When Tim wrote the line ‘they’re a bunch of losers who are going to lose‘, I thought to myself that ISIS might as well give up now. Their fate is decided. The mood music coming from Europe and Washington, as well as the evidence on the ground, suggest that ISIS is going to lose.
But what if…
It is a big ‘if’, I know. It’s more of a big lumpy theoretical ‘if’. It’s the kind of ‘if’ you construct when you scatter pieces across a chess board and try to work your way out of a hopeless position.
Is there any way that ISIS could yet win and what might that ISIS ‘victory’ look like?
Now, I confess that I ask this not really knowing the answer but knowing there are better brains than mine reading this and that those brains might offer some suggestions in the comments below. All I can do is briefly sketch in my own thoughts based on my perceptions of recent events.
Only a few months ago, ISIS looked unstoppable. Western inaction gave them chance to expand their territory. Each victory brought new recruits from Europe; recruits made teary eyed by the thought of the new caliphate. What followed was the jihadists’ wildest dreams come true: sex, drugs, rocks and heads rolling.
Their mistake was in picking a fight with the West, though being jihadists it would be impossible for them to fail to do so. However, aggression towards Westerners came too early in their proto-caliphate. As the West’s hesitation proved, successive wars in the Middle East left leaders morally confused. They did not want to return to the Middle East and, as we’ve seen, it’s taking a great deal of effort before they will consider committing troops, even if those troops will be flying at a few thousand feet and on the cooler end of a laser target designator.
Was it was hubris that made ISIS act too quickly and reach too far? Did crass stupidity encouraged them to commit acts of terrorism inside Europe?
This, perhaps, leads neatly into the argument that Nehad Ismail has repeatedly made here on The What & The Why: that ISIS were really the tool of regional powers seeking to manipulate the politics of the Middle East. Was ISIS the monster created to make the West take notice of the older regional powers? The old adage about always ‘following the money’ is perhaps helpful. Who has gained most from the rise of ISIS? The Assad regime now has Russia fighting beside it and the West slowly coming around to accepting the status quo, at least for the near future. Russian have had reason to become a major regional player. Iran is not much different to the Iran of a few years ago but they are now suddenly considered the voice of ‘moderate’ Islam. Meanwhile, everybody’s relationships with Turkey have soured; the West suspecting them of supporting ISIS through oil deals, and Russia having its own obvious problems. The Elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, who some believe might even have been a power behind ISIS given that the current fight is essential Sunni versus Shia.
All of this strikes me as a reasonable assessment. It makes sense in terms of the politics. Yet, for me, the peculiarity of the ISIS tactic was that they did explicitly set out wanting to create a new caliphate and they did seem a long way towards doing just that. Their new nation would not have been the first formed through conquest. However, conquests are usually followed by periods of stabilisation, settlement, and development. In that sense, the caliphate looked less like a goal than an ideal, which they never really thought they’d attain. More likely is that they never intended on establishing a new state but through a religious war spanning the globe in the belief that the world that would emerge would be the new caliphate.
This is the argument that has ISIS as old fashioned Apocalyptic jihadists intending to draw the West into the Middle East. They want Muslims the world over to see the ‘reality’ of Western Imperialism, thereby fermenting the ‘clash of civilisations’ that people in the West wisely choose not to discuss. It is not and never has been a clash of civilisations. It is a clash internal to Islam and where that impacts upon the West is how increasingly secular nations deal with such a deeply irrational force as a fundamentalist religion.
We should, perhaps, be glad if that’s the case. More pragmatic and moderate leadership might have been more dangerous. The reality on the ground is that ISIS did too much, too quickly, and too violently. Paris was even more foolish that their act of terrorism against Russia. Putin was never in the Middle East to solve the problem of ISIS. He’d rushed into the Middle East to end to opposition to the Assad regime that threatened Russia’s only port into the Mediterranean. ISIS was a convenient excuse. In fact, ISIS was a very convenient excuse. Paris focussed the minds of the world, as did the brutal killing of a Chinese national, adding the normally indifferent China to the list of nation’s willing to support their overthrow.
But is it too late? ISIS are in losing position but could they turn it around?
In the very short term, perhaps they can survive. The American Revolution happened because the English troops, trained to march in formations and fight in structured units across a clearly defined battlefield, could not cope with the new guerrilla tactics of the troops of the nascent America. ISIS too have that advantage and it’s hard to see how bombing will distinguish fighters from civilians. It is ground troops that will ultimately decide the battle and ISIS are currently fighting Kurish, Iraqi, Syrian, as well as increasingly Iranian troops. There is no way of knowing how long that will last but, certainly, support from the air will change the balance in any ground battle.
Long term survival, however, might not mean the same to ISIS as it means to the West. The power of ISIS is largely symbolic. It exists in the hearts and minds of its fighters. It exists in propaganda and in Western fears. ISIS will survive if they do what insurgent groups before them did so successfully. They will disappear. That, ultimately, will be the ISIS victory. Above ground, the battle will look like it’s won. In the places where its dark and fertile, the roots will be stronger than ever. Their victory will be creating the caliphate in the imaginations of new and future generations of fighters. The sordid reality will soon be forgotten. It will be an imaginary victory but, perhaps, all the more dangerous because of that.
Our politicians think in terms of decades. Religious fanatics think about millennia. And that’s the problem we face. Ideas, especially bad ideas, spread like a virus. Jihadists are in this for a long haul. The version we know as ‘ISIS’ was merely one of their better attempts at spreading that virus. Our challenge is to find a way to immunise people against that virus and, if we’re lucky, we have 1000 years beginning from today.