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talkingWhen 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.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.


12 Comments on "ISIS will lose but how could ISIS still win?"

  1. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 1st December 2015 at 9:49 pm | Reply

    Thanks you David for your perceptive analysis of the ISIS Virus. Thanks also for generously quoting me in your superb piece.

    Yes ISIS is a tool being manipulated by others for political advantage. The rank and file i.e the cannon fodder do sincerely believe that they are fighting for a superior cause which is the re-establishment of the Caliphate system that existed for nearly 1400 years and ended with the collapse of the Ottoman empire at the end of the 1st World War.The foot soldiers who come from all over the world including those young muslims who leave the UK and France to join ISIS are so brain-washed they don’t know that their top commanders are working for the Military Intelligence Services of Iran and Syria and may be Iraq etc.

    Assad is taking full advantage of the situation and I summarised his doctrine on these pages a few months ago which I quote below:

    “The Assad’s doctrine

    With skilful PR, a little help from Tehran and Moscow, proceed to create an Islamic monster (ISIS), make the monster look more brutal than yourself and convince Western analysts, retired diplomats and army chiefs that you are the better option for Syria and say you are ready to fight the new monster. Soon they will use their influence to co-opt the Chief Arsonist in putting out the fires that he started in the first place”.

    However to cut the story short; ordinary Syrians don’t consider ISIS as the main problem. They believe ISIS is defeatable. The real problem is Assad. For every Syrian civilian killed by ISIS, some 19 are killed by Assad. I hope David Cameron knows this.

    • Thanks Nehad. I wouldn’t call me generous. I just read what you write and see that it answers some of the questions that puzzle me about this very odd conflict. Perhaps you can answer Lesley’s point, which I’m completely unqualified to answer. What might have happened if we’d bombed Assad years ago?

  2. Why would anyone want to race to the past and re-establish a Caliphate system from the far distant past. ISIS are very good at using and relying on modern technology, surely the two are at odds with each other?

    If ISIS did get their way eventually, Who in their right mind would choose of their own free will to live under such a horrendous regime?

    Assad would appear to be an attractive alternative in comparison.

    Obviously we should have stepped in at a much earlier stage to get rid of Assad. ISIS have a much stronger hold at the moment, due to our inaction.

    They must be defeated in the end…it is going to be at a great cost to the Soldiers on the ground…One has to ask the question when and who will be the troops available to do the fighting?

    We can understand why the FSA see Assad as the first priority to be defeated. For us however ISIS may prove to be our first priority…a pincer action would be nice.

    In any event we are right to take very strong action now (assuming the vote goes the right way tomorrow).

    • Good questions, Lesley, but surely impossible to answer unless we could also understand people who believe that annihilating themselves will open the gates to Paradise. They are not the first people to look back in history to a golden age. Hitler did the same and so do many nation and peoples unsatisfied with the modern world. Even we English do it, thinking somehow there were halcyon days of King Arthur. It’s one of the standard features of nationalism and, I think, ISIS are really just nationalists in search of a nation.

      As to who would choose to live like that? Again, what is free will? What is free will when you believe that your life belongs to a God who demands certain things from you?

      Not sure jumping in and stopping Assad would have helped. Who would have taken his place? Would ISIS now be in charge of Syria and cutting a deal with the Russians?

      The thing is: I’m not sure we are taking strong action. My sense of things is that airstrikes will do very little beyond making politicians seem strong. I wonder if we wouldn’t be better mobilising some regional troops to actually get in there and sort this mess out. A coordinated solution more akin to Afghanistan seems more sensible. This thing is still a heavily tribal conflict and it will only be solved by involving the different factions. It’s why Turkey’s recent acts have just muddied the waters…

      • Why don’t they just annihilate themselves, get to the gates of paradise and leave all us non believers alone?

        I have never thought about blowing myself up to get to heaven…suicide isn’t allowed in the Catholic faith…you probably have to come back and do it all over again, or go downstairs…not a nice prospect!

        We are all non believers…When a baby is born, it could be to a Jewish, Catholic, Muslim or any other family…so we have not chosen the religion of out upbringing. We may or may not believe in what our parents have taught us…It makes a nonsense of the whole thing.

        Regarding Syria…yes I was making the point we need troops on the ground as well as air power…or we shall not get very far, so who will these troops be?

