THE ISLAMIC STATE : A BRIEF ANALYSIS
BY BRIGADIER AJIT NAIR (RETD)
The rapid rise of ‘The Islamic State’ has brought a disturbing paradigm shift into an already troubled Middle East. So who are they, what are their Aims and Capabilities and what could the possible course of events be, over the next few months and years ? Any analysis now would require frequent revisions as events unfold on virtually a daily basis. But let me try anyway.
The information we have about them or their Leader is scant, and from diverse sources. To summarise – they comprise Sunni Muslims of Iraq and Syria, sworn to establish an Islamic Caliphate, under their Supreme Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now calling himself “The Caliph Ibrahim”. They have been augmented by fighters from numerous Countries, including UK, Germany, France, Holland, USA – and India, amongst others. All told, they today reportedly number more than 10,000 fighters. They have captured arms (including tanks/ICVs from the retreating Iraqi Army) and assets worth about $ 2 Billion, making them the richest Jihadi organisation. Baghdadi is a fierce looking fighter and tactician, which infuses in him more appeal than has the Al Qaeda Chief – the mild-looking, bespectacled Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Islamic theologian. Al Qaeda has condemned them – ostensibly for their brutality, but in reality it’s more likely to be a turf war.
Started in 2003, to oppose the US invasion, they have steadily grown in numbers and commitment, after they announced themselves in 2006 or so. So they are neither a new nor an unknown phenomena. Just ignored. Their rapid ascent drew strength (and Headlines) from the Israel/Hamas war, the Syrian rebellion and the political turmoil in Iraq, although not directly linked to any of them. They have reportedly declared the Hamas as Apostates and have vowed to destroy them, before tackling Israel. They have harmed the rebellion against Assad by attacking genuine Syrian rebels and thinning their ranks by getting recruits into their own militia. Prime Minister Al Maliki’s obdurate refusal to run an inclusive Govt in Iraq has considerably exacerbated the Shia-Sunni divide and consequently Baghdadi’s development and short-term Aims. However, the new Govt, led by President Fuad Masum (a Kurd) and Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi (a moderate Shia) may be a game changer. While many key posts went to the majority Shia community, Sunnis and Kurds were also well represented with Saleh al-Mutlaq (a Sunni) being Dy PM.
Aim. Their long-term Aim is to establish an “Islamic Caliphate”, under a single Leader, in the Levant. Their morphing name indicates how their Aim has evolved. From AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) to ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) to ISIL (Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Levant) and on 29 June 2014, to ‘The Islamic State’. It’s interesting to note that their Aim has now expanded out of the Levant, to include the entire world. A measure of their confidence. Their short-term Aim is to establish their dominance over other Sunni groups, especially those who do not follow the extremist Salafist doctrine and to fight a sectarian war against Shias.
The Levant. The Levant core region historically comprised of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus and Hatay (a province in southern Turkey, on the Mediterranean coast). Expanded to include the Sinai and Iraq and finally the entire territory of Turkey and Egypt. Interestingly, the British had an English Levant Company, founded in 1581 to trade with the Ottoman Empire.
Capabilities. Never assess an adversary on his Aim. Assess him on his Capabilities. Aims can change overnight, capabilities cannot. The ‘The Islamic State’ has about ten to twenty thousand fighters, captured arms, adequate recourses and deep, almost fanatical commitment. Their well trained Army has already routed the Iraqi Army and adversarial Syrian rebels. And captured many major towns, including Raqqa in Syria (their HQ) and Mosul (the second city of Iraq). So what can the they do today. Frankly, in their current avatar, with their current resources – not much more. But their real threat lies in their ability to attract new volunteers from all over the World, using their appeal and social media skills. This will also cause disturbances in host Countries, as we saw in The Hague recently. Open demonstrations, flaunting the black Islamic State flag.
So they’ve done a lot, since they burst out of their relative anonymity in June this year. So what else can they do ? Let’s see their SWOT analysis.
Strengths. Firstly, their immediate resources of committed fighters, captured arms and ammunition, equipment and vast wealth (if they hold on to the N Iraqi oilfields). Secondly, their insidious appeal of being able to attract large numbers of volunteers from across the World. And one of the reasons is the promise of a Caliphate, with a charismatic Leader. And the fact that they are actually holding territory and administering a virtual Country, which no force is likely to be able to easily recapture.
