ISIS caliphate endures, the abyss beckons

Friday 26/06/2015
ISIS parade in Raqqa province, Syria

BEIRUT - One year after the proc­lamation of the Islamic State’s caliphate, there are growing concerns that the group is deter­mined to expand its territory, which spans a large part of Syria and Iraq, and will unleash major attacks dur­ing the holy month of Ramadan, as it has done over the last three years.
The biggest fear is that the Is­lamic State (ISIS) might seek to ig­nite sectarian warfare by bombing Shia shrines crowded with pilgrims. This barbaric tactic has been spec­tacularly successful in triggering religious massacres in Iraq in recent years, bloodbaths that send the ji­hadists’ recruitment soaring with disaffected young Muslims from across the Arab world and beyond flocking in the thousands to the militants’ black banners.
In the year since ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, by defeating an army garrison ten times larger than its own force, the group has largely held its ground against the Baghdad government’s operations, heavily supported by US air power and Iranian-backed militias.
ISIS has had to give some ground, as in Syria in recent days when Kurdish forces drove it out of the strategic stronghold of Tal Abyad, a key gateway to its Syrian “capital” of Raqqa, it had held for two years. ISIS also lost control of the Iraqi town of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, in April.
The loss of Tal Abyad may have showcased a new battlefield dy­namic that could turn the tables of ISIS’s undoubted military skills — the combination of US-led air strikes and a capable, well-led and motivated ground force.
The air campaign against ISIS has caused immense destruction since the jihadists’ lightning victory in Mosul. But in Iraq, where the main offensive against ISIS is centred, the ground forces involved, particularly the army and Internal Security Forc­es, have been woefully lacking in motivation, so no major gains have been achieved.
That may change in time. But ISIS has endured, with grim and mur­derous determination, its military staying power buttressing its ideo­logical message that it will restore the glory days of Muslim conquest and drive out those they paint as unbelievers and the Western cru­saders, who have defiled Islam and reduced it to a squabbling, undigni­fied mess.
But the Islamic State must keep enlarging the territory it controls to prove the legitimacy of the new ca­liphate and to secure both recruits and economic resources. For ISIS has pioneered a new type of jihad, one that acquires and holds territo­ry along with the resources, such as oil, that finance its operations and sustain the population under its control, as water does, for example.
One of the most troubling aspects of ISIS’s emergence and its potential power is that it may be the template of a new order, one in which its con­trol of oil and gas fields in Syria and Iraq, the major dams (note how ISIS advances are invariably along the Euphrates and the Tigris), the kid­nappings for ransom, plundering on a gigantic scale, a throwback to the great days of empire and conquest, will have greater long-term impor­tance than its military capabilities, mostly provided by generals who once served Saddam’s grotesque regime.
This nightmarish vision is articu­lated in a new book entitled War­lords Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur, which offers new in­sight into ISIS’s development and how it could supersede Muslim na­tion-states.
US analyst Jay Ogilvy observed that the authors of the anthology “may be giving us a more accurate picture of the Islamic State than those who claim to be peering di­rectly into the group’s dark and se­cretive interior”.
He noted that “the central theme is that a netherworld of drugs, kid­napping and the smuggling of peo­ple and other contraband is bound to open up wherever the state fails to deliver public good like health, education and security…
“The distinctive property of the new warlordism is the degree to which it follows an economic logic as opposed to the political logic of prior insurgencies. There’s less talk of colonial oppression and class, and more talk of marketing, money laundering and finance.”
So far, ISIS has moved from strength to strength since it was res­urrected in 2010 from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was bat­tered by US forces after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam, who had kept the lid on Iraq’s internal troubles.
What distinguishes ISIS from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and other jihadists is that it has become a new territorial power that chal­lenges Sunni regimes such as the Gulf’s oil-rich states and Iran, the Shia colossus, alike, and poses in­ternal security threats to the West and to Russia.
The gravest aspect of all this is that no matter what action its mem­bers take, individually or collective­ly, the cost is likely to be immense.