capable of launching counterattacks on multiple fronts.

Reasons for resilience

The Islamic State benefits from a dispersed model. Local leaders run their territories, or vilayets, with a great deal of independence. Taxes are collected, services provided, forces are mustered, attacks are planned within the vilayet. This dispersion makes it more difficult to paralyse the group with strikes targeted at a central high command; loss of “senior ISIL leaders” to airstrikes degrades efficiency but doesn’t impede the operations conducted by the regional commanders. This also explains the pattern of activity across the wide territory controlled by ISIL; while the vilayet in Al Anbar might be heavily engaged by Iraqi and Coalition forces in Ramadi, the vilayets in Syria are capable of launching offensive operations.

The recuperative capability of the self-declared caliphate has been underestimated. The Pentagon estimated in May 2015 that over 12,000 militants and 10,000 fighting positions had been destroyed by airstrikes alone, not including combat against Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian opponents. The “50,000 combatants” have suffered up to fourty percent casualties, a situation sufficiently grave to have rendered most armies combat ineffective. The fact that they retain significant offensive capabilities indicates either that the reports are overstated, they are able to replace combat losses effectively more than believed, or both.

This points to intelligence failures on the part of western governments. It seems unlikely that spy agencies have very many human intelligence sources available within the Islamic State; while other sources of intelligence have known shortcomings. This may lead to potentially dangerous conclusions: that the Islamic State is stretched thin, suffering from high attrition and desertion, facing internal rebellion, and on its back heel. All of these comfortable beliefs can be disputed with other evidence:

 The Islamic State is stretched thin: ISIL controls a territory larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined, and it is surrounded by enemies of its own making. It is logical that it cannot be strong everywhere; but while on the defensive in Al Anbar and Mosul, the Islamic State is still capable of launching offensives in various parts of Syria.

They suffer from high attrition and desertion: Whatever the true rate of attrition of ISIL forces, the replacement rate appears to be as high. There are some indications that manpower is an issue for the insurgent group, such as the recruitment and use of child warriors. On the other hand, this may be part of an early indoctrination program rather than an indication that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel. Most states will wait until there is no other choice before sending their youths into the maw of war for they are “the seed corn of the nation”: but the soldiers of the so-called Caliphate have proven adept at defying conventional wisdom and their conceptions of what is just and proper are very different from our own.

They face internal rebellion: There is evidence that Sunni tribesmen have taken up arms to resist the impositions of the Islamic State in the Euphrates River valley near Deir es Zour. That may be disgruntlement and even some minor insurgency; but it would be impossible to control a hostile population of eleven million with 50,000 soldiers while at the same time fighting on multiple fronts. Either ISIL has a much larger force than we believe—one sufficient to detail units to garrison hostile cities and repress insurgencies—or else the insurgencies themselves are extremely minor. It is my belief that ISIL enjoys a much higher degree of support than we would like to believe.

ISIL is on its back heel: That may be true in certain locations, but it does not appear to be a fair assessment overall. In fact, ISIL may be closer to victory than ever.

The evolution of a Sunni caliphate

Whatever the estimates of strength, it is nevertheless clear that ISIL does not have the capability to win a military victory over its enemies. They will not, by force of arms alone, conquer the Levant. Wars are not won only by firepower; as Sun Tzu lays out in his Art of War, it is better to defeat the enemy general than to defeat the enemy army and best of all is to defeat the enemy king. ISIL can win by undermining its enemies’ morale, by dissipating their will to continue the struggle, by being the last man standing. And its extremist theology might make it the best-prepared combatant in this sense.

The Caliphate could potentially draw from a recruiting pool that includes every Sunni Muslim in the world. 

The Islamic State is surrounded by enemies, true enough. Not even Hitler alienated every government in Europe; he had his Quislings here and there. Al Baghdadi has accomplished that difficult feat of being hated by every government around him; whether he is also hated by their populations is another matter. But while the Islamic State is weak and surrounded, his enemies are even weaker, or else severely constrained:

 His principle opponents, the governments of Iraq and Syria are highly unstable or already in civil war. Iraq is essentially the Shia south and the Kurdish north, with a few loyal Sunnis in the centre. They remain divided and highly suspicious of one another even as the Iraqi government finds itself forced to rely on the Shia Hashed and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to bolster the regular army. This only serves to further alienate its Sunni population, who see the Islamic State as potentially the lesser of two evils. Syria is, of course, in even worse shape after three years of civil war, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced.

