By Roy Murray @sykes_picot
Elijah J Magnier @Ejmalrai, AL RAI Chief International Correspondent, contributed to this report.
One of the suboptimal habits of humans is to compare different things, expect them to behave similarly, and treat them the way we are ‘used to’. So, when the “Islamic State” (IS) debacle began, the world’s intelligences agencies did what they were used to – tracking jihadists back home. Since Al-Qaeda attacked the western home front, IS must have similar ambitions. They attempted to identify the jihadists, tracked their footsteps to the conflict, then they waited back home, ready to pounce on them with decades of counter terrorism experience. The hysteria grew, with ever more resources ploughed into it, augmented by vast media accounts of the threat the “Islamic State” (IS) of Sheikh Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi poses to our ‘home front’.
It became a dangerous addiction which distracted us from the real “neo-terrorism” threat. By tracking Baghdadi’s returning jihadists, the west is effectively acting as his military police, locking up his deserters – after all, jihad is a lifelong adventure. He couldn’t care less. In fact, our actions morphed into a powerful propaganda tool for the ‘terrorist extraordinaire’ – feeding his propaganda narrative that Muslims were being oppressed around the world, and must rise up against their “tyrants” and establish a great Islamic State. Focusing on the home front, The West left him alone in the Middle East, free to stir chaos, establish, and expand his ‘Caliphate’. With just 10,000 of his Jihadists and other allies, he took down vast armies and militias that outnumbered his forces by factors upwards of 10 to 1. He is not some supreme being, neither are his men super human. Rather, he is a manifestation of the “neo-terrorist”.
A veteran jihadist, he is also a cunning strategist, who designed his escapades with a powerful knowledge of the present, and a generous imagination of the future. He exploited the enmities between his enemies and preyed on their most damning weaknesses. Further, Baghdadi exploited almost every racial, sectarian, and political fault line in the Middle East and left all his enemies in a predicament. He wrong footed almost everyone, all the while being humble about the limits of his power, rarely embarking on battles where he doesn’t have ‘the edge’.”. Everyone played into his hand, and the current reality is that the different powers of the Middle East no longer have any ‘good’ options. Rather, they have options of varying degrees of ‘badness’, or even catastrophe. All this is at the expense of the local civilians, who are now staring down at an extended sectarian conflict that will condemn the Middle East to decades of poverty, threatening the social and political fabric of the region.
In Syria, Baghdadi fought the rebels, terrorized the Kurds, all the while avoiding confrontation with the regime where possible. This is evidence that Baghdadi chooses to think not only ideologically, but also strategically, to achieve his aims. The IS “Khalifa” killed his fellow Sunnis to impose his will over other “renegade” Sunni groups, while avoiding the “Alawite apostates” for the moment. He knew that foreign patrons backed the rebels, and their success would mean his demise; further, Baghdadi needed the civil war to keep going, and incidentally, this is exactly what The West wanted as well. As a matter of fact, ISIS often targeted rebel back bases while they were attacking the regime, forcing them to retreat and defend them. He also knew that the rebels were ‘soft’ targets; ruled by local warlords and, bitterly divided, they lacked central planning and strategy, despite the numerous Western attempts to change this. They were also ideologically divided, with pro-western democracy activists sandwiched between hard-line Islamists (AQ brand) and more moderate, Saudi backed ones. Further, after cleansing non Sunnis from their areas, and failing to capture major cities, rebels often presided over regions that had the type of demographics that favoured the Islamic – poor, Sunni countryside. Fearing wholesale defections, and knowing many amongst their ranks were sympathetic to the cause of the Islamic State, rebels couldn’t abandon their fight and take on IS exclusively. At the very least, when fighting ISIS, many of these rebels won’t have the necessary indoctrination and determination that is essential for urban warfare. On the flip side, inhabitants of regime controlled areas heavily resent IS, the regime is very well organized, disciplined, and armed. IS is at a heavy disadvantage, and consequently, cannot take on the regime until they have the right capabilities. And so like this it transpired that a force of 5,000 men defeated the Syrian rebels. They exploited the cultural, religious affinity with the rebels, and their strategic weaknesses, combined with a lack of will to fight from the rest of their enemies, in order to achieve their aims.
