To defeat or to contain Islamic State?

Is the IS really invincible as its supporters claim? By deciding not to send ground troops to ‘Syraq’, Barack Obama has denied the IS prophecy, for now. But by not coming up with a comprehensive strategy to fight the group, the U.S. and its allies are actually helping the ‘Caliphate’ flourish

December 11, 2015 02:01 am | Updated September 06, 2016 10:51 am IST

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. Syrian activists and Kurdish officials say the extremist Islamic State group has been nearly pushed out of the Syrian border town of Kobani. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. Syrian activists and Kurdish officials say the extremist Islamic State group has been nearly pushed out of the Syrian border town of Kobani. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Over the past few months, the Islamic State (IS) has carried out a number of terror attacks outside Syria and Iraq, the core of its influence. Within the last two months, it bombed Ankara and Beirut, downed a Russian airliner over Sinai, carried out coordinated strikes across Paris and killed a provincial governor in Yemen. These attacks were also a message to radicalised IS supporters elsewhere to carry out lone wolf attacks, like the one in San Bernardino, California, recently, where a couple, reportedly inspired by IS ideology, shot dead 14 people and injured over 20. The group has vowed to organise more attacks in the West, in an apparent admission of its changing strategy, which till now was focussed on the ground battles in “Syraq”.

Stanly Johny

Unlike al-Qaeda, the IS has never been a hit-and-run jihadist group. The political ambitions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of IS, had not been lost on anyone. Since late 2013, it fought for territories in Syria and Iraq, and steadily expanded its reach, capitalising on the power vacuum created in these two countries by the wars, led and sponsored by the West and their regional allies. This strategy paid off initially. The IS now controls territories as large as Great Britain and comprising some 10 million people. But of late, under counter-attack from different militia groups such as the Peshmerga, Hezbollah and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the IS’s expansionary project has come under enormous pressure.

Limits of expansion When Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, fell to the hands of the IS in June 2014, the supporters of the jihadist group claimed that it was only a matter of time before Baghdadi’s men started marching towards Baghdad. It actually moved forces towards the Iraqi capital, capturing many towns such as Hawija and Rawa. Earlier this year, they captured Ramadi, 120 km west of Baghdad. Parts of Fallujah, about 70 km west of Baghdad, have been under their control since January 2014. Still, they couldn’t breach the defence of Baghdad erected by the Iraqi troops and Shia militias trained by Iran, let alone marching towards Shia-populated southern Iraq. They also lost some of the captured cities such as Kirkuk, Tikrit and, more recently, parts of Ramadi. Stopped at central Iraq, the IS tried to move towards Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, only 80 km east of its power base, Mosul. But its advances were successfully thwarted by the Peshmergas, the militia of Iraqi Kurdistan, who were provided air cover by American jets. It is worth noting that U.S. President Barack Obama ordered air strikes against the IS only after the jihadists started targeting Erbil. The U.S. has a consulate in Erbil. The Iraqi Kurdistan has, historically, enjoyed good ties with Washington. It also has huge, untapped energy potential.

Read: >Online embrace of Islamic State, just a few clicks away

In the west of the “Caliphate”, the IS’s plan was naturally to move towards Damascus and unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It reached Palmyra in May when government troops, under attack on many fronts including the U.S. and Arab-sponsored rebels, withdrew under strain. But in the past six months, the IS has not only not made any substantial advances towards the west, but has also come under heavy attacks by Russian warplanes as well as a rejuvenated Assadian army in the ancient Syrian city. Capturing Damascus remains a distant dream.

Kurdish resistance On the north-eastern border of the “Caliphate”, the Syrian-Turkish border areas, the jihadists came under heavy ground attacks from Kurdish rebels. One of the effective strategic decisions Mr. Assad made in the early stages of the civil war was to withdraw government troops from the Kurdish areas, where rebels have long been fighting for autonomy. The IS might have calculated that without the presence of the government army, the Kurdish towns on the border would easily fall to its hands. But what happened was the opposite.

The PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), gloriously resisted the IS’s attacks. The jihadists briefly laid siege to Kobane, a small city on the Syrian side of the border, in September 2014, but were thrown out by the YPG guerrillas after a long bloody battle over weeks that nearly destroyed the city. Later, in June this year, the YPG guerrillas seized Tal Abyad, another border town, dealing a significant blow to the IS as the city was a supply line to Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the “Caliphate”. These setbacks on the ground have forced the group to retreat, from one of offence to that of the defence of the “Caliphate” on the ground.

Hegemony of terror From the beginning of the war, the IS has created a spectacle of violence that it claimed is legitimised by religious texts, and thereby inspiring tens of thousands of radicalised youth from around the world. The extreme violence it used against its victims served both as a publicity tool and a strategic weapon to terrorise its enemies. The IS knew that there is no balance of power between its military strength and that of its adversaries. But then it wanted to create a hegemony of terror in order to open a war front at the psychological level. This strategy worked in the beginning — the IS continued to attract radicalised youth from around the world and made military advances on the ground — but came under strain as its territorial expansion was halted. Also, the group doesn’t have many more high-profile hostages the beheading or the burning alive of whom could have served its publicity and strategic purposes. So, to keep the terror project afloat, it started massacring civilians in faraway regions. It could trigger chaos in other societies, help the rise of xenophobic forces elsewhere and find more foreign recruits.

Read: >Where does Islamic State get money from?

Besides, there is an ideological angle to its terror strikes in western cities. The IS’s online propaganda claims, referring to religious scriptures, that an apocalyptic war with the “Romans” (Christians) is inevitable, after which Islam would be victorious. The scripture the group refers to describes Dâbiq, a village in northern Syria which is now under the control of the group, as the location of the fateful showdown between Christians and Muslims; the IS has named its online magazine after this village. To declare the fulfilment of its prophecy, the IS wants to drag western troops into the battlefields in “Syraq”, which would strengthen its narrative of the religious war, and attract more “soldiers” from around the world.

The new strategy appears to be working through a “core and periphery theory”. The “Caliphate” is the core which should be defended and tightly controlled. If it cannot expand the core, attack the periphery, which is the rest of the world. This is a new phase of the global jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda more or less waged an asymmetric war against the rest of the world. It didn’t have a state or a proto-state. It was either at the mercy of other states — the Taliban in Afghanistan — or operating undercover or from hideouts in the Arabian Peninsula, Mali, etc. But the IS has built a proto-state in the territories it controls where it could plan terror attacks and coordinate with its jihadists living in other parts of the world to carry them out.

Multi-headed coalition How far will Baghdadi and his men go? Is the IS really invincible as its supporters claim? By deciding not to send ground troops to “Syraq”, Mr. Obama has denied the IS prophecy for now. But by not coming up with a comprehensive strategy to fight the group, the U.S. and its allies are actually helping the “Caliphate” flourish. True, four of the five UN Security Council members are now bombing the IS in Syria. But air strikes alone won’t defeat terrorist/insurgent groups. None of the forces that halted the IS’s expansion on the ground is ready to take the battle into the core, mainly because the primary goal is to defend individual interests. For example, as far as the embattled Syrian regime is concerned, the goal is its survival, not the defeat of the IS. For the Kurds (both Syrian and Iraqi), the chief objective is to stop the IS’s advances into their territories, not to capture Sunni-Arab lands which they know would be counterproductive in the future. For the Iraqi army, the main interest lies in protecting the Shia-dominated areas in the south.

Read: >Why is Islamic State a bigger threat than al-Qaeda

What makes matters more complicated is the geopolitics of West Asia. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey may not want a further expansion of the IS, but it is debatable whether they want the total defeat of the group. From the perspective of Saudi/Turkish realpolitik, the IS has weakened the “strategic depth of the Shia Iran”. If the Saudis wanted the IS to be defeated, they would have given up their opposition towards the Assad regime a long time ago and pushed for a united anti-IS front. If Turkey wanted the IS’s defeat, it would not have bombed the Kurdish rebels who were actually fighting a successful battle against the jihadists, let alone downing a Russian jet. The Americans were jolted into action only when their interests in Iraqi Kurdistan came under threat.

So, the real question is not whether the IS is invincible; it is whether the world powers want the group to be defeated, or to be just contained.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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