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Islamic State vs its far enemy

Behind the flux of conflict on the ground in Syria-Iraq, all sides are digging in for a long war.

Much of the recent attention on the war against Islamic State has focused on the intense conflict between the movement and local Kurds in and around Kobane, close to the Syria-Turkey border. Its 60,000 people had been relatively undisturbed by the Syrian war until a few months ago, when thousands of people displaced by the escalating conflict began to swell its population.

Within a short period, as many as 400,000 had arrived. Most fled across the border to Turkey when the town was besieged by Islamic State (IS) militias. Today, control of otherwise deserted and ravaged Kobane is divided between these militias and Kurdish fighters, including some from Kurdish Iraq (see Tim Arango, “In Syria battle, a test for all sides”, New York Times, 20 November 2014)

Kobane is strategically important for IS, not least as seizing it would give the movement command of a long stretch of the border. The repeated targeting of IS positions by US airstrikes has made the battle there even more pivotal. At the same time, it is but one part of a wider war with many other elements. Three of these involve western and Iraqi governments, and three the Islamic State.

In the first category:

* The Pentagon is deploying a further 1,500 troops to Iraq. This will take the acknowledged total to around 3,000, although this may not include special-force units whose deployment is seldom reported

* The US chair of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, has not ruled out deploying US ground troops to the frontline with Iraq army units

* Both US and Iraqi sources have strongly discounted talk of an Iraqi army “spring offensive” in Anbar province in 2015, on the basis that rebuilding, retraining and re-equipping Iraq's army will take many months.

In the second category:

* The Islamic State is reported to have concluded some sort of limited agreement with the al-Nusra Front (the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria) in order to bring inter-militia violence to an end there. In turn this development follows al-Nusra’s success in capturing a number of towns and villages from other Syrian militias with a more secular agenda 

Al-Nusra is also reported to have overrun arms dumps containing modern weapons provided by western states for use against Bashar al-Assad's regime. These may include as many as eighty US-made BGM-71 anti-tank missiles (see Columb Strack, “Jihadists make gains in Syria after weapons seizure”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2014).

* The Islamic State has reputedly secured the allegiance of the most violent of Egypt's militant groups, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (see David D Kirkpatrick, “Militant Group in Egypt Vows Loyalty to ISIS”, New York Times, 10 November 2014). If confirmed this would be its biggest international boost, as the group is fighting Abdel Fattah al-Sisi government in Cairo and challenging the latter's violent suppression of Islamist and other dissent (see Sara Khorshid, “Egypt’s new police state”, New York Times, 17 November 2014).

* Iraqi Kurdish sources say that western agencies are underestimating IS's military capacity. The true number of IS paramilitaries may be over six times larger than the 31,500 often quoted (see Patrick Cockburn, “War with ISIS: Islamic militants have army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader”, Independent on Sunday, 16 November 2014).

The narrative

In other aspects of this complex conflict, the Islamic State's ability to make major advances has stalled. The movement is now preparing for a long conflict. A priority will be maintaining and enhancing its transnational support, in terms both of personnel (an estimated 15,000 have already come to join IS from across the Middle East and beyond, but it needs more) and finance (with individuals in western Gulf states playing a key role). These efforts require IS to determinedly promote its core narrative, which may be extreme by western perceptions but does have a sufficient basis to attract support.

This sees the Islamic State as a vanguard movement in the global defence of Islam at a time when Islam is under attack and leaders of Muslim states across the Middle East are either apostate or utterly untrue to the tenets of Islam. The movement has established a renewed caliphate, currently centred on Raqqa (the early capital of the most durable caliphate, the Abbasids of 1,200 years ago) with plans to extend it to Baghdad (the later and much longer-lasting Abbasid capital. In turn it will spread to Saudi Arabia, ousting the House of Saud and claiming guardianship of Mecca and Medina (sites of the "two holy places") - and, ultimately, reclaim the "third holy place" in Jerusalem.

The Islamic State is leading this historic renewal against the "far enemy" of the United States and its allies that have brought chaos to Afghanistan and Iraq, killing over 200,000 Muslims and wounding many more in the process. These enemy forces have also killed Muslims in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Mali and many other states, while propping up corrupt and un-Islamic regimes (al-Sisi’s Egypt being the latest). IS points to the far enemy’s practice of rendition, torture and detention without trial, and it emphasises the role of the Zionists. Indeed, Israel is seen as little more than an extension of the United States, and Israel strike-aircraft and helicopter-gunships as US military hardware with Israeli markings.

The prospect

The reality of the Islamic State is very different from its self-portrait. The progress it has made since mid-2014 has owed much to largely secular Ba'athists and others who hardly buy into its theology or long-term vision are prepared to make common cause against the hated Iraqi government and the United States. The narrative does resonate, though, with a small minority of young Muslims, for whom Islamic State answers a longing even more seductive than did al-Qaida after 9/11. The fact that IS has created a territorial entity, a physical manifestation of the prmised caliphate, adds to its aura.

This narrative is not easy for western analysts to comprehend, especially given the brutality of many of the movement’s operations. But it is being worked on and developed relentlessly, then propagated over and over in many different forms (especially through new social media). It is helped greatly by the actions of the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu, and would dearly like a serious ground war with western troops - which the current "mission-creep" may well provide. If that war comes, there will no doubt be elements in Islamic State that look forward to the capture of American soldiers, their detention, waterboarding, and on camera execution in orange jump-suits.

Perhaps a few western policy-advisers and analysts are thinking such a narrative through, recognising its seductive nature and acting accordingly. There is, though, not too much sign of that, which makes it all the more likely that this will be a lengthy war.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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