Some commentators (Simon Jenkins, for example) say that the ISIS threat is exaggerated.
As I outlined prior to the ISIS march on Mosul, that assessment is wrong. Supplied by a deep well of European recruits, supported by a war chest worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and driven by pure hatred, ISIS poses a major transnational threat. Because of its pernicious reshaping of regional political dynamics, ISIS must be challenged.
That being said, over the long term ISIS is unlikely to retain control over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. Here are three interconnected reasons why.
Let’s be clear: The crisis in Iraq isn’t about general Sunni-vs.-Shia sectarianism. Instead, it’s the consequence of a blood feud between Salafi jihadists and Iran. While both seek to segregate Iraq into base sectarian allegiances, that agenda isn’t shared by most Iraqis. Indeed, ISIS is the most extreme fringe of Sunni Islamism, consolidating its power by both promising security and creating fear. The group has improved its position by mobilizing vehement anti-Maliki sentiment in the Baathist heartlands north of Baghdad. However, now that ISIS has expanded deep into Anbar province, their ideology will face an increasing social disconnect.
That’s because where ISIS subscribes to a psychotic Salafi interpretation of Hanbali medievalism, in Anbar’s tribal structured society the dominant Sunni school is Hanafi. Hanafi doctrine is more moderate than the Arabian Peninsula–centered Hanbali. These ideological divergences mean that where Anbar tribes regard their local independence as paramount, ISIS is obsessed with establishing a centralized, authoritarian caliphate. In turn, while Sunnis may tolerate ISIS over the short term, as ISIS usurps communal governance structures (and it will), resistance against it will increase.
ISIS believes it has learned from the experience of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2006, having suffered years of devastation at the hands of AQI gangsters, many Sunni-majority communities joined with the U.S. military (and British Special Forces) to eviscerate AQI. Its brutal sharia courts and death gangs simply became intolerable. Today, ISIS thinks its softly-softly approach toward music etc. will placate those in the cities it claims. It’s mistaken.
As America learned in 2003 in Iraq, occupying forces must provide basic services alongside security. The two are mutually dependent. In the cities that ISIS now rules, the collapse of government services has cut access to electricity and water. This is an especially big problem in Iraq. After all, as I write, Mosul’s temperature is 113 degrees Fahrenheit. ISIS is good at torturing people and seizing refineries, but it lacks the technical skills and bureaucratic temperament to support populations. Moreover, its theocratic mania means that it has a very different governing agenda. Ultimately, as ISIS constructs a “holy order,” its temptation to dominate Iraqi civilians is likely to overwhelm any sense of political realism. In the days ahead, it will be interesting to see how various Anbar tribal leaders react to ISIS’s seizure of border transit points to Syria and Jordan. These positions provide lucrative smuggling routes for the tribes. AQI’s history carries another warning here. As Richard Shultz has noted, the 2006 uprising against AQI was caused partly by AQI’s capture of these roads. As the summer advances, ISIS will probably face far greater resistance.
As ISIS has stormed down the Euphrates and taken towns, cities, and refineries, many have come to perceive the group as near-omnipotent. ISIS almost certainly believes that its military fortune is the result of divine providence. Nevertheless, just as occupations are complicated, managing limited military resources is also far from simple. The more territory ISIS controls, the harder the territory will be to hold (especially if it faces insurrections). From maps of territory presently under ISIS control, it’s clear that the group has vulnerable supply lines. Most estimates are that ISIS has under 10,000 combat troops, and dominating vast areas of both Syria and Iraq is a major task. And that’s just today. As Iraqi military pressure grows alongside new American support, ISIS will be forced to make hard choices about what to retain and what to surrender. The abovementioned factors surrounding ISIS ideology and governance will further complicate its ability to navigate this process. Even then, wherever ISIS tries to hold territory, it will be forced to adopt more-formal command structures and a more overt defensive military posture. Such adaptions will render the group vulnerable to U.S. intelligence monitoring and targeting.
None of the above is to suggest that ISIS can be left alone. Because of the recruits it has already accumulated, and because of its pursuit of an unrestrained proxy war between the Sunni Arab kingdoms and Iran (something I’ve long worried about), the group must be confronted. Still, we must always remember that ISIS isn’t just a deplorable organization. Ultimately, it’s also a dysfunctional one. At the political level, it can offer nothing but misery and death.