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While the US relies on limited air attacks and equips the peshmerga as a defensive rather than offensive force, the initiative remains with ISIS, as does the opportunity for them to exploit their opponents’ continued strategic miscalculation.
When ISIS took ownership of Mosul on 10 June, they fooled the Government of Iraq – that remained focused upon its own parochial concerns of government formation – and they fooled the international community that, until 10 June, remained in a state of wishful thinking about Iraq’s democratic transition. Even the Kurds, perhaps the most fearfully aware of the danger of ISIS after 10 June, did not foresee the ferocity of the ISIS attacks in the disputed territories and their own defensive weaknesses in the face of a multi-dimensional assault.
When ISIS turned its attention towards the Kurds and minority populations around Nineveh in August, they in effect took by surprise even the most ardent of observers who had believed that the seemingly powerful Kurds, with their peshmerga forces, would be an unattractive proposition for ISIS, that would now surely consolidate its hold across its territories in Syria and Iraq. In effect, they had fooled all for a second time with ISIS wrong-footing its opponents on two occasions, securing a complete victory on 10 June, and exposing the fragility of the Kurdistan Region on the second.
Recent precedents suggest that limited air strikes could serve to further legitimise ISIS, giving rise to longer-term consequences of these short term, reactive measures designed to protect the Kurdistan Region and throw a life-line to minorities at risk. In all likelihood, ISIS will remain a potent threat: from Iraq through to the Levant. It leads us to the question that may be arising in Western and Middle Eastern capitals of where will they now ‘fool me thrice’?
Much has been written about ISIS in recent months, but one aspect needs to be emphasised – ISIS is quite unlike any other jihadi organisation that has gone before it. Perhaps the closest comparison to ISIS would be the Taliban of Afghanistan, at its height in the mid-2000s. Yet the Taliban remained very much a local, Pashtun, entity, keenly tied to its localities and focused very much on matters within a particular Afghan frame. The antecedents of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and Al-Qa’ida Iraq (AQI) also share with ISIS some of their DNA. But this new generation far surpasses both ISI and AQI in its size, scope, vision, strategic awareness, and means. ISIS, with its immense land area stretching from Aleppo to Mosul to Fallujah, with its now impressive military arsenal, and with its recruitment benefiting from being seen as a success story for Sunni Arabs susceptible to a particular narrative, has made the transition from jihadi organisation to ‘Islamic State’, and from political entity to social movement. With this in mind, the tools used to dismantle previous iterations of Sunni Arab militancy in Iraq may well prove to be inadequate when faced with the far greater challenges posed by self-styled ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakar Ibrahim al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State.
The Risks of Relying on Limited Air Strikes
But ISIS has been on the receiving end of US airstrikes since 8 August, brought about by a very real concern that parts of the Kurdistan Region, including the capital Erbil, were on the verge of being overrun by ISIS following a string of military victories against the peshmerga and by the considerable popular disquiet concerning the plight of minority populations – Yezidis and Christians, and also Shabaks – that were being slaughtered by advancing ISIS mujahidin.
It is useful to ask whether Erbil was really as threatened as Baghdad had been, or whether Erbil is really so important to the US. On both counts, the answer is ‘yes’. ISIS forces had managed to move into the outskirts of Erbil governorate, drawing up to within 40km of the city itself, and well poised from the town of Makhmour to threaten, then, Kirkuk governorate through Dibis by combining forces with the Arab tribes of Hawija.
The defeat of the Kurds – the perennial US ally in Iraq from the 1990s onwards – would not only be a strategic disaster for the US; it would also make it impossible to ensure that Iraq would be maintained in its current state. The story, though, has a further degree of complication: by ensuring that the Kurds survived this ISIS threat, but in a way that ensured they would do so on terms acceptable to the US, Washington has again secured a degree of leverage over the decisions to be made by Kurdish leaders with regard to exercising their right to self-determination. With the Kurds now protected by US airstrikes, and with the peshmerga armed and advised to a point where they can defend themselves but ultimately remain less powerful than any future reformed Iraqi army, the US may be hoping to achieve a delicate balance that will see Iraq emerge from its current traumas intact and, sometime in the future, ISIS free.
But this is a very dangerous balancing act indeed, not least because ISIS may well prove to have the strength in depth to cope with the setbacks caused by the limited US air attacks. Consider the example of its predecessor, Al-Qa’ida Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Here was an organisation of far smaller scale than ISIS, with a leader that displayed far less strategic vision than ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with far less military resources, and facing opponents of far greater capabilities – in the form of the US military and the nascent Iraqi security forces – than those ISIS faces in Iraq today. Yet, still, by 2006, Zarqawi and AQI had reached a point where the overthrow of the Baghdad government was a distinct possibility, irrespective of the airstrikes they suffered or the targeted killings of its personnel that took place.
If AQI is to be our guide for the future, than ISIS may well prove to be a resilient, determined, and expansive ‘state’. The question is, when and where will they ‘fool us thrice’? If there is anything to be learned about ISIS from recent events, it is that they have a high tempo of operations and ‘consolidation’ does not appear to be in their vocabulary. And they retain the ability to operate across many areas at different time – this multi-dimensional approach to insurgency is a clear strategy that they are following to keep their opponents uneasy. The black flags of ISIS have already appeared in Lebanon, and Jordan too is on the doorstep of core ISIS areas of strength in Iraq, such as in Anbar. Perhaps ISIS will now refocus its strategic gaze to Levant. Or perhaps they will press on against the Kurds, maybe undermining from the inside, through terrorist attacks in Erbil or other cities. Or maybe they will attempt to enter Baghdad, thus provoking a catastrophic and cataclysmic battle with the Shi’a militia that await them. Maybe they will try all of these. Either way, while the US relies on limited air attacks and equips the peshmerga as a defensive rather than offensive force, the initiative remains with ISIS, as does the opportunity for them to ‘fool us thrice’ and deal with consequences that may prove to be increasingly dire.
Gareth Stansfield is Director of RUSI's Middle East Programme and Senior Associate Fellow. He is also Professor of Middle East Politics and the Al-Qasimi Chair of Arab Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter.