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Islamic State: The Worst Case Contingency

It’s often a good idea, when faced with a really frightening situation, to model the “worst case” outcome and see how bad it could get. That can be quite bad, but it’s rarely as bad as the half-formed fears that build up if you don’t actually analyse the problem. Like Islamic State, for example.

It began with the conquest of parts of eastern Syria by an Islamist group called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in 2011-13. Its founders were almost all Iraqis who had got their start fighting the American occupation of their country. They were allegedly in Syria to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, but they actually spent their time conquering territory held by other rebel groups.

Once ISIS had a territorial base in eastern Syria, its fighters surged back across the border into Iraq in June, 2014 and captured Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. First the hopeless Iraqi army and then the supposedly competent Kurdish army crumbled in front of them. In July ISIS declared the border abolished and proclaimed the foundation of the “Islamic State” in the conquered parts of both Syria and Iraq.

A few days later the leader of ISIS, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, declared in a sermon in Mosul’s great mosque of al-Nuri that he is the caliph to whom all Muslims owe obedience. It was a bold step – there has been no caliph since 1924 – but it had great resonance among those many Muslims who blamed the collapse of the Islamic world’s power and prosperity on the neglect of its traditional religious institutions and values.

Since then, Islamic State has conquered no more territory. Its one big offensive, against the Kurdish enclave of Kobane along the Turkish border, was defeated after thousands of ISIS fighters died in the attempt to take it. Aircraft from the US, other Western countries, and various conservative Arab countries patrol the skies over Islamic State, bombing anything that looks even vaguely military. Yet it still scares people to death.

One reason is its sheer ferocity and endlessly inventive cruelty. It crucifies people, hacks their heads off, burns them alive and posts videos boasting about it all. It attracts large numbers of recruits from the Sunni Muslims living in the Arab lands now included in Islamic State, but also thousands of eager volunteers from other Muslim countries and from the Muslim diaspora in the West.

Islamic State is now collecting pledges of allegiance from like-minded Islamist fighting groups in other Muslim countries, each of which lends a little more credibility to its claim to be the new caliphate. In November Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia all declared that they acknowledged al-Baghdadi, now calling himself Caliph Ibrahim, as their leader and guide.

Little more has been heard from the Yemeni, Saudi and Algerian groups, but the Egyptian group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, controls parts of the Sinai peninsula, regularly attacks the Egyptian army, and was officially designated a “province” (wilayat) of the Islamic State in November. Libya, where Islamist groups have been gaining ground in the civil war, was carved into three further “provinces” at the same time.

In late January a former commander of the Pakistani Taleban and ten other jihadi leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan also acknowledged al-Baghdadi’s authority , and declared that they constituted the new IS “province” of Khorasan, taking in those two countries and “other nearby lands”.

Then last Saturday Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group Boko Haram, which controls much of northeastern Nigeria, also pledged allegiance to Islamic State: “We announce our allegiance to the caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity. We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph.” It’s certainly making progress, but how far can it go?

Probably not much further. All the new “provinces” of Islamic State, like most of the original ones, are in mainly rural areas, often sparsely populated, and with few natural resources (except some oil, in Libya’s case). They are areas that corrupt and autocratic governments, many of them distracted by civil war, can simply abandon for the short term as not vital for their survival.

For Islamic State to seize big metropolitan areas and their resources would require a level of popular support in those areas that is unlikely to emerge. Big cities are full of relatively sophisticated people who have something to lose, and are unlikely to see Islamic State as an attractive solution for their problems.

Without the big cities and their communications facilities – especially airports and harbours – there can be little effective cooperation between the widely dispersed “provinces” of Islamic State. They will have to go on fighting their own wars with little outside help, and some they will lose.

The broader struggle against Islamist extremism will probably continue for at least a decade, and impose heavy costs on the people of the Middle East. But ultra-radical organisations like ISIS and Boko Haram are likely to break up in bitter theological disputes a lot quicker than that.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“One…West”; and “In late…lands”)

With Allies Like These…

Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was in London last week, telling the Western media how helpful Ankara was being in the struggle against the terrorist “Islamic State” that has emerged in northern Syria and Iraq. Turkey is doing everything it can, he said – although, of course, “We cannot put troops everywhere on the border.”

