Why is it taking so long to defeat ISIS?March 4, 2015 in Africa, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Islamic State, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Terrorism, Turkey, United States
In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has metastasised into one of the most horrific fighting groups of this century. The group has become renowned for rampant murder, the pillaging of villages and cities, widely publicised beheadings, the theft of oil and artefacts, and more recently of human organs.
Since they appeared on the world stage, ISIS has come to remind many of a combination of the worst villains Hollywood has ever imagined. More terrifying, the group’s combination of savvy marketing and recruiting, has resulted in numerous would-be fighters attempting to travel to ISIS strongholds to join the group.
The Debate: What does ISIS want?
ISIS seeks to form a caliphate that extends to the Mediterranean Sea. Their ideology has sparked numerous debates on whether they are a political group with a religious foundation, or a religious groups with a political foundation.
There is no denying that ISIS perceives themselves as an Islamic group; it’s in their name. However ISIS has modified their interpretation to create their own version of Islam. Their brand of Islam is a combination of fundamentalism similar to Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, but it is coupled with “violent Salafism” which deviated from evangelical Salafism in the 1960s and 70s. Further, the group has enacted a series of its own rulings or “fatwas” that are often in direct contradiction to Islam (for example, the burning of humans is strictly forbidden in ever interpretation of Islam—except for that which is held by ISIS).
ISIS has based its ideology on an apocalyptic message. Their magazine, Dabiq refers to a city in Syria that is said to be a site of great fighting during Armageddon (Malahim). The magazine states, “One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq.” However the mention of this end-times battle is not found in the Qur’an. It is believed to be in one of the “lesser” Hadiths. This is an important point: in Islam, the Hadith is a collection of stories recounted of the prophet Muhammad. Each Hadith, over time, has been studied carefully to determine whether it can be verified and whether it is consistent with the Prophet’s teachings. Greater Hadiths are those which have extensive historical and scholarly evidence to support them. Lesser Hadiths have limited evidence to support them.
Despite their religious ideology, at the core of ISIS beliefs is an equal mix of political ideology. ISIS conducts itself as a state; collecting taxes and implementing its own version of judicial law and social controls. It grew out of region wide crisis in Iraq and flourished in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Here too, their political ideology has been the source of great debate. Some argue that US intervention was responsible for the creation of ISIS; others argue that former Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki institutionalised sectarian division in the nation, instigating a violent response among militant Sunni groups which already existed in the nation. The political goal of ISIS is to restore Sunni Islam to a place of (at least) equality, and their political message initially gained the support of non-militant Sunni Muslims who were marginalised by the nation’s government. In addition, ISIS often calls for the erasure of the Sykes-Picot lines which, in 1916, divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of British and French control or influence.
The question of what ISIS really wants has made it difficult to know how to deal with them. ISIS governs itself as an extreme Islamic caliphate, organises like a modern state, and fights like a guerrilla insurgency.
Impact of Global Politics
ISIS is believed to have amassed over 200,000 fighters, with potential members coming from as many as 90 nations. As stated earlier, ISIS has developed a savvy social media presence, and nations are stopping people on a near daily basis from travelling to the region.
Despite a US led coalition of forty nations that have agreed to fight ISIS, the battle against the terrorist group has become. However since the initiation of the coalition in August 2014, ISIS has continued to grow.
In part, ISIS has thrived because of the complexity of international politics. The main fighting forces on the ground are the Kurdish Peshmerga, who belong to a political movement known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has sought an autonomous Kurdish state in parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government reached its zenith in 2005 when the PKK conducted a series of bombings, leading them to become a designated terrorist group in Turkey, the United States, NATO, and the European Union. The EU Court removed its status as terrorist organisation in April 2008. However, the designation by the US and Turkey has brought with it problems of arming the PKK; the only group that has successfully battled ISIS on the ground.
To add to the complexity, another nation that has a vested interest in defeating ISIS is Iran, which is on the US “enemies” list. As such, Iran, with over 500,000 active troops, is not a member of the coalition. Iran has been facing heavy sanctions that have been put in place by the west; the US has taken the lead in negotiating nuclear reduction in Iran. The US believes that Iran could use nuclear infrastructure to build weapons which could be a direct threat to Israel. Iran maintains that the facilities are part of their energy infrastructure.
In Iraq, the Iraqi military fell apart with alarming speed when ISIS first came onto the scene. It has been reported that when ISIS militants sought to overtake a region, the generals left first, leaving the soldiers uncertain of what to do; and so they left as well. Under Maliki, it is believed that the Sunni members of the army were unhappy to fight for a nation that had alienated them. With a new president in place, the 350,000 member army is currently being trained by Western forces in order to engage in battle against ISIS. However in the meanwhile, Shiite militias have been remobilised to fill the vacuum, however their presence has left Sunni Muslims in a precarious situation.
The Syrian army is believed by many to be the most likely to contain the ISIS threat. In early February, Syrian forces together with the Kurdish fighters repelled an ISIS advance in north-eastern Syria. However, Syrian troops have been divided between fighting in a protracted civil war and fighting ISIS forces. This has decreased their ability to focus on a single target.
Why are more Arab ground troops not involved?
ISIS has overtly stated that they seek to gain ground in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In North Africa, ISIS has established a presence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and along the Libyan coastline. In mid-February, Egyptian conducted airstrikes against ISIS positions in Derna, Libya, following the beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptian nationals. Shortly after the airstrikes, Egyptian President Sisi called for a joint Arab military force to tackle extremist groups in the region, and called for a United Nations mandate for foreign intervention in Libya. Sisi’s call raises an important question: why have Arab nations —particularly those at greatest risk from ISIS— not sent in ground troops to fight ISIS?
In short, many Arab militaries have not acted as fighting forces for some time. For example the Egyptian army had not engaged in ground war since the three-day border war with Libya in 1977. Further, the Egyptian military has not been deployed to a foreign nation since the North Yemen civil war of the 1960s, where it was defeated. The story is similar for many militaries in the region. Another problem arises from the history of Arab cooperation in defence. Divisions along political lines (Turkey and the Kurds, for example), prevent full trust and therefore full cooperation. Western analysts espouse hope that the GCC Peninsula Shield, a 40,000-strong force made up of countries in the Persian Gulf, will be deployed to fight ISIS, however the group is designed to prevent political unrest in existing regimes. It is a force for suppression, not battle. The GCC Peninsula shield was most recently deployed to quell unrest in Bahrain in 2011. Their targets were unarmed, disorganised civilians. It is unlikely that they are prepared to engage in battle against armed, methodical militants.
This does not mean that the battle against ISIS cannot be won. However it will require renewed training of security forces, the updating of weaponry, and the combined efforts of both Middle Eastern and Western forces. The biggest advantage that ISIS has is the political divides that keep forces from uniting. As long as nations around the world debate whether to send forces, or to interfere on sovereign land, or base their involvement on political conditions, ISIS will continue to thrive.