The Overblown ISIS Threat: Prelude To Another Long War?
By Taj Hashmi
08 September, 2014
As the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or simply the IS) – Ad-Dawlaht ul-Islamiyya – was enigmatic, so was the capitulation of Iraqi troops to this mysterious group surprising. Despite the misleading name, the terror outfit has no chance of establishing itself as a state, let alone its caliphate dream. Despite the hyped up threat perception, it neither poses an existential threat to any country in the region, nor is it a bigger security threat to the West than al Qaeda. This, however, does not mean that soon, the ISIS will go the IRA or LTTE way, into oblivion. Then again, Western warmongers’ demand for immediate military action in Iraq and Syria sounds ominously familiar. Is the West going to another long-drawn war in the region in the name of ensuring regional and global peace?
Due to contradictory reports on its background, strength and actual motives, we do not know much about this newly emerging group – still in a formative stage and growing – which only came into being in January, occupied Mosul and declared itself a Caliphate in June 2014. We need answers to the questions: Who are behind this group? What do they really want to achieve? Is it a surrogate of some local, regional or international entities – organizations or states ?
We believe there are similarities and dissimilarities between the ISIS and other Islamist terror groups, such as al Qaeda, Taliban, al Shabab and Boko Haram with regard to their origin, agenda and modus operandi. Failing state, civil war, bad governance / absence of governance, poverty and marginalization of people on ethno-national, class or religious lines may be some of the common factors behind all Islamist terror groups that evolved since the 1980s. Very similar to what later emerged as al Qaeda and Taliban, the ISIS also owes its origin to generous U.S. and Saudi support. They sponsored this al Qaeda offshoot to topple the common enemy, Bashar al-Assad, albeit in absolute haste and no foresight.
What we have known so far about ISIS is that it is an ultra-extremist, violent Sunni revivalist / restorative, and millennial movement. Its agenda is too radical and fanatical, even to al Qaeda. It will not sustain an all out war against its “near” and “far” enemies” – Shiite, Alawite, Yazidi, Turkman, Christian, Kurd, liberal Sunni, and Sunni and Shiite regimes in the region; and America and the West – respectively. Interestingly, the ISIS is against Hamas and the Palestinian State – ISIS fighters were seen setting fire to the Palestinian flag – and has not yet declared Israel an enemy.
The ISIS – from any stretch of the imagination – represents a formidable terroristic insurgency and militia. Unlike al Qaeda and Taliban, ISIS is more of an organized extortionist, criminal gang – with anarchist and nihilistic outlook – than simply a terrorist outfit. It has almost 100,000 troops (15,000 / 30,000 in Iraq and the rest in Syria), around 60 tanks, 60 field guns, scores of rocket launchers and thousands of small arms, hundreds of trucks and scores of Humvees. By June 2014 it had about $2 billion in its coffer. It also captured some oil fields in northern Iraq. Then again, it does not have a regular and reliable source of revenue. It generates around 5 percent of its revenue from private donations; 20 percent from ransom, and 75 percent from robbing individuals, banks and business.
Again, the 15/30,000 troops are too small to defend the vast territory the ISIS has captured since June. The meager supply of spare parts for the tanks, trucks and Humvees will not be operational for long. Another jeopardy for the ISIS is its rash decision to transform itself into a sate. While small bands of “non-state actors” (terrorists) sustain longer against numerically superior enemy than “state actors”, who behave like terrorists, are bound to fight conventional wars against better armed and numerically superior enemies. Al Qaeda and Iraq under Saddam Hussein may be cited in this regard. While the former has outlived the overwhelming post-9/11 attacks on its leadership, intelligence network and logistics, the latter collapsed in days after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Thus ISIS as a budding “state actor” has no chance against its much better armed and numerically superior enemy, with air cover. Last but not least, its brutal methods of killing innocent civilians, minorities, women and children have already alienated many of its former supporters/sympathizers in the region and beyond.
Ever since the circulation of the video showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, purportedly by a British member of ISIS in August, there has been a tremendous rise of what appears to be an “ISIS Phobia” in the West. Considering the execution of an American by ISIS as an attack on the U.S., many Americans favor a total war against the terrorist group. Foley’s execution to a former deputy director of the CIA was “ISIS’s first terrorist attack against the United States”. According to a Pew Research Center Report, days after Foley’s execution, 91 percent of Tea Party Republicans, 65 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Independents described ISIS as a “major threat” to America. Meanwhile, two weeks after the first execution, the ISIS released another video purportedly showing the beheading of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff, and warning the Americans that as long as U.S. airstrikes against the militants continue, their “knife will continue to strike the necks of your people”. This might have further swelled the ranks of warmongers in America.
