You are here
Having sent special forces to assess the humanitarian threat from ISIS in the Sinjar Mountains, the United States now says situation was not as bad as feared. But this assessment ignores the existential threat posed by ISIS to the Middle East and beyond.
The debate concerning ISIS is certainly growing quickly. The slaughter of the Yezidis on Jabal Sinjar, the massacre of Christians in Syria then Iraq, the ruthless killing of children of these minority populations in ways that are appallingly, unbelievably, grotesque and barbaric, and what now seems to be the ritualistic hacking off of heads (‘beheading’ does not portray the gruesomeness of what tends to happen) all serves a purpose. This purpose is to bring ISIS not only to the attention of those people who they are seeking to subdue now, in the Middle East, but to the attention of those peoples who they may challenge in the future, in the West.
Should the West take this horrible posturing of ISIS seriously? Apart from the reticent US airstrikes against ISIS forces and subsequent advisory and reconnaissance missions addressing the genocide of the Yezidis in northern Iraq there is very little to suggest that Western powers view ISIS as being in any way fundamentally different to its recent and contemporary jihadi predecessors. The contents of the toolbox of Western powers in this regard is well known, with methods ranging from social engineering through to containment and muscular military targeting all being used to varying degrees in previous engagements. And, today, the same toolkit is being opened again in an attempt to stymie the advance of the so-called ‘Islamic State’. But it is questionable whether the tools are big enough for this new job.
ISIS is a different organisation in whatever way measured. It is on the verge of achieving on the ground what its name already suggests – of being a state. In this regard, only the Taliban of Afghanistan could compare; it has significant resources – indeed, more than enough to do what it needs to do in the region and beyond; and it is successful. This last point is critical – ISIS presents a narrative of success to those young and youngish Arabs and/or Sunni Muslims that feel a genuine sense of powerlessness in the modern world. Now, ISIS takes this deep rooted feeling and moulds it into a dynamic that is strong, proud, vengeful, and immensely transformative.
This point seems to have been lost on Western policy makers. Quite simply, Not only is ISIS taking the sense of impotence felt by Arabs and Sunnis and distilling it into a sense of tremendous potency, ISIS is also now on the verge of changing the very international system that maintains the status quo, and the West’s place within it. Consider the response to ISIS in Iraq today – while Obama has clearly articulated his opposition to the existence of the organisation, the response to their atrocities is still conducted within a statist framework, targeting ISIS as though it is based in Mosul and reaching out from there.
Even within the context of Iraq, this is quite wrong, with ISIS being very strong in other parts of the country, including Anbar. But the ‘Islamic State’ is much bigger than Sunni Arab Iraq – stretching all the way to Aleppo in Syria (which is now, incidentally, dangerously exposed to a new push by ISIS to secure it) and including Hassekeh and Deir az-Zur on the Syrian border with Iraq. Already, ISIS have gained an advantage over Western powers by not continuing to play by the rules of the state system, but by removing those rules when they dismantled state borders.
Why this is Not a Repeat of 2003
In effect, ISIS have exposed a great strategic illusion/miscalculation by Western powers. This is to say that the West is clinging to a traditional, statist response to a cross-border terrorist/insurgent threat from a non-state actor. This is actually a choice of the West not to recognise the expanding threat not because ‘we’ cannot see it, but because political leaders are scared to acknowledge it – scared by the still-fresh memories of the public backlash following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and scared by the prospect of engaging in the no-win world of Middle East politics. But the situation now is different to then. ISIS is a terrorist organisation (and a spectacularly effective one) and remains border-less. But it has also acquired a substantial chunk of territory (a development which is convincing - insofar as it substantiates the idea of the caliphate - to impressionable recruits). So we have supremely violent, ideologically rampant terrorism fused with a new, border-less version of something like a modern state. This is a new development and one that seems to be studiously, and perilously, ignored.
It is not possible to defeat ISIS by attacking their forward-placed troops on the Great Zab river as they look east towards Erbil: the ‘state’ itself would have to be targeted at its points of concentration – Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa, Hassekeh – if the challenge of ISIS is to be met. If one were to be privy to ISIS strategy meetings around Ibrahim al-Baghdadi and his policy team in Raqqa, (and, unlike everyone else, they have articulated their vision, they do seem to have a strategy, and they certainly have policies) one would probably see a plan that sees ISIS grow in the Middle East through a combination of pushing the message of their success and thus seeing recruitment grow and neighbouring states undermined. It would be combined with an aggressive policy of territorial expansion, with Lebanon and Jordan both being prime targets. Indeed, the black flag of ISIS has already been raised in these countries.
ISIS therefore do not play by the rules of the game that still underpin much of the West’s responses to such challenges. They are making a new rule book – one that combines the most modern approaches of strategic planning, media messaging, psychological warfare, and counter-insurgency (consider how they have shut down opposition among their close partners/potential threats and implemented their own version of identifying those who could be ‘reconciled’, and those who are ‘irreconcilables’ – a technique perfected by the US in Iraq in 2007-8), with the most brutal, inhuman techniques of control imaginable. Their methods then see the organisation grow either because some followers are genuinely impressed by what is seem to be a strong organisation for once being able to stand up for them, or because some are simply too fearful of the consequences of not being in the biggest and nastiest gang around.
As their plan has unfolded, ISIS have brought two thresholds forward – one is their own advance and the reformation of realities on the ground on the Middle East; the second is the reaction of Western populations and the pressure they could bring to bear on their governments to take actions to roll back ISIS.
The question to ask now is simply which threshold will be passed first? Will ISIS succeed and strengthen the so-called Caliphate so it can no longer be dismissed as the fantasy of a self-proclaimed leader on a remarkably lucky streak, or will the international community recognise the threat of ISIS as being an actor with real agency and with aspirations that are absolutely antagonistic not only to Western interests, but to allies in the Middle East, and stop them? Neither prospect is palatable, but then neither, it seems, is muddling through and banally hoping for the best.
Follow Gareth Stansfield @GRVStansfield
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.