  3. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 2nd December 2015 at 7:26 am | Reply

    Thanks Lesley. You raise some interesting points. Why race to the past? why indeed? Contemporary political Islam tries very hard to convince young Muslims that all their current problems and failures are due to their lack of adherence to the true principles of Islam. They hanker back to the days of the Islamic empire which conquered Persia, North Africa, the Levant, Turkey, the Balkans and Spain. By fighting and dying they believe they have an express ticket to Paradise as David says.

    I agree that early action against Assad would have been the better option. We must remember that in 2012 ISIS did not exist. It surfaced in the Summer of 2013.
    I agree with David regional troops must be drafted to do the fighting. Air power will help but it will not defeat ISIS.
    The least costly option is to provide tangible aid, funding and weapons to the FSA and the Kurdish Peshmerga who have been battling ISIS since 2013.

    • I agree Nehad, we must help FSA and the Peshmerga…Lord only knows what will happen when we find Russia (troops on the ground eventually?) fighting against the people we are trying to help.

  4. I personally go for the Turkey-Saudi connection rather than a Syrian-Russian-Iranian one. Syria, Russia and Iran have profited only because of American mishandling. You should read the article which I found to be very insightful. Syria’s collapse is not to be credited to IS but rather to other Al-Qaeda offshoots. IS is a smokescreen that is allowing Russia and Iran to commit troops to Assad and for Turkey to kill Kurds, because the West doesn’t differentiate between the different theaters being fought. Note that though Iran and Russia are profiting diplomatically, Iran (and Hizbollah) is paying an enormously high price in dead soldiers and particularly dead generals.

    The US unwittingly facilitated the creation of IS in Iraq much in the same way that Israel can be credited with facilitating the creation of Hamas and Hizbollah. Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded IS to hit Iran and increase their Sunni influence in the newly Shia Iraq. Turkey is supporting them with an open border and oil money because they kill Kurds.

    • Thanks for the comment and link, Rafi. Interesting dynamic, I agree. There was a fascinating article last night over at The Guardian, which talks a great deal about these relationships. I agree that the problem is that we don’t properly identify the theatres. I keep going back to the sectarian nature of this. In the West, we’re so used to thinking about nations contained by borders. This is so different and I’m not entirely sure we properly understand it. Cameron has just finished speaking in the Commons and even he seemed unclear about who would fight on the ground.

      • Agree with Rafi about the source of ISIL’s backing, there is plenty of conjecture about this which extends as far as attributing the success of the 2014 offensive to the presence of Saudi special forces embedded within ISIL, who knows?. Cameron really hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing but then he doesn’t really care does he. Our 8 Tornados clearly aren’t needed from a military point of view, mythical Brimstone missiles or no. It is a purely symbolic gesture as unfortunately HM government seems to believe that our international prestige is directly proportional to how many bombs we happen to be dropping at any given time, god forbid Francoise receives more invites to the the white house than our David. There is a saying that even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and again, given the disastrous record of 100 years of British meddling in the Middle East it seems a caveat needs to be added. How about “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every one in a while….. unless it is a British squirrel of course”.

        • Thanks, Rob. That’s very helpful. Every contribution I read makes me think it’s probably wrong to get involved in the bombing. As Rafi points out, there are so many layers to this. We don’t even know who the real enemy are and have even less idea who our potential saviours might be. The more I look at this, the more it feels like another of Cameron’s momentary enthusiasms…

  5. Anonymous,I fear you’ll have a hard time challenging yianthng by calling yourself anonymous. If I may encourage you to use your first name so I could keep track of who’s who, that would be most helpful. I have no way of knowing which anonymous commentator you are otherwise.I wonder why you feel the need to psychoanalyze me. I’m quite sure there are many wonderful Arabs. I’ve never suggested that Arabs are all the same. In fact, I have several dear friends who are Arabs, Middle Eastern, Druze, etc. As for Jews being pro-Israel the bulk are, especially in Israel. That’s merely a reality largely ingrained in a quest for human survival. Would you expect an Israeli to want to see the destruction of their nation-state that they built from swamp and dirt?I find it questionable that you’re so offended I’m pointing to the inhumane treatment Jews suffered under Syria’s regime. Should I ignore that to appease anonymous commentators such as yourself? Should I deny my heritage to appease your distaste for Israel?Peace is mirage if you expect the bulk of Israeli Jewry to hide what they went through under Arab nationalist regimes. I haven’t an ounce of European blood. So when anti-Zionists and/or anti-Semities tell me to go back to Europe, I can only conclude that they don’t know the realities of what Mizrahi Jewry faced in their native lands or that they are hateful. I hope it’s the former as ignorance, through education, can be corrected. With best regards,Reut R. Cohen

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