The overblown ISIS threat and knee-jerk reaction of Western politicians and media give us a déjà vu moment. We recall Bush-Blair and associates’ hyping up Saddam Hussein’s non-existing WMD’s potential to kill and maim thousands of people in London and New York, to justify their invasion of Iraq. David Cameron sounds pointlessly worried about the return of a few hundred British ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria. As if they did not pose any threat to Britain until their joining the ISIS “jihad” in Iraq and Syria! Days after the ISIS attacks in Iraq, Chuck Hagel considered the group an “imminent threat to U.S.”
While politicians and media sound alarmist, Republicans’ and sections of Democrats’ criticism of Obama for not having a “strategy yet” to counter the ISIS threat look ominous. Who knows if and when the Obama administration gives in to the pressure of the warmongers who are selling the rise of ISIS as the prelude to another 9/11! One analyst has aptly pointed out: “In fact, if you listen to Fox News you might even believe that Obama is responsible for the creation of ISIS”. However, as it appears more than a week after Obama’s statement that the U.S. did not yet have a strategy to combat the threat of ISIS, the President has indicated that the current goal of the U.S. effort in Iraq is to diminish the extremist group to “a manageable problem.”
There is no reason to be alarmed by what the ISIS has already achieved in northern Iraq and parts of Syria. The well-trained and well-armed fighters captured Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – smaller towns, military posts, and strategic installations like the Mosul Dam, power station, military hardware, and stash of cash from banks in northern Iraq between June and August. However, thanks to U.S. air attacks, Iranian and Iraqi army and Pesh Marga retaliation, the ISIS has started losing territory. It has lost control of the Mosul Dam and had to withdraw the siege of Amerli. Since late August, as a CNN report reveals, there are no more ISIS surprises, its “Achilles’ heel is defending what it has won”.
Given the bleak prospect for an ISIS victory, it is time to raise the questions if the ISIS is suicidal, stupid, or a planted agent fighting a proxy war on behalf of its promoters. Nevertheless, since Islamist extremism is gaining ground in the Arab World in the wake of the disruptive Arab Spring, we have reasons to agree with Tom Engelhardt that: “The fact that we can’t now imagine what might be worse than ISIS means nothing, given that no one in our world could imagine ISIS before it sprang into being”.
Then again, the ISIS did not emerge out of the blue. The marginalization of Sunnis in post-Saddam Iraq and Syria under the Alawite dictatorship, and the rise of Shiite Iran as a dominant power in the region are the main factors behind the rise of this Sunni extremist group. The post-Arab Spring chaos, civil war in Syria, and Obama administration’s and Saudi-Gulf States’ generous help to Islamist insurgents in Syria have directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. While bad governance is bad enough for law and order and human security across the region, the non-existence of any government or limited government authority in parts of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and northern Iraq – among other places across the region – has bred religious, tribal and ethno-national extremism. Marginalized people’s quest for identities, dignity and sustenance, and willingness to try radical ideologies and violent methods are the most important factors behind Islamist extremism.
Good governance in Iraq and Syria can reverse the process in weeks. The moment Iraqi and Syrian governments start treating Sunnis and minorities as equal citizens, ISIS would become a spent force. Obama’s not having a “strategy” to counter the ISIS looks like a good strategy. If the Obama administration can withstand the pressure from the Military-Industrial Complex and warmongers in America, Iraq and Syria can resolve their internal problems and end the ongoing civil wars and anarchy. The Obama administration can play a positive role by withdrawing moral and logistical support from anti-Assad forces in Syria; by leaving Iran to itself and withdrawing all sanctions against the country; by ensuring good and inclusive governance in Iraq; by pushing Saudi Arabia and other Gulf autocracies to stop supporting Sunni extremism and anti-Shiite/anti-Iranian activities; and last but not least, by pushing Israel to accept the pre-1967 War border, demolish all Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, and to make the Palestinian State viable by allowing free flow of goods and people between Gaza and the West Bank and ensuring other rights to the Palestinians within Israel, West Bank and Gaza. Any half-hearted measure by the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia; and further belligerence to Syria and Iran cannot neutralize and crush the ISIS menace permanently.
Dr Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, US. Sage has recently published his latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.
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