 Lebanon and Jordan are too weak to intervene militarily; they struggle even to deal with the millions of refugees already in their territory. Lebanon is, furthermore, as internally divided and sectarian as Syria.

 Iran is a mortal enemy of the Islamic State and has significant ground forces to use against the black-clad militants. The Islamic Republic is constrained, however: any large-scale, open movement of troops into Iraq is likely to provoke a tremendous backlash from the rest of the Middle East, who will view it as a Shia Persian invasion of Sunni Arab lands. They will—rightly—wonder if Iran has any intention of leaving after defeating ISIL.

 Turkey is less of a mortal enemy and has the largest and most professional military next to that of Israel. The Turks too face a similar constraint: Syria and Iraq used to be part of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were not gentle with the Arabs during the latter’s uprising in the First World War. There are bitter memories still of that fighting. Furthermore, the Turkish Army fears the Kurds more than the Islamic State, which is why the Turkish contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve has been to bomb our Syrian Kurdish allies.

 Israel is the preeminent military power in the region, but it goes without saying that the IDF is not going to get involved beyond a few airstrikes in the Syrian Golan. Having the Jewish State enter the fray against the Caliphate would be a God-sent propaganda victory of the greatest magnitude;

 Saudi Arabia is the only other significant Sunni Arab military power. Their money is what has kept the insurgency against Al Assad alive all this time. However, the Saudi army has no experience in power projection, notwithstanding their incursion into Yemen, which is right next door. Furthermore, precisely because there are Shia in Yemen, in Bahrain and in their own country, the paranoid House of Saud is unlikely to send units internationally when they might be needed domestically.

The weakness of their enemies is one of the greatest assets the Islamic State enjoys.

Rather than defeating them, a better outcome for Al Baghdadi’s followers would be to convert their enemies, adding the strength of their opponents to their own. Again, ISIL is uniquely situated to achieve this goal. Their opponents are narrowly defined as Kurds, Iraqis, Shia, Alawites, etc. and this limits the amount of identification there can be between them. But the Islamic State has declared itself the Caliphate, and under that banner they are perfectly capable of absorbing groups from many nations. The Kurdish Peshmerga cannot go out and attract people to become Kurds, nor can the Saudis convince people to fight for them through the force of Saudi nationalism; but the Caliphate could potentially draw from a recruiting pool that includes every Sunni Muslim in the world. That is a big pool.


Khaled Alsabbah/Demotix. All rights reserved.

In practical terms, ISIL’s maximum borders and manpower pool are the Arab states and North Africa, but that is big enough as a nightmare scenario. The Islamic Caliphate, as ISIL interprets it, cannot include Shia Persia (except through conquest) and Turkey remains secular enough and Turkish enough to resist incorporation: thanks to Ataturk, not to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk also did us the favour of abolishing the last Caliphate on 3 March 1924, by vote of the National Assembly of the new Turkish Republic to depose Ottoman Crown Prince Abdul Mejid II. (In fact, Abdul Mejid II might not even count as a true Caliph, as the Turkish National Assembly was not an Islamic assembly and therefore had no right to grant the title Caliph to anyone. That would make Mehmet VI the last Caliph.)

The Islamic State has three means to re-establish the legitimacy of the Caliphate, the supreme political and religious organisation of Islam to which all Muslims owe fealty:

1. By proclamation of the existing Caliph (which has historically led to the establishment of family dynasties in the role);

2. By proclamation of a sufficiently large number of “decision makers,” i.e. the recognised religious and community leaders of the Islamic world. This is how the earliest Caliphs were elected, the direct successors of Mohammed;

3. By right of military conquest. This is the least desirable method, but it nevertheless confers legitimacy. Many new dynasties have won the Caliphate by defeating the old entrenched powers, so there is plenty of historical precedence.

The last Caliph is dead and there is little chance of Al Baghdadi’s extreme form of Salafist Islam receiving the blessing of the majority of the ummah, so he must establish it militarily and defend it. Any objective observer must admit that they have succeeded so far: they have an army and a territory of 11 million inhabitants to whom they provide basic public services and from whom they collect taxes. That is the definition of a state, at its most basic level.

The capture of the Syrian capital would be an incalculable propaganda coup for the al-Baghdadi. 

The true danger lies in the possibility of more Sunni Muslims becoming convinced that the Caliphate is legitimate. The longer ISIL can defend its current territory, the greater the legitimacy of its claim. But defending territory is unlikely to cause a massive shift in public opinion. What Al Baghdadi needs is a catalyst, a victory to show the Arabs that he truly has God’s favour. And the greatest symbol of such favour lies at hand: Damascus.

