The barbaric beheading of James Foley by a British member of ISIS has shaken most out of their complacency. President Obama called ISIS a “cancer” and Secretary Kerry vowed to destroy it. A cancer needs to be eradicated and eradicating ISIS will not be possible for reasons discussed below. It might be possible to destroy today’s version of ISIS but that will be difficult and arduous. As Secretary of Defense Hagel said on Thursday:
- “… they are beyond just a terrorist group – they marry ideology, sophistication of strategic & tactical military prowess; they are tremendously well-funded; oh, this is way beyond anything we have seen “
We take a rational and histrio-strategic view of what makes ISIS, how we fight ISIS and what will the post-ISIS Middle East look like if we ever get there. .
1. ISIS – a Consistent Behavior Pattern
Everything ISIS does is barbaric, savage, and brutal – massacres of captured soldiers & civilians, forced conversions of others to their religion on pain of death, selling captured women into slavery, fanatical devotion to their way of thinking as the only choice. All these suggests a new mutant form of horrific evil that we have never seen before.
The reality is that ISIS is behaving just like so many others have behaved through out history.
- All Muslim armies from Afghanistan & Uzbekistan behaved almost identically during their invasions of India – from Mahmoud of Ghazni to Timur the lame to Nadir Shah of Iran in 18th century. And they were merely following the manner of their ethnic but non-Muslim master, Chingiz (Genghis) Khan.
- Ask yourselves why Afghans & today’s Bollywood stars proudly wear the title “Khan”? Chingiz Khan massacred 100,000 men, women, & children in Afghanistan, when Afghans refused to surrender to him. After that massacre, Afghans surrendered and to this day celebrate their conqueror by wearing the name Khan. Chingiz Khan was a great winner and he committed these savage massacres with a strategic objective, to get his enemies to surrender on pain of far greater suffering & killing. As a result, city after city surrendered to Chingiz Khan in his march from Mongolia to Europe.
- The Portuguese were far more barbaric, savage, and evil than ISIS of today & the Muslim conquerors described above. We all know what Spain did in Mexico. An entire continent’s culture & religion were wiped out and its wealth was carried back to Spain. And in terms of sheer numbers massacred, a continent plundered in the name of conquest based on racial & religious supremacism, was there a greater evil in the world than the British in India?
The above demonstrates that ISIS is at heart a brutal conqueror and motivated by the same fiery passion of conquest that burned in the hearts of conquerors of the past.
2. The Yearning & Thirst for Historical Greatness
Don’t forget that Sunni Arabs have been conquerors through out their history. In less than 25 years after the death of Prophet Muhammad, Sunni Arabs conquered the Persian Sassanian empire. They went on to capture Africa and parts of Europe. All Sunni Arabs know this deep in their hearts and they yearn for regaining their lost glory as they live in poverty under the norms imposed by the west.
Osama Bin Laden knew this and used it effectively. But he was a fighter, not a conqueror. ISIS combines the fervency of Bin Laden with the actions of a military conqueror. They act with the prowess, ability, and speed that characterized previous Arab conquerors. And already, as a regional diplomat said on Friday, “The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel.” And this is a region that includes the Iraqi, Syrian, Saudi Arabian, and Egyptian armies.
If ISIS keeps winning, there is no limit to how fast they can grow. Already, according to Reuters, “thousands of new fighters joined Islamic State in Syria last month in its fastest expansion to date“.
The vision of ISIS is much much bigger than the vision of Bin Laden. And their success is already beyond what whatever dreams Bin Laden had. Give them time & space to grow and they will become a much mightier enemy in a few years.
That is why you hear the urgency in the voices of General Martin Dempsey and even in the voice of Secretary Hagel who called ISIS “an imminent danger to every interest we have”.
3. How do We fight ISIS?
The religious fervor, the historical yearning of conquest within ISIS, cannot be countered by paid soldiers fighting for some “secular”, “inclusive” government in a distant capital. It needs to be fought by fighters who are motivated by an intensely religious or ethnic counter-fervor.