Turkey’s open border has become a sore point with its Western allies, who suspect that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is deliberately allowing a steady flow of recruits and supplies to “Islamic State” because he still wants the Sunni rebels, most of whom are jihadi extremists, to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Shia ruler. (Erdogan is no jihadi, but he is a devout and militant Sunni Islamist.)

But Erdogan’s motives are irrelevant, because Turkey simply cannot put troops everywhere on its 820-km. border with Syria. Or so says Ahmet Davutoglu, and only an enemy of Turkey (or somebody with a grasp of basic mathematics) would say otherwise.

I am no enemy of Turkey, but I can do basic arithmetic. If you stationed Turkish troops along the entire length of the Syrian border at ten-metre intervals – that’s enough for a machine-gun nest every fifty metres – it would take about 82,000 soldiers to cover the entire 820 km. The strength of the Turkish army (never mind the navy and air force) is 315,000 soldiers.

Maybe Turkey doesn’t have that many machine-guns, but it’s not a poor country, and machine-guns are quite cheap on the international market. Or maybe it would prefer to use some other equipment instead: a good fence and some motion-detectors would help. But the main requirement is manpower, and not very highly skilled manpower at that. The Turkish army has a few other jobs, but not any high-priority ones.

Even if you allow for frequent rotation of the soldiers manning the border, it would take much less than half the strength of the Turkish army to shut the border to foreign fighters. Maybe a few jihadis would still get through, but the vast majority wouldn’t. The only reason Ankara doesn’t shut the border is that it doesn’t really want to.

Cutting off the flow of jihadi volunteers to Syria would not greatly change the local military balance: IS uses them mostly as mere cannon-fodder. The point is that Turkey is not fully committed to the destruction of Islamic State, and indeed will give IS deniable help in order to further the goal of a Sunni victory in Syria, despite being part a “coalition of the willing” that is nominally dedicated to destroying IS.

The same goes for Saudi Arabia, although it has sent some token aircraft to bomb IS. Riyadh tries to prevent any Saudi citizens from going to fight for IS, and it certainly does not want the IS brand of radicalism to come to the kingdom. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has already started building a 900-km. high-tech wall along its border with Iraq to stop IS activists from entering the country.

But it is not a long way from the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam that is promoted by Saudi Arabia to the “takfiri-salafist” doctrines espoused by the IS militants. Saudi private individuals have been a major source of financing for IS, and until recently Riyadh just turned a blind eye to it. Even now Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Islamic State destroyed if that means Assad gets to stay in power in Syria.

Then there’s Iran. In Iraq, where Islamic State controls half the country’s territory and threatens a Shia-dominated regime, Iran and the United States are fighting almost side-by-side to defend Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government. (They don’t actually talk to each other, but they each tell the Iraqis where they are planning to bomb so there are no collisions over the target areas.)

But next-door, in Syria, it’s different. Iran has sent troops, weapons and money to defend Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the United States is still pledged to overthrow it. They both see Islamic State (which controls about a third of Syria’s territory) as an enemy, but Washington still believes that it can create some other, more “moderate” army of Sunni rebels that will eventually take Assad down.

And Russia, of course, still supplies Assad with weapons, money and diplomatic support – but despite its own difficulties with jihadi rebels back home in the North Caucasus, Moscow is not participating in the military campaign against Islamic State. Its quarrel with the United States over Ukraine is too fierce to permit that degree of cooperation elsewhere.

And so on, and so forth. Not one of the major outside powers that is opposed to Islamic State in principle has a clear strategy for fighting it, nor are they willing to cooperate with one another.

