ISIS caliphate endures, the abyss beckons
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.