Can IS survive to 2023?
The Islamic State terror group may continue to thrive for the time being, but over the longer term it is doomed to fail, writes Salah Nasrawi
When the Islamic State (IS) group declared itself to be a caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, setting himself up as a ruler “by order of God” following the group’s advances last summer, sympathisers quickly cheered the pronouncement as a heaven-sent victory.
The group’s spokesman Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani even boasted that “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations has become null and void by the expansion of the caliphate’s authority and the arrival of its troops in their areas.”
In order to further establish the status of its jihadist state, IS removed the boundaries between two Arab countries and began issuing passports to its “citizens”.
A growing number of zealots from around the world, including Americans and Europeans, have flocked to the Islamic State’s territories, which once run from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyalah on the borders with Iran.
But as followers and sympathisers celebrated, detractors dismissed the declaration of the Muslim “holy state” as nothing more than propaganda. The phenomenon, they argued, was just “a response to the chaos” that has spread in Iraq and Syria. Time, they said, would prove that establishing a worldwide Muslim movement and mobilising a broad coalition of supporters is simply over-hyped optimism.
Yet, regardless of whether the global Islamic caliphate will be accepted in the international and regional arenas or not, the question remains of whether the IS-led insurgency in Iraq and Syria that has become a synonym for fear and bloodshed is sustainable.
It is true that the dramatic fall of the city of Ramadi to IS last month gave control of virtually all of Anbar province to the militants, pushing them to the edge of Baghdad. IS has also made significant gains in Syria, including the capture of the key city of Palmyra and some other towns in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
But the new onslaughts may also have exposed how the IS insurgency in Iraq and Syria has neared its limits.
In order to maintain its gains, IS needs to pursue two sets of goals. First, it needs to win over the Sunni population in the areas under its control by striking a delicate balance between its radical religious programme and their traditional Arab nationalism.
Second, it has to subdue the Shia in Iraq and the Alawites and other non-Muslim minorities in Syria by either forcing them to convert to its extremist ideology or to flee and leave their areas to its control.
Neither of these two goals will be easy to achieve.
Though IS has relied heavily on local Sunnis, including former Baathists in Iraq and Arab tribes who felt marginalised after years of Alawite rule in Syria, there is an ongoing debate about whether this is a tactical alliance or a more strategic one.
Unlike the Taliban and the Hizbi Islami of Gulbaddin Hekmetyar in Afghanistan that created national mujahideen organisations with broad-based Pashtun appeal, IS has showed no inclination to transform itself into a nationalist Sunni Arab insurgency.
A similar transformation also occurred in Kashmir where the nationalist insurgency for independence from India turned Islamist under the influence of rising jihadist movements in Pakistan.
Baathists in Iraq and pan-Arab nationalists in Syria have also collaborated with IS in the war against Baghdad and Damascus, but in order to achieve its long-term objectives IS will need to invent a new approach and build new relationships that can fuse its religious ideology with the more secular Arab nationalism among Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis.
On a broader level, IS has ruled vast Sunni areas since June last year, and there has not been much for the local population to admire. The jihadi group is harsh, narrow-minded and intolerant of dissent. Its fighters act like barbaric psychopaths willing to engage in the most brutal forms of violence in order to slaughter their way into controlling Sunni areas.
Millions of people in Sunni towns captured by IS in Iraq and Syria have left their homes. Many prefer to live in miserable conditions in camps in neighbouring countries, or brave the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe and refuse to return. Others are taking up arms to fight IS in the name of Iraqi and Syrian nationalism.
IS’s expansion in many other Arab countries, including Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia, and its endeavour to win supporters in other places has begun to pose a serious threat to regional security and stability.
As for the other goal of subduing Shia and Alawites to its ideology and rule, that seems far-fetched. The Shia, who consider IS an existential threat, do not seem interested in a compromise with the group’s militants. This takfiri group, which considers Shia and Alawites to be infidels and is bent on their annihilation, remains their biggest challenge.
The Iraqi state they control enjoys legitimacy and support among a large number of the world’s nations. The Iraqi Shia have been quick to mobilise hundreds of thousands of men and militias on the front line, and they have overwhelming firepower and motivation in the fight against IS.
A substantial number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards units and Iraqi Shia militiamen are already fighting on the side of the Al-Assad regime in Syria.
IS may be able to survive setbacks and will probably be able to engineer new advances, but its ability to sustain a self-styled caliphate or even victory in the war remains very much in doubt.
In recent weeks, the group has been seen to be losing ground in many parts of Iraq and Syria, and the tide is beginning to turn against IS. According to many military estimates, it faces a grim future and its defeat is militarily certain but probably not until it plunges the Middle East into further chaos.
One of the main consequences of the raising of the black banners of IS over an area from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean Sea is that the group has been able to change the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. While its scourges have deepened the sectarian schism in the region to a point of no return, the territorial dimensions of its onslaughts have showed that it can result in changing the region’s political map.
In many ways, the success of IS in breaking up Iraq and Syria will create a new regional order in which ethno-and sectarian-based new countries will emerge. The emerging nations of Arabs, Kurds, Shia, Sunni and Alawites, among other ethnicities, will be pitted against each other while trying to consolidate their new national identities and boundaries.
Many believe that IS’s stunning rise over the last few months has been a catalyst for what has been widely expected since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The tragic domino effect that followed left the Middle East in turmoil amidst the threat of yet another regional conflagration along sectarian lines.
According to this theory, IS, which was empowered by the same US-led invasion, is part of an ill-conceived patchwork geo-strategy to re-draw the map of the Middle East, which was defined by the European powers and established in several international agreements following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
A different map, professed by US journalist Robin Wright in a famous article in The New York Times on 28 September 2013, “would be a strategic game-changer for just about everybody, potentially reconfiguring alliances, security challenges, and trade and energy flows for much of the world, too.”
For many Middle East watchers that moment is fast approaching. In their view, the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 which established the century-old national boundaries of modern Turkey and remnants of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Iraq and Syria, will expire, or perhaps be up for review, on its hundredth anniversary in 2023.
Whether the new mapping will happen in keeping with secret articles in the treaty, as advocates believe, or whether it will be the consequences of the tectonic shift triggered by the Iraq invasion, the Middle East could wake up one day in the next few years with different border lines for many of its countries.
Until now, Iraq and Syria have resisted falling apart. In both countries IS is receiving significant setbacks, and its fighters are losing ground. The results of this week’s elections in Turkey, which saw a sharp decline in votes for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), will also have an impact on Turkey’s regional policies that have helped in IS’s rise.
At its worst, IS may prove that it was only an instrument used by outsiders who have long “gamed the Middle East,” and at its best it may be the force that destroys in order to create the future.
Whatever the results of these conflicts of historical magnitude may be, IS, with its brutality and murderous ideology, seems to have no place in the new Middle East.
This article appeared first in The Al- Ahram Weekly on June 11, 2015