Posted by Joshua on Saturday, September 13th, 2014
ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks
By Balint Szlanko – @balintszlanko
For Syria Comment, Sept 13, 2014
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan—The extremist group known variously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or simply Islamic State, has maneuvered itself into a difficult situation over the last couple of months. Fanatical groups like this are prone to violent overreach and they often end up with everybody else ganging up on them. ISIS is no different and now it will pay the price. It may also be far weaker than it looks, for it’s only really been able to shine against much weaker enemies.
ISIS’ big gains in Iraq (they took Mosul in early June and the Sinjar region in early August) have led to a situation where most of the region’s players have allied themselves against it, including archenemies like Iran and the U.S.—and that was before the Obama administration started building a broad international coalition against them. The Iraqis have already got rid of their incompetent prime minister, Nour al Maliki, whose sectarian policies are largely responsible for driving many Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State. The new Iraqi government seems to have a broader political and sectarian basis, although whether that will have any effect on the ground remains to be seen. As it has been pointed out elsewhere, Iraqi governments usually have a broad confessional basis, the problem is that this doesn’t really get reflected in policy outputs.
More important is that the military cooperation between the Iraqis, the U.S. and the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government is already delivering results. The Kurds have got a much-needed morale boost from the American airstrikes against ISIS and the Western military aid that is already being flown into Kurdistan (so far small arms, ammunition and anti-tank weapons have arrived, ministry of peshmerga officials told me in Erbil, but heavy weapons have been promised as well). They pushed back ISIS forces around the Mosul Dam Lake, west of Erbil, and in the south of the KRG around Jalawla, though Jalawla itself remains under ISIS control.
The Iraqi Army, helped by Shiite militias, has also gained some ground (though it may be more accurate to say that Shiite militias, helped by the Iraqi Army, have gained ground, which is bound to cause big problems later). Even in Syria we are seeing some results by anti-ISIS forces: the militants have been stopped north of Aleppo by a coalition of moderate rebels who have even retaken some of the villages they lost in August. In the east, the Kurdish militia, the YPG, drove them all the way down to the south of Hasaka city. To be sure, these frontlines all have their own dynamic and developments there should be analysed more or less independently. But the fact remains that ISIS is now facing determined adversaries on several very long frontlines both in Iraq and Syria, clearly a big problem for any state or insurgent group. It will soon face more U.S. airstrikes too.
The bottom line is that while ISIS looks strong, it really isn’t as strong as its fearsome reputation suggests. It is an organised, highly motivated guerrilla group with lots of experienced fighters. It builds on the weaknesses of its enemies by sending its highly mobile, quick-moving forces to places where they are least expected, uses suicide bombers as just another battlefield tool, and it magnifies the fear created by its shocking brutality with effective publicity. And now it has also got a significant amount of heavy weapons and armour, captured from the Iraqis, plus an influx of men, some from disenchanted Syrian rebel groups, some from Sunni tribes and other Iraqi insurgent group. It also has a lot of money, some from robbery, some from kidnappings and some from protection rackets.
And yet ISIS have only really been successful in areas where it faced no serious resistance: in the political and military vacuum of the Sunni heartland, in eastern Syria and central and western Iraq. Its significant battlefield successes have really only been against disorganized and undermotivated enemies, such as the Iraqi Army or Syria’s disparate rebels, or isolated outposts of the Syrian Army, under siege for a very long time. Whenever it had to confront a determined and organised adversary, such as the Kurdish YPG in northeastern Syria, it has always been bested. Even Syria’s ragtag rebels managed to kick it out of northwestern Syria early this year, though that was before its big Iraqi victories and associated growth in strength. The same thing is likely to happen now, if only because launching surprise attacks against largely undefended cities is very different from defending the large geographic area it now controls against coordinated attacks (and the U.S. Air Force).
This means that ISIS can be contained, its abilities degraded, perhaps quite severely. It doesn’t mean it can be destroyed, not with these tools alone. For that, the dysfunctional policies of the Sunni heartland would have to be addressed, its institutions strengthened, so that their own moderate parties can contain the impulses that have led to ISIS’ emergence, without the need for American airstrikes and Kurdish or Shiite militias. Clearly this is the real challenge and there is no obvious solution in sight. ISIS’ brutality may or may not lead to local resistance—so far those who have tried paid dearly. The Sunni tribes, the heartland’s only visible institutions, are too weak, as are Syria’s moderate rebels. The Syrian and Iraqi states, or what has remained of them, are discredited. It is probably impossible to put these countries back together again. But that doesn’t mean ISIS cannot be contained in a manageable geographic area. My bet is that it’s likely to stick around for a while but in a much weakened form.
Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist who has covered Syria since early 2012 and has recently completed two trips to the Kurdish areas