By Matthias Baun Brubaker Christensen – @matthias1981
Originally published on Syria Comment on July 22nd, 2014
Islamic state: a lion and a fox?
The Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham) emerged out of the ashes of two conflicts. It was born as a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then used the power vacuum created by the civil war in Syria to create a base out of which it could create the foundations for an emerging state. However, how likely are they to succeed in their goal of establishing a functioning state? In answering this question, it is crucial to understand their strategy: do they only operate based on ideological fervor, or does their strategy contain elements of realism? Machiavelli taught us that a successful prince should learn to be both a fox and a lion, does IS have the ability to act as both?
Machiavelli’s recommendations for Princes
The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Machiavelli, The Prince.
What did Machiavelli mean in his masterpiece, which for long has been essential reading on the reading list for all first year political science students? In the animal kingdom, a lion is the symbol of ultimate strength. It is the most powerful mammal on land that is feared by all other animals. However, the lion has a weakness, it is not intelligent enough to recognize the danger of traps.
A fox is also a predator, living off preying on other animals. However, the fox is cunning and calculating. It recognizes dangers when it feels uncomfortable in a new setting. A fox does not necessarily attack if it judges that it could result in it being in danger.
A temporary alliance of convenience
Evidence from the ground in Syria shows that there is a common understanding between the Assad regime and IS that their inaction towards each other is of mutual benefit. There is enough proof for one to state that Assad is not targeting the areas controlled by ISIS, but chooses to hit more moderate opposition held areas instead. The immediate enemy of Assad and IS are the same, as Frederic C. Hof puts it “Whatever Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi may think of one another personally, their top tactical priority in Syria is identical: destroy the Syrian nationalist opposition to the Assad regime.“
In the meantime, the Islamic State is pushing further and further into the areas held by the anti-Assad. IS has shown itself to be a shrewd opportunist. It has developed a strategy of reaping the ripe fruits sown by other militant groups. They largely go into areas already weakened by fighting between the SA and the various groups making up the more moderate opposition. Currently in Aleppo, the Syrian Army is trying to use its most effective strategy: set up a siege around the areas held by the opposition, and starve them both materially and physically. In the meantime, IS is operating closer and closer to the suburbs of the city and the opposition fears that the two forces together might eventually lead to complete control by IS and the Syrian army.
What explains this mutual understanding? Assad’s calculation is that he is likely to win more easily against IS if he emerges as the victor against the more nationalistic opposition within the country. In many ways, he has paved the way for the more radical elements of the opposition to become empowered. In his view, IS would be an easier enemy to defeat, and the further they expand their control, the more likely it becomes that the west supports Assad. (Also read this in the NYTimes, and this in the Guardian.)
Undoubtedly, this unholy alliance is a temporary one. In the long term, if we see the more nationalist elements even further weakened, we are likely to see a permanent war between IS and the Syrian army. This week we saw evidence of this, when IS attacked and beat the Syrian Army in the most significant battle yet, leading to IS taking control of one of the most important gas production facility. This points to IS being able to operate with an understanding of realism. It acts like a fox when needed, and a lion when conditions allow for it. It has formed a quasi alliance with Assad, and this might be one its most important strategical assets, largely overlooked by observers.
IS the Lion
Overwhelmingly, IS has used brute force towards anyone who acts against it. Late last year the brutality, combined with IS’ reluctance to fight Assad, lead to a formidable coalition of anti Assad groups attacking IS, and quickly it was on the retreat in Eastern Syria.
However as the spoils of war came in from the conquests in western Iraq, the IS has reallocated vital supplies, including American made Humvees, to the Syrian front-lines. The augmented moral, combined with the new supplies largely explain IS’ recent advances in Syria.
Its strategy has also developed. As Hassan Hassan noted in a recent article, their forces increasingly use diplomacy to take over villages. As long as the inhabitants lay down their weapons and pledge allegiance to IS, the village is spared attack. This new more benevolent strategy should be seen in light of the vast territory it now controls. IS does not have the manpower to impose its strict rules in all the territory under its possession. Currently, it is therefore utilizing a policy of accommodation with the populace. Over time, and as its military conscripts increase, it is more likely to become more forceful.
This strategy is likely to become very effective. As its geopolitical achievements, coupled with its military arsenal and funds grow day by day, it will be more likely to attract public support from Syrians and Iraqis who make up the vast majority of its fighters. These young men are not necessarily believers in grandiose ideas of creating an Islamic state. But they will be much more comfortable fighting with a force that is well equipped and that wins battles. For a young Syrian, it is undoubtedly more fulfilling to ride on the back of a Humvee conquering gas fields and villages than to be bogged down in never ending skirmishes in largely destroyed buildings in Aleppo.