So IS will survive, at least for some years to come, despite the horrors it inflicts on the innocent people under its control. It may even expand a bit more, though the end of the siege of Kobane shows that it is far from unstoppable.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Maybe…ones”; and “And Russia…elsewhere”)

The Middle East: New Strategic Realities

After half a century of stasis, there are big new strategic realities in the Middle East, but people are having trouble getting their heads around them. Take the United States, for example. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State in President Obama’s first administration, is still lamenting her former boss’s failure to send more military help to the “moderate” rebels in Syria.

“The failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton told Atlantic magazine recently. She’s actually claiming that early and lavish military aid to the right people would have overthrown Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, while freezing the al-Qaeda/ISIS jihadis out. If only.

Clinton travels a lot, but she never really leaves the Washington bubble. There are intelligence officials there who would gladly explain to her that almost all the desirable weaponry sent to the “moderates” in Syria ends up in the hands of the jihadis, who either buy it or just take it, but she wouldn’t listen. It falls outside the “consensus”.

Yet that really is how ISIS acquires most of its heavy weapons. The most striking case of that was in early June, when the Iraqi army, having spent $41.6 billion in the past three years on training its troops and equipping them with American heavy weapons, ran away from Mosul and northern Iraq and handed a good quarter of them over to ISIS.

In fact, that’s the weaponry that is now enabling ISIS to conquer further territory in eastern Syria and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Which, in turn, is why Barack Obama has now authorised air strikes in Iraq to stop ISIS troops from overrunning Irbil, the Kurdish capital.

By now, he has also presumably abandoned his proposal of last June to spend $500 million to train and equip “appropriately vetted” Syrian opposition fighters. (They were then supposedly going to overthrow Assad with one hand while crushing the jihadis with the other.)

But Obama has not yet dropped the other shoe. A LOT of people have not dropped their other shoes yet. They all know that the whole strategic environment has changed. They realise that may require new policies and even new allies. Changing horses in midstream is always a tricky business, so the realignments are only slowly getting underway, but you can see where they are going to go.

The proclamation of the “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and northernwestern Iraq has huge implications for every country in the Middle East, but for most of the great powers – Russia, the United States, China, India, Britain, France and Germany – it is almost the ONLY thing they still care about in the region. They all have Muslim minorities of their own, and they all want the Islamic State stopped, or at the very least isolated, contained and quarantined.

That means that both the Syrian and Iraqi governments must survive, and they will probably get enough outside help to do so (although it will take time for the US and the major European powers to switch sides and openly back Assad). The army of the Iraqi Kurds might hold its own against the Islamic State if it had better weapons, so it will get them (although Baghdad will not welcome a more powerful Kurdish army).

Containing the Islamic State to the north will be a simpler task, because Iran and Turkey are very big, well organised states whose populations are relatively invulnerable to the ISIS brand of Sunni fundamentalism. But to the south of the Islamic State is Saudi Arabia, and that is a country that faces some tough decisions.

The Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion is very close to the beliefs of the jihadis who now rule the Islamic State to their north. Much of their financial support and even their weapons have come from Saudi Arabia. But the rulers of that kingdom would be extremely unwise to assume that the jihadis regard Saudi Arabia’s current political arrangements as legitimate, or that gratitude would restrain them.

Nor will the long-standing US alliance with Saudi Arabia endure if Saudi ties to the jihadis are not broken. Riyadh will have to decide, and it will be aware that its oil is no longer so vital to the United States that it can have it both ways.

The Iranian-US rapprochement will continue, and the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions will be settled amicably despite Israel’s  protests. Indeed, Israel may come under irresistible US pressure to stop whacking the Palestinians or the Lebanese Shias every couple of years, stop the settlement programme, and get on with the two-state deal. Washington would very much like Israel to stop alienating the people it needs as allies.

Further afield, General Sisi’s new regime in Egypt can count on strong American support, and may even be encouraged by Washington to intervene militarily in Libya and shut down the Islamist militias there. Tunisia will be the only remaining flower of the “Arab Spring”, although there has also been a certain amount of progress in Morocco. But in the heartland of the Arab world, war will flourish and democracy will not.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“By now…other”; and “Nor…allies”)

The Caliphate Returns

“Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day,” said Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, announcing the rebirth of the Caliphate in the broad territory between Aleppo in northern Syria and Diyala province in eastern Iraq. It hasn’t actually grown much more in the past couple of weeks, but it certainly intends to go on expanding.

