Complexities of fighting the Islamic State
United States President Barack Obama will host leaders from the international coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria later this month, according to recent reports. The summit comes one year after Obama vowed to crush IS during his speech in the United Nations. Is Obama holding this summit to conduct a reality check on the ‘progress’ made by the US-led coalition against IS? Or is it to merely admit that the complexities of competing national interests of participating nations defy any possible solution?
The origin of IS and their intention of establishing a Caliphate goes back to the days of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Abu <g data-gr-id="87">Zarkhawi</g>, its founder, had from the very beginning set course on an ideology very distinct from Al Qaeda. Though the intention of establishing a Caliphate remained unannounced then, the present brutal tactics of targeting Shias and the practice of takfir or excommunication had commenced during his short but brutal leadership. After Saddam Hussain’s removal, the US policy of de-Bathification undertaken by its then special envoy to Iraq, Paul Bremer, targeted 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army. They were barred from government employment, denied pensions but inexplicably allowed to keep their guns. This move disempowered the Sunnis, especially in the Army and they in turn wholeheartedly embraced the leadership of <g data-gr-id="88">Zarkhawi</g>. It left the country with a lethal organisation of trained soldiers, who were pushed into the belief that the safety of their families and their tribes from the Shia militia and the American army would only be possible if they joined hands with <g data-gr-id="89">Zarkhawi</g>.
The surge of American troops and the creation of awakening councils in the Sunni regions steadily weakened the Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had by then lost its leader Abu <g data-gr-id="86">Zarkhawi</g> to an air strike. This success was, however, short-lived, as the withdrawal of US forces in 2011 and the subsequent sectarian policies followed by Al Maliki government led to disenchantment and alienation among the Sunnis. The present day IS has primarily emerged from this sense of alienation, to emerge much stronger both organisationally and militarily from its earlier version of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
With its Baathist military leadership, the organisation has become a very potent force, capable of taking on the Iraqi army and any other coalition force. They were willing to put their boots on the ground both in the conventional and sub-conventional space. The ideological leadership of the Caliphate has been taken over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The dissemination of its ideology has primarily been entrusted to young radical ideologues that have a deep understanding of the form of Salafism which they are preaching. So in effect, controlling the vast swathes of land from Syria to Iraq is a well-organised, trained and motivated army. Moreover, the IS possesses a well-established ideologically committed governance structure and a communication wing that has adapted the latest techniques and technology for spreading their message. The use of such technology is what continues to draw fighters to the IS from all corners of the world.
The American president has earlier stated that the aim of the coalition would be to degrade and ultimately destroy IS or DAESH. He has handpicked General Allen as the special envoy to lead the coalition efforts in the fight against IS. Allen was one of the key architects of the Sunni Awakening, which restored peace in the Sunni Heartland of Iraq’s Anbar province. In a recent talk, he outlined five lines of effort or broad strategies to defeat the IS and the role of the various countries in implementing this plan. The plan involved: Security support to the partners on the ground, a stabilization and recovery plan, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, disrupting and denying the financial support and lastly counter messaging the IS narrative. All these aims were to be achieved by nominating specific coalition partners as a primary lead and supported by many other coalition partners across each line of effort. There has been much progress on many fronts, including countering the IS narrative and more stringent border controls in Turkey that is reducing the flow of foreign fighters. Moreover, the strategy has interdicted the source of IS external funding and targeted the financial ability of the IS to generate their own resources within the territory controlled by them. There has also been a reduction of territorial gains made by IS since the announcement of the Caliphate in March 2014. However, as of now, the coalition offensive has surely reached a strategic stalemate, especially in Iraq. Large swathes of the country remain under IS control.
The heart of the problem lies in neutralising IS in Iraq. The dilemma facing the coalition goes beyond waging a war of attrition and recovering lost territory in Iraq. It fundamentally has to do with the rise of Shia militia, powered and backed by Iran, taking the lead in any offensive. Any military success would have an impact on the regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Washington does not want to be seen as an active accomplice of Shia militias, although they would remain a major component of any present plans to retake territories under IS control. Secondly is the question of empowering minority Sunnis who are a majority in the provinces held by IS. The Iraqi government dominated by Shias would need to set aside their differences and come up with some radical proposals. The aim of these proposals, which would, apart from reconciliation, will also aim at the independent federal structure, a provincial National Guard and well represented Iraqi Army with Sunnis being given their rightful due. Unless this is assured the Sunni tribes in these regions would not want to support the coalition. With the withdrawal of US-led forces in Iraq, the Sunni tribes would rather be ruled by the IS. Unless the Iraqi government makes significant concessions, the Sunni tribes would rather stick with their tribal brethren in the IS.
With the recent capture of Ramadi, the IS support base has only deepened in the Sunni heartlands of Iraq. Any attempts to dislodge them here would need a political resolution with the Sunnis before any progress militarily to evict them. Their control in Syria, as compared to Iraq, is much weaker as they are dependent on foreign fighters. The IS does not have a solid support base as they presently have in Iraq. Also, they also have to contend with various factions, which range from the ones supported by the US-led coalition, the Al Qaeda faction and the government forces of the Assad regime.
Therefore, the current prognosis would possibly indicate that in the next 5 to 10 years the total elimination of the IS looks doubtful, with a stalemate in Iraq. It should be possible to degrade the IS in Syria but a lasting solution there also looks bleak given the firm Russian and Iranian support to President Assad. Meanwhile, the expansion of the Caliphate into other countries may remain a myth since any movement outside of the IS’s familiar support areas could result in an overreach and spell disaster for the militant group. Any insurgency survives on support from the local population and to that end IS will remain satisfied at consolidating their defenses in territories captured in Iraq. The franchises in Libya, Sinai, Nigeria, Afghanistan and other self-proclaimed governorates would continue with their goals that are closely related to their respective geographies. Lone wolf terror actions would be the main threat to Europe and US or western interests specifically by individuals who have not been able to swing their way, through Turkey to the IS-held areas in Syria and Iraq.
What would also be worrisome to the western governments is the ability of the IS to exploit the environment of civil strife within West Asia. There remains a possibility that the IS could ferment a local insurgency or in effect launch a new wave of Arab Spring protests across West Asain countries. Such a strategy could affect most countries in the region unless they quickly put into place internal political and economic reforms to assuage the emotions of a very young population, who could be swayed by IS propaganda. Syria and Iraq already have the largest number of foreign fighters from this region. A large number of them come under a very young demographic profile, with many unemployed. Moreover, falling oil prices and rising fiscal deficit in the region further add to the scope of IS influence. If the IS does succeed in exploiting these issues, it will ensnare the entire region into a crisis whose impact will be felt far and wide.
Countries in the region need to put aside their proxy intra-religion wars, which is bringing in its wake untold misery and a refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions. The realisation that the bigger enemy is the IS needs to dawn on all these nations. If not, it would be too late to take corrective measures.
(The author is a retired Colonel, who has been with the Indian Army Special Forces. The views expressed are personal)