Think back to the defeat of the Taleban in 2001. Who fought the Pashtun Taleban under US air power? Ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara Afghans, people who have fought Pashtuns for centuries. It was a fight for their ethnic freedom.
This is why the Kurds have been the most determined fighters against ISIS so far. They know that Sunni Arabs of ISIS will massacre many of them and put the rest of them in semi-slavery. Even the “secular” Iraqi army is now fighting with some vigor. They are “Shia” and they know they will be put to death if Sunni ISIS wins over Iraq. This is why the 2001 Taleban model has worked this week. The US air force is pounding ISIS positions & formations allowing Kurdish & Iraqi fighters to advance on the ground against ISIS.
The military phase is not the only fight that is necessary. America must put intense pressure on Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to stop their wealthy people from funding ISIS. It is an open secret that rich Sunnis in Gulf countries feel deep kinship with Sunni jihadis and fund them surreptitiously. ISIS is far more dangerous than Al-Qaida and Taleban put together. Our so-called allies in the Gulf cannot be allowed to fund them to fight us. One NonPakistan that uses US money to fund Taleban to fight US troops is enough.
4. Lucky for Us?
Lucky for us that Iraq-Syria is still a closed theater unlike Afghanistan. The Taleban were tactically defeated in 2001 but not vanquished. Because they simply ran across the line of control into their sanctuary in neighboring NonPakistan. The dedicated support of Taleban by NonPakistan is what made Afghanistan an open theater like Vietnam. And you never close out battles or win a decisive victory in an open theater.
Even with the addition of the Syrian conflict, ISIS is caught in a closed theater – with Kurds to the northeast, with Shia Iraq to the southeast, with Syrian Kurds & Turkey to the northwest, Syria to the west, and Jordan-Saudi Arabia to the southwest. Every one of these regimes is either virulently opposed to Sunni ISIS because of religion, ethnicity, or considers ISIS fighters a threat to its survival despite their Sunni faith. So ISIS has nowhere to run, provided the USA can persuade/cajole Saudi Arabia into remaining anti-ISIS for the duration of the conflict.
The situation on the ground today is ideal for using US air power to the hilt to destroy ISIS battle formations and leave the mopping up for these existentially motivated fighters lined up on all sides of ISIS. But this is only ideal for an America that has a laser-like single-minded focus on ISIS.
5. So What is the Problem?
First and foremost – the Obama Administration. The US & British military folks are crystal clear:
- Colonel Jack Jacobs on MSNBC Hardball on Friday – “the irony is that our ally in the whole thing is going to have to be Syria. … if we are going after ISIS at all, our ally, oddly enough, has to be Assad, otherwise we are not going to be able to do it; it is going to require not only air assets, but also assets on the ground and that means Assad“
- Mr. Dannatt, former head of Britain’s army, in the Guardian – “the west must build bridges with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, to tackle Isis. … The Syrian dimension has got to be addressed. You cannot deal with half a problem, … The old saying ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has begun to have some resonance with our relationship with Iran. I think it’s going to have to have some resonance with our relationship with Assad.”
But this is a big political problem for the Obama Administration. President Obama had emphatically stated that “Assad must go” and Secretary Kerry had engaged in emotional outbursts about the moral evil Assad represents. There is no walk back on that stuff, at least so far. As the Guardian reported on Friday,
- “… American and British officials have firmly ruled out co-operation with Assad. Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said he did not believe an alliance with the Assad regime would be “practical, sensible or helpful“
We hope that such words are meant for political cover as the US military quietly builds an operational alliance with Assad. An America that made Josef Stalin a partner can certainly work with Assad.
The second and bigger problem is the old adage that “nothing splinters like success“. The moment ISIS ceases to be an imminent danger for this motley coalition, the divergent interests of the members will surface. The Kurds want an independent homeland while the Shia Iraqis want Kurdistan to remain a part of Iraq. We have already seen fighting between Iraqis & Kurds after taking over the Mosul dam. Saudi Arabia remains a bitter enemy of the Shia Iraqi regime in Baghdad. And Turkey may co-exist with a Kurdistan in old Iraq but doesn’t want to see a Syrian Kurdish area on its border with old Syria.