The ancient city was the capital of the first Umayyad Caliphate when the Arabs overran the Eastern Roman and Sassanid Empires in the seventh century. Its symbolic importance should not be underestimated: it was the capture of Damascus that allowed King Hussein bin Ali to claim the title of Caliph after the First World War, though he lost it when he was defeated by Ibn Saud in 1925. All the other great cities of Islam are out of ISIL’s reach: Baghdad, Istanbul, Mecca and Cairo. (Baghdad was the capital of the second Caliphate, the Abbasid; Istanbul—Constantinople—was the capital of the Ottoman Caliphate for centuries; Mecca is the holiest city in Islam; and Cairo was the capital of the Ayyubid Caliphate. The preceding Fatimid Caliphate was Shia and therefore heretical in the eyes of the Islamic State.)

The capture of the Syrian capital would be an incalculable propaganda coup for the al-Baghdadi. The sight of the Black Standard over the walls of Damascus and on the Great Mosque might prove to be a sign of divine favour to the Muslim faithful. How many additional recruits would the Islamic State receive, both in their own territory and through the adhesion of new vilayets such as the dangerous franchises they already have in Libya, Sinai, Yemen and other regions? The capture of Damascus might be sufficient to cause a reconciliation between ISIL and Al Qaeda, its parent organisation. That would be a very dangerous alliance.

It could even cause a major doctrinal shift in Islam. The Islamic State’s theology is a radical form of Salafism. While almost all Muslim scholars reject so extreme an interpretation of Quranic teachings as deviant and mistaken, there is no guarantee that they will necessarily continue to feel that way. Victory in battle tends to change men’s minds. The “accepted” form of Islam that is closest to the Islamic State’s Salafism is the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia: birthplace of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In fact, by far the largest contingent of foreign fighters in ISIL’s ranks is composed of Saudi nationals, up to 7,000 of them.

The fall of Damascus might cause the Wahhabis to reconsider their opposition to the Islamic State. It would not be an unbelievable leap:

 Saudi Arabia already has a domestic problem with Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). If ISIL and Al Qaeda reconcile, the Saudis would face a significantly enhanced threat.

 The Saudis feel increasingly besieged by Shia rivals in Iran, Syria, southern Iraq, and on the Arabian Peninsula itself, which is why they have intervened in Yemen.

 The drop in the price of crude oil as well as their major international commitments have strained the abundant Saudi treasury. This will only increase their sense of desperation.

 The Saudis also feel abandoned by their fickle American allies, who seem more intent on making a deal with the hated Persians than in supporting Arabian interests. The fact that the Senate has approved the Iran Nuclear Agreement will only intensify these feelings. The biggest beneficiary of the deal might not be Iran, but the Islamic State, as sectarian violence and hatred is likely to increase in the near future.

An alliance between these two extreme forms of Sunni Islam—with or without the acquiescence of the House of Saud—would fundamentally alter the geopolitical reality of the world. ISIS would control the core of Islam, including Mecca and Medina, and the largest oil reserves in the world. The small Arab states would quickly join or be conquered: Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, the Emirates and Oman. That would be the nightmare scenario: the Islamic State triumphant not as a military force, but as the dominant theology in the Sunni Arab world. There would be no military solution at that point. What western nation, or combination of western nations, would be willing to invade and occupy so vast a territory? Imagine the American experience in Iraq increased by several orders of magnitude.

How close is the Islamic State to capturing Damascus? They are at the very outskirts of the city. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that street battles were being fought in the Asali neighbourhood of the southern Qadam district. That is still a long way from victory: Damascus is a big city, Assad’s regime has large forces garrisoning it, and street fighting is brutal, grinding, tedious combat. Yet a collapse could come quickly and unexpectedly. The most reliable of Assad’s troops are Alawites, whose homes and families lie to the northwest on the coastal strip between Latakia and Tartus. Their willingness to fight to the last bullet and last man for the capital is open to question, if that meant leaving their homes and families exposed to the vengeance of other rebel groups. They might very well vote with their feet and go home to defend the mountain passes.

Into that power vacuum could speed the Islamic state, long before the United States could determine what was happening, much less take decisive action. US decision-making is complicated by the fact that we are actively calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad; to then use force to help him keep his capital would be highly ironic and a very difficult political decision to make.

If I were al Baghdadi, I’d be sending every available man and weapon into the fight for Damascus. ISIL might be closer than ever to give the Caliphate a real capital city and having his jihad set the world on fire.

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