The radical Sunni Muslim organisation that conquered almost half of Iraq in a whirlwind week at the beginning of June has changed its name. Before, it was ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the old Ottoman province that used to include Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel). But now it wishes to be known simply as the “Islamic State” – for there can only be one such state, and it should include everywhere that Muslims have ever ruled.

ISIS propagandists have even produced a map showing the ultimate borders that their Islamic State lays claim to. Spain and Portugal will be part of it, because they were ruled by Muslim conquerors during much of the Middle Ages. Iran, too (although something will have to be done about all those Shia Muslims).

All of India except the southern tip should be under the rule of the Caliph, because Muslim invaders also ruled there as minorities for many centuries – and of course Serbia, Croatia and Hungary will be part of the Islamic State, for the Ottomans conquered all the Balkans up to there. Not to mention half of Africa, and Indonesia, and southwestern Siberia (which was once ruled by the Sibir Khanate for a century or so).

There’s no point in protesting that Muslims were never more than a small minority in many of these places, for the lads of ISIS believe that only Muslims – indeed, only Sunni Muslims – have rights. “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” al-Adnani helpfully explained.

So much for the fantasy. What’s the reality? A group of jihadis have seized a big chunk of eastern Syria and western Iraq, erased the border between them, and declared an Islamic State. As little as ten thousand strong only a month ago, they have been rapidly growing in numbers as ISIS’s success attracts new recruits – but they are obviously never going to reconquer India, Spain or Siberia.

They aren’t going to make a dent in the two powerful states to the north of their Islamic State either. Iran, being overwhelmingly Shia, is immune to their charms and far too big to take by force. Turkey, although now governed by an Islamic party, is still a modern, secular state that is much too strong to attack.
To the west and east ISIS is already at war with regimes that are either very tough (Bashar al- Assad’s war-hardened dictatorship in western and central Syria) or very Shia (the south-eastern slice of Iraq, densely populated and with a large Shia majority). The Islamic State’s central position between its two enemies gives it a strategic advantage, but not a decisive one.

To the south are desert frontiers with more promising territory. Jordan’s population is about two-thirds Palestinian, and even among the Bedouin tribes that are the mainstay of King Abdullah’s rule there was some enthusiasm for ISIS’s victory in Iraq. If Jordan fell, the Islamic State would reach right up to Israel’s borders, with incalculable consequences.

Saudi Arabia would be a much tougher nut to crack, but the salafi religious ideology that animates ISIS is very close to the fundamentalist Wahhabi version of Islam that is the Saudi state religion. That’s why the Saudis gave arms and money to ISIS jihadis in the early days of the Syrian civil war, although they have subsequently recognised the threat that the organisation poses to the Saudi state.

But even if ISIS gets very lucky, it is unlikely to get farther than that. Egypt blocks its expansion to the west, although the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis extremists who are active in the Sinai peninsula undoubtedly have some ties with it. Even its direct rivals in the Refound-The-Caliphate business – the original al-Qaeda, al-Shabab in north-east Africa, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and their lesser brethren – are unlikely to accept the ISIS leader as caliph.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now styles himself Caliph Ibrahim, has clearly been preparing himself for this moment for most of his adult life: he even chose the name of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, as his nom de guerre. His spokesman does not hide his soaring ambition: “We hereby clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of Khilafah (caliphate), it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him.”

They are not going to do that, and the sheer radicalism and intolerance of ISIS’s members make it unlikely that their project will survive unaltered for more than a year or so even in the territory that now makes up the “Islamic State”. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that the 7th-century caliphate has reappeared even fleetingly in the modern world. Bush and Blair have a lot to answer for.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 10. (“There’s…explained”; “They…attack”; and “Saudi…state”)