In Iraq, the Islamic State job was much easier. They quietly stirred up trouble amongst the Sunni populace who has grown frustrated by Maliki’s reluctance to share power. Perhaps, they feel nostalgic for the ‘good old’ Saddam times, where they held disproportionately great power, or perhaps Maliki is indeed a ‘democratic’ tyrant under which most Shia, Sunni, and Kurds were excluded. Either way, the Islamic State was able to assemble a broad coalition of Sunni rebels, including Baathists, tribal leaders, and others. Even the former ‘awakening’ tribes sold their soul to the devil, eager to enact revenge on Maliki for his failure to respect the deal struck with ‘The Awakening Movement’ during US presence in Iraq. Western intelligence agencies ignored the IS plan, despite being tipped off, because “it’s not our problem and not within our borders”. Further, in the spirit of ‘inclusiveness’, Maliki’s army in Mosul was largely Sunni, and, given the IS portrayal of the conflict as a Sunni vs Shiite struggle, enabled by Iran’s mobilization of sectarian militias across the middle east and Maliki’s sectarian policies, it was no surprise that many defected, and many more refused to fight IS – why should they fight their Sunni brethren and help promote Shiite rulers? They felt no nationalistic allegiance to Iraq whatsoever. So one day, a force of a thousand men swept through Iraq’s second largest city, capturing it with little to no resistance, sending shockwaves across the world, and ushering a new era in the Middle East power game.
To put things in perspective, Baghdadi is now marching on Baghdad, after capturing an area five times the size of a country (Israel) over which much blood has been spilt over the years. This isn’t even the real danger; rather, it is the brains of a decisive man who pushed everyone to an awkward state. The current state of play is the following; IS is advancing on Baghdad, while sitting on the borders of Jordan and Saudi. If the Americans help Maliki, they will empower Iran’s handyman in Baghdad; if they don’t, at best, Iran and Russia will, earning themselves yet more hegemony and foreign arms export markets; at worst, they risk an IS takeover of Baghdad, and a march on Riyadh and Amman. Saudi are in a dilemma too, Propping up Sunni rebels in Iraq risks empowering IS, while helping to crush IS would empower the Iranian project in the region and enrage the Sunni masses. Even Iran is in a predicament. Battered and drained by sanctions, and the financial burden of bankrolling Assad’s war, they are now forced to cough up even more cash and men to help maintain their hegemony network. They are certainly not in an enviable position on the nuclear negotiations table. The west want curbs on Iran’s nuclear, and military, projects; hence a deal would dent their hegemony project, while a no deal risks dire economic consequences. As for Assad, he risks Iran cutting a “grand deal” with the west that could hurt him, while a no deal would mean less ability for Iran to bankroll his campaigns. As we can see, despite everyone being an enemy of the Islamic State, they are all handicapped in their fight against them.
Taking a step back, our assumptions about ISIS have predominantly been based on Al-Qaeda – after all, IS is an Al-Qaeda offshoot. Since Al-Qaeda attacked western ‘home front’ targets, the Islamic State could be plotting such attacks as well. This couldn’t be farther away from the truth; In fact, it is contrary to all evidence at hand. Further, it represents mediocre thinking and a comprehensively poor understanding of the events of the conflict thus far. Apart from isolated ‘lone wolf’ incidents, the Islamic State has no interest in attacking the home front for the time being; it is simply not their ‘style’ to helplessly attack random targets to avenge the ‘tyranny forced upon Muslims’. It also has no interest in starting battles it cannot win. This is one of the pillars of the evolution of Al-Qaeda, and an innovation brought by the Islamic State. They aren’t here just to “terrorize” the west and seek “retribution” – they are here to create their own State.