Weaknesses. For the first time, a militant organisation is fighting openly, a conventional war, confining themselves to a geographical area. Which is easily attackable. From the ground and from the air. This is their biggest weakness. While the Al Qaeda’s terror tactics work because of their nebulous existence, any terror attacks by The Islamic State outside their borders is likely to lead to massive retaliation, by any number of enemies, of which they have created plenty. A case in point is the increased US strikes in retaliation to the killing of the two US journalists. They have no known sources of replenishing their arms, ammunition and equipment, since they’re shunned even by the Al Qaeda. A self-declared Sunni Caliphate, they are surrounded by Shia ruled Countries. In the West by Syria, a Shia (Alawite) dominated and ruled Sunni majority, (however, even the Syrian Sunnis are fighting them) in the South by a Shia dominated and Shia majority Iraq and in the East, by Shia Iran. The first two have an Army of about 250,000 each and Iran of 800,000. With plenty of tanks, artillery and a reasonably modern Air Force. And in the North, they have Turkey, a formidable NATO member. And the Iraqi Kurds, with their Peshmerga (militia) are their immediate Northern adversaries. Fighting an active war on three fronts (less the Iranian one) is an impossibility, even with enhanced resources.
Current enemies. Currently, The Islamic State is actively fighting only the Peshmerga, who are aided by US air power, with skirmishes in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, there are three forces fighting each other – that is, the Syrian State vs the Syrian rebels and The Islamic State. This stalemate can only be broken by Assad, if he chooses to do so. He is more likely to wait and watch his Sunni rivals fight and weaken each other. The Iraqi Govt has lost much of its US support and till their political squabbles are over, can make no positive move. However, they are unlikely to be pushed any further South. Their Army, aided by Shia militias is likely to secure Baghdad and areas around, witness the bombing on 22nd August in a Sunni Mosque in Diyala. Skirmishes will continue. Iran is plagued by problems of its own and is unlikely to make any move, for the present.
Current backers and financiers. No Country overtly supports The Islamic State. Their covert financiers are reportedly wealthy individuals, mosques and charities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and possibly Qatar. However, their declaration of a Caliphate with a credible Leader appeals to Sunni Muslim fundamentalists worldwide. And there are numerous pledges of support from Indonesia to Kashmir to Saudi Arabia and from Europe and the US.US Options.
The US have two major restraining factors – one, their decision not to get actively involved in Iraq again (no “boots on the ground”), and two, a commitment to bring stability to a united Iraq. The latter is a virtual impossibility, since the chances of a Shia-Sunni rapprochement in Iraq (or for that matter, in Syria) are extremely bleak and the Iraqi Kurds have virtually declared independence. But that is the stated position of the US and they will stick to it unless the situation changes dramatically. Any major increase in air/drone-strikes, which causes “collateral damage” to civilians will turn the entire Sunni population against them and by inference against the Iraqi Govt.
Enemies of your Friends and Enemies of your Enemies. Are your friend’s enemies automatically your enemies? And do enemies of your bitter enemies automatically become your friends? In the Arab world, as the US is finding out –not necessarily. Their biggest enemy in this region used to be the Syrian Govt under Assad and they were about to assist the rebels against him and to start air attacks against him. Till the Islamic State suddenly surfaced. So they dropped that plan and instead are attacking the Islamic State, who include many Syrian rebels, who they were about to arm ! Which anyway would have been a disaster, since the rebels were infiltrated by foreign fighters, at the behest of the Al Qaeda. Right now, the US is helping the Shias against the Sunnis, which is frowned upon by their allies – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain (though not if they keep their actions strictly restricted to fighting the Islamic State) and applauded by Iran and Syria – their sworn enemies.
They are also helping the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurds), which is frowned upon by their NATO ally Turkey, who are worried about a demand for a more inclusive Kurdistan by Turkish Kurds, who they have been repressing for decades. A Kurdistan in this area would be appreciated by Europe and Israel, who have a large Kurdish diaspora (about 1.5 million), who presumably would migrate there. All told, there are about 30 million Kurds (who are basically Iranian Sunni Muslims), distributed in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, the Russian Federation, Europe and Israel. Any significant success by the Peshmerga would open yet another can of worms in this troubled region.
For the US/UK, to look at this conflict from an American or NATO perspective (which they are currently doing) would be short-sighted indeed and the problems in the Middle East would mutate and acquire new and dangerous dimensions and complexities, so-far unseen and unanalysed. The only Super-power should behave as a World leader and not as a protector of American interests. If they want to take a world leadership position. The US is at an important cross-road here. They’ve left a mess in Afghanistan and Iraq – will they do it again?
Verily they are faced with a Hobson’s choice. Every option is fraught with larger unforeseen implications. Extreme caution and introspection is needed here. Diplomacy before military action. Any “Coalition of the Willing” (formed after the NATO Summit in Wales), which has only NATO Countries is meaningless. It has to include the Arabs and Iran. A holistic right-brained solution is needed, instead of a bits-and-pieces left-brained military/strategic one. The consequences for the World are enormous. We wait with bated breath.