And this week, Shia militias attacked a Sunni mosque in Iraq and killed 73 Sunni worshipers, an act that prompted Sunni Iraqis to withdraw from discussions with the new al-Abadi government in Baghdad. If all this is happening before the launch of a serious offensive against ISIS, what will happen after this coalition wins a few victories against ISIS?
6. The Only Solution, if there is to be one?
The above coalition, even if it wins, is not a solution. Because each of the religious & ethnic components is limited in scope. The Kurds will become ineffective as soon as they venture out of Kurdish areas into Sunni Iraq-Syria. The Shia Iraqis of Baghdad will prove even less effective than Kurds in Sunni areas. Turkey is not an Arab state and will bring back horrid images of Ottoman rule over Arabs. The Alawite Syrians have lost Sunni Syria for ever, we think. And Saudi Arabia, forget about it.
ISIS is a Sunni problem and it needs a Sunni solution. That is why General Dempsey said this week:
- “ISIS will only truly be defeated when it’s rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad“.
Understand the significance of General Dempsey’s words – that the Sunni Iraq-Syria state created by al-Baghdadi now exists forever, a state of 20 million Sunni Arabs. The Humpty-Dumpties of old Iraq and Syria have fallen for ever. And our only hope is that a non-Islamic regime grows in this Sunni IS between Damascus & Baghdad.
What form might that take? Or what model can they use? The simple answer is al-Sisi. He was vilified by the Obama Administration but this Egyptian General arrested the downfall of Egypt by first establishing military rule, then destroying the reach & influence of the Moslem Brotherhood and finally ascending to the Presidency of Egypt.
That is the model that worked for Iraq & Syria for decades – the non-religious Baathist regime model. And there are many ex-Saddam Sunni officers fighting for ISIS. Just as USA selected and elevated some non-Nazi Germans into a West German state after WWII, America can select and elevate some ex-Saddam non-religious Iraqis into a post-ISIS Sunni Iraq-Syria state.
That is not as far-fetched as it sounds. As soon as ISIS begins to lose, the non-fervent ex-Saddam officers in ISIS will start planning for the post-ISIS phase. And American officers, especially those who served with General Petraeus, know many of them.
This is the only solution we see and it is a solution that will work. But it will take hard work and a flexible mindset on the part of the Obama Administration.
7. When can USA Disengage from Iraq-Syria – Forget about it.
Just look at new region – Kurdish state in Kurdistan, Shia state in Baghdad, Alawite state in non-Sunni Syria and a new Sunni regime in the middle of all this. Every one of these ethnic groups has deep grievances against others and harbors desires for territories of others.
How long will it take for new conflicts to break out between Baghdadi Shias & Kurds, between Kurds & IS Sunnis, between Baghdadi Shias & IS Sunnis, between Alawite Syrians & IS Sunnis?
Who will establish the new borders of these regimes & who will enforce peace? The United States of America, of course. And the first decision USA will have to make is whether these regimes can retain their military capabilities or must they be de-militarized? America will also have to ensure that Saudi Arabia & Iran don’t make these new Sunni & Shia states into proxies for their struggle.
USA will have to accomplish all this and much more. And USA will have to stay involved for a long time. Or it will blow up again with a new 3.0 Sunni ISIS. And this 3.0 version will be much stronger & much more fervent than today’s al-Baghdadi 2.0 ISIS just as today’s 2.0 ISIS is much stronger and much more fervent than Bin Laden’s 1.0 Al Qaida.
And that all this assumes we will destroy today’s 2.0 ISIS – a prospect that is by no means assured.
Editor’s PS: We encourage you to read our more detailed discussion of religious fervor of ISIS in our companion article – If Today’s ISIS is a Toddler, What Will an Adult ISIS Look Like?. Our prior articles about ISIS are:
- Alliversaries vs. Foellies – American Foreign Policy from Damascus to Kabul – June 28, 2014
- ISIL – The Really Big Mistake – June 21, 2014
- Rinse & Repeat – Levant-i-Stan – June 14, 2014
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