IS the Fox
On many occasions, the IS has shown military prowess a skillful maneuvering on the terrain. For a long time, it fought skirmishes with the US troops and its Iraqi allies. Rather than confronting their enemy head on, as they did in Fallujah, they employed hit and run operations and sieges. All very familiar to those who have read Mao’s military tactics (for more information about the theoretical links between Maoism and other secular theorists impact on radical Islamic military doctrine, see Michael Ryan: Decoding the Al-Qaeda Strategy). Contrary to popular belief, Mosul did not fall over night. The take over by IS and its allies, was the culmination of months of strangulation by cutting off the supply routes between Baghdad and the city. The take over was only a culmination of years of insurgent attacks on the city and in fact the city has for long been one of the main sources of revenue as a result of extortion of its business owners.
The geopolitical puzzle
IS is a result of the turmoil in the region. No state actor wants it to succeed in establishing a state. However, states are using it to advance their geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia sees the benefit of an IS in order to avoid a long feared Shia Crescent forming from Lebanon to Iran. At the same time, they fear them since the group is a real threat to their own stability. If IS is able to navigate between these fears, and gain temporary allies by recognizing its limits, it is more likely to succeed in its short term mission of holding on to some territory. Here we find a paradox and also a weakness. It mobilizes ideologically on the basis of being uncompromising in its reach. However were it to challenge Jordan, Saudi Arabia and countries beyond, it is likely to quickly be confronted from all sides.
The longer the regional crisis continues, the more entrenched the new state will become. If IS develops political callous in the midst of the chaos, and evidence shows that it has, it is likely to become an increasingly formidable foe. One which could possibly become a permanent feature in the region.
Its likelihood to hold on and expand its currently held territory lies in how capable it is in operating on a foreign policy based on realism – acting as Machiavelli’s fox – rather than only utilizing brute force. There is evidence to suggest that its leaders understand this and will use the knowledge to become a significant power. All the same, like so many revolutionary movements before it, IS is propelled by its universal ambitions which will make it difficult to stop its expansion. Its leaders have dazzled their supporters through maximal goals, minimal dithering, and lightning conquests. Reining in the expectations of its fighters will be difficult.
IS has conquered vast amounts of territory, sufficient in terms of resources to create a functioning state. However its permanence rests on its ability to restrain itself and appease its followers who believe and fight for its universal reach to become a reality here and now. If it restrains itself it is likely to lose supporters, including foreign fighters, if it does not, it will be challenged by forces that are likely to put it to an end.
IS feeds on the instability, and as long as the region remains tumultuous, the more likely they are to remain. A grand bargain is often used in foreign policy debates, but that is exactly what is needed in order to avoid the strengthening of IS. The group can not be seen as being an isolated result of the mess in Iraq and Syria. In some states’ views, it operates as a balance to counter Iranian hegemony. But its success impacts negatively on everyone. Only the United States has the power and influence to create the conditions necessary for a grand bargain between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Gulf States, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Ultimately, the stability of the region is of primary concern for all states. If Iraq and Syria break apart, it will undoubtedly have effects on the cohesiveness of the main regional actors: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The US should utilize a three track policy. The first two are aimed at solving localized conflicts, and should be aimed at reassuring disaffected Sunni’s that the US has not realigned its foreign policy to appease Iran:
- Train and equip the more nationalistic rebels in Syria so that they are powerful enough to serve as a military counterweight to Assad. They should not be able to win, but they should be strong enough to be seen as a threat to the current regime in Damascus. If they are not a balance to Assad, no viable dialog can take place between the warring factions. A negotiated settlement should be the aim.
- Reach out to the disaffected Sunni community in Iraq including old enemies such as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order. They, combined with the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, are powerful and secular forces currently allied with ISIS.
- Thirdly, the US should act on a regional level:
- Engage regional states, including Iran, in negotiations about the need for military disengagement from the conflicts. This will be anything but easy, however a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders is in no ones interest. Should IS establish itself borders will be redrawn.
Furthermore, the region is vulnerable to several actors becoming entangled in uncomfortable alliances with IS:
- The Iraqi Kurds: if the central Iraqi government starts to battle the Kurdish regional Authority for control over Kirkuk, there could be a potential of a tacit alliance between them and IS.
- The more nationalist Syrian rebels: if the Syrian army pushes ahead, and that the low level war between the SA and IS increases, they could become temporary allies.
- Jordan: although Jordan fears IS (especially in light of growing support for them in the Ma’an and other parts of the country) it is for now a less of a foe than if Iraq and Syria fall completely under the control of Iranian aligned regimes.
- Saudi Arabia: similar concerns as Jordan.
For any decision maker in Washington, it is of paramount importance that these regional weaknesses and alliances are understood and monitored. If they are not, the IS is likely to use them to their advantage.
*Matthias Baun Brubaker Christensen worked for the Danish Red Cross in Syria before and during the conflict. He earned his MSc from the University of London and is the producer of www.syrianactivists.org. He is based in Boston.