A cunning military strategist, Baghdadi spent a long time fighting the Americans in Iraq under various different ‘brands’, the most significant being ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’, which, like a cancer, was contained by the Americans, but never ‘finished off’, ultimately re-appearing in different locations at a later date. He picked up much military knowledge and experience, augmenting it by learning from the vast military and strategic disasters which rebels in Syria committed. The examples are plentiful.
On May 22nd 2014, loyalist forces entered the Aleppo Central Prison, breaking an almost 18 month siege on the facility. During those 18 months, the prison had become a fixation for the rebel forces besieging it. Defended by a thousand men, dozens of ill-fated attempts were made to break into the facility, using a combination of heavy armour, suicide bombers, and thousands of men. The cost for these fighters was astounding – every time they tried to do the same thing over, and the result was the same; their forces became target practise for warplanes stationed nearby, and artillery from the prison. Apart from the morale boost, taking this prison would have represented little strategic benefit for the rebels in the grand scheme of things. It came to be known as one of the biggest strategic disasters ever. Thousands of Jihadists perished (including many foreigners), thousands more wounded, and vast amounts of precious resources were invested for this pointless cause. A similar situation ensured in Raqqa, but with a different outcome. The Syrian Army controls Division 17, a large besieged base, just north of the city; after IS wrestled control of the city from rebels, Instead of wasting resources, like the ‘old Al-Qaeda’ would, trying to capture the base, IS just maintained the siege. Despite being constantly accused by Syrian rebels of co-operating with the regime, they persisted in this strategy as they knew there was better use for their resources elsewhere. In addition, there are many examples of ISIS halting offensives which turn out to be drawn out and expensive, often seeking other ways to achieve their military goals. This idea of maximising utility out of your resources is one which is alien to Al-Qaeda and other rebel forces fighting the regime. Often driven by revenge, a desire for personal success, rebel war lords frequently chose short term benefits over long term strategic goals. This is a military catastrophe in extended wars.
In order for any military force to maximise efficiency of their resources and develop proper strategic plans, it needs to have a central command structure where all the decisions can be taken under one roof, and for one good. Baghdadi knew from day one this isn’t possible for rebel forces, and he turned out to be right. Despite numerous Western attempts to unify rebel forces, they failed because rebels are inherently divided due to their founding origins. Some are military defectors; some Syrian Islamists, while others are foreign jihadists. The problem is that within each of these categories, there are hundreds of warlords, each backed by a different sponsor, with a different aim and vision for Syria. There is certainly no shortage of ‘visions’ for the sponsors; whether it is a Pro-western secular state, a caliphate, a Saudi backed Islamic state, a Turkish, or even a Qatari backed one. This system of foreign patronage is inherently flawed in the context of a unified force. No matter how much The West tried to unite them, their aims remained mutually exclusive. They tried to push important decisions to “the day after”, but it is naïve to expect this to work as the patrons competed for hegemony – they won’t support a project which may not achieve this aim. Hence, Baghdadi embarked on his project from day one, striving to take exclusive control over territory and avoiding foreign patronage at any cost. Further, he devised his vision of a state before embarking on this adventure, planning all the logistics beforehand, ensuring when a town was captured, IS made its mark on it. Features include public services, supply lines, Islamic courts, grievance centres. Reports suggest IS is even conscripting young men into service in Raqqa and Mosul, just like a “real” state would. Further, IS ensured that it is self-sufficient; while accepting private donations, the majority of its income comes from selling oil at cut prices, and extorting the locals. More startling, Baghdadi is developing an ‘Islamic State’ passport; thus, he believes that the world will eventually come to recognize his “state”. Despite the harsh laws, and terror forced on its inhabitants, they are able to have the basic ‘necessities’ of life, such as food, water, and safety, unlike in rebel controlled areas.
A far cry from the ‘retribution’ style of Al-Qaeda, IS is a real military, and state, force. The message we are trying to send is that The World must respect the military and strategic prowess of our new-found enemy, not just their “old school” terrorist credentials. So, as we usher into this new era of “neo-terrorism”, we must close our Al-Qaeda books and start over.