ISIS: Here to Stay! – Part 1/3

by Sascha Bruchmann. Sascha Bruchmann studied International Law and International Politics in Germany and in the US. He worked as an analyst, covering the MENA region.

A geopolitical analysis of the larger situation in the Middle East reveals that the currently embattled ISIS will not be defeated like its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The current environment in the region will allow it to prevail as the dominant actors are either reluctant or unable to crush it. ISIS will be contained and pushed back into Syria, where it will be allowed by most players to continue its role, primarily as a faction in the civil war dividing the Assad-opposition. The following analysis will highlighting the relevant actors’ strategies in today’s conflicts and is divided into three parts: The first part deals with ISIS itself and the US as an international power, followed by the dominant regional powers in the second part. The third part investigates Iraq, its subnational forces and concludes the series.

ISIS fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in June 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq.

ISIS fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province in June 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic “caliphate” after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq.

ISIS – a product of a power vacuum
ISIS is currently embattled and attacked by the Iraqi Army, various Kurdish forces, the Assad regime, al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army and US air strikes. However, the groups end is not in sight. It will prevail once it has been pushed back out of Mosul and into Syria, where already the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq survived and regrouped as ISIS. This conclusion is derived not through inside looks and speculation about ISIS ideology, leadership, coherence or military strength, but through analyzing the geopolitical environment which is permissive to its survival. ISIS prevails in the chaos unfolded by the struggle for regional dominance between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, which in turn is a consequence to the partial withdrawal of the US towards Asia.

ISIS’ advance has been swift since the beginning of the year. In mid-June, Iraqi officials estimated that there were 6,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq, however it is hard to estimate their fighting forces due to recent successes in recruitment and alliances with local Sunni forces. Contrary to current media coverage ISIS does not have a great amount of heavy weapons. Neither the captured Humvees, nor mortars are considered to be such equipment. It relies on fast guerrilla attacks, mainly backed by technicals and some forces that in most conventional armies would be considered either light or mobile infantry. The few US-American assets, M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) and M198 Howitzers, that would make up heavier forces are now the prime targets for US-American F-16s coming from İncirlik, Turkey and will not be around for long.

Its rise can primarily be attributed as a consequence of the complex regional interplay in Syria, Iraq and the larger Levant region, as a product of what F. Gregory Cause of the Brookings Doha Center described as the “new Middle East cold war”. ISIS used a power vacuum to survive and conquer. Its usefulness to most actors and the fact that it was and is not the strategic priority of most actors in the region have allowed its fast expansion.

ISIS positions in August 2014.

ISIS positions in August 2014.

The United States – Moving on!
This article is also a reaction to the perceived absence of strategic thinking in current talks about the crisis in Iraq. On Sunday, August 18, 2014, four high ranking regional specialists debated the US’ policy options on ISIS on Fareed Zakaria’s programme GPS (CNN) (the audio only version of the show is added below). Eventually, they agreed that US President Barack Obama should do more. They also agreed that he should do so by continuing air strikes and using the Kurds as force on the ground. Moreover, they agreed the US President had no strategy on solving the crisis in Iraq or no strategy at all. This underlines how regional policies are taken for strategies. The commentators have still not come to realize that Obama is enforcing the new worldwide US strategy for the 21st century that has Asia at its pivot. It is a consequence of this shift in priorities and force structure that the Obama administration has been reluctant to use force in the Middle East recently. Obama accepts the power vacuum and ensuing conflict between Saudi-Arabia and Iran as a byproduct of this centennial shift towards Asia. However, he needs to think of China. It is this perceived void of power projection that allows other actors to fill in. It serves as a framework for the players in the region and thus is a permissive variable for the current struggle in the Middle East.

The US wants to leave a stable Middle East, where it can enjoy a peace dividend similar to the one in Europe after 1990. Leaving in this case means that the US cannot allow itself to be pulled into another decade of war consuming more power assets, may they be blood, treasure or political capital. It will not intervene with boots on the ground, but rather air strikes, drones, Navy assets and special forces. In order to achieve the maximum goal of stabilizing the region the US wants to see Assad fall and be replaced by a moderate Syrian government. Currently the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces in Istanbul is the Western-backed and regionally supported organization for this task, although infighting between its backers has at times paralyzed it. In Iraq the US wants to maintain the territorial integrity and “for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government—one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and one that can unify the country’s fight against ISIL” as President Obama said. ISIS is a threat to the goals in Iraq, but at the same time a tool against Assad as Karl Mueller from the RAND Organization reveals. Thus, it is not schizophrenic of the US to attack ISIS in Iraq and leave it in Syria. ISIS is one of several challenges for the US in the region. To put it into perspective, ISIS is still not the strategic objective in the Middle East for the US. From the US point of view it is one thing to join the fight against Assad, but a completely different thing to conquer territory for a terrorist group, which actually confuses the US interests regime change and fight against Islamist terror. Thus, ISIS has come to be considered a regional challenger to US interests in the magnitude of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or a disintegrating Iraq. However, ISIS, Syria and Iraq constitute factors in a wider calculation of a balance of power between Saudi-Arabia and Iran in the struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. For the US, the sole global power, the Middle East itself is on pair with the challenges of Russia or China – “industrialized nations with sophisticated militaries.”.

US action in Iraq and inaction in Syria reveals a prioritization in which ISIS cannot be number one as Professor David C. Hendrickson notes in “The National Interest“:

The implications of making ISIS enemy numero uno in the region are far-reaching. It means accepting a greater Iranian role in the defense of Iraq, and especially the defense of Baghdad. It means stopping “humanitarian” assistance across the Turkish border that would in any way run to the benefit of ISIS. […] Perhaps above all, it means giving up on the now obviously failed and disastrous policy of encouraging armed revolt in Syria. That means accepting Assad, for the foreseeable future, as a permanent part of Middle Eastern political geography and enlisting him in the struggle against ISIS. — Professor David Hendrickson, “The ISIS Challenge: A Tough Problem, Even Tougher Solutions“, The National Interest, 15.08.2014.

The US want to implement a government in Syria that is not allied to Iran. Hence, they can break Iran’s axis of resistance and force it to the negotiation table over its nuclear programme. Through this they can calm Saudi-Arabia’s fear, dampen the security dilemma and decrease their footprint in the region; pacifying the Middle East one piece at a time with the replacement of Assad as cornerstone. The US will not completely leave the Middle East, but it will become more of an offshore balancer, as today in Iraq, 2011 in Libya or as it was prepared to be in 2013 in Syria. Naval and Air Force presence in Bahrain and Qatar is already the foreseeable centerpiece of this restructuring process.

The misconception with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces is that it will probably be dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest faction within it and the affiliated Free Syrian Army. In Iraq the misconception is that there has ever been a government of national unity to be reestablished. Saddam Hussein’s rule was based on Sunni dominance as much as Shia forces ruled after him. The only way out of the sectarian crisis seems to be a more and more federated state.

Eventually, Obama will stick to his plan. The fate of US dominance will be decided in the Pacific and China will not wait. A change of plans back towards the Middle East is not in the US’ interest.

Read also the second part, which will deal with the dominant regional powers.

More information
Fareed Zakaria’s discussion about the crisis in Iraq from his show, aired on Sunday, August 18, 2014:

This entry was posted in English, International, Iraq, Sascha Bruchmann, Security Policy, Syria, Terrorism.

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