EXPERT VIEWS: Is Islamic State a flash in the pan?

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 August 2014 16:00 GMT

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate August 10, 2014. REUTERS/Rodi Said

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Experts give their views on Islamic State, which seems intent on redrawing the region's maps

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Is Islamic State a flash in the pan, or is it here for the long term? What impact is its expansion in Iraq having on the war in Syria, and the region as a whole?

Thomson Reuters Foundation asked three experts for their views: Nigel Inkster is director of transnational threats and political risk at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, chair of the World Economic Forum’s committee on terrorism, and former director for operations and intelligence at MI6; Noah Bonsey is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Syria, based in Lebanon; and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute, and a student at Oxford University.

Islamic State (IS) was formerly called ISIS. It took control of key Iraqi cities like Mosul and Fallujah as part of a broad coalition of groups earlier this year, but it went it alone when it expanded into Kurdistan.

1. Is IS a flash in the pan, or is it here for the long term?

Nigel Inkster:

Obviously we can’t know for certain, but I’m inclined to think it’s going to be around for some while to come. I think that what we’ve got here is one manifestation of what quite a few analysts have been thinking ... since before 9/11, (that) it’s a generational issue that is going to take a generation, maybe more, to work through.

It may mutate, it may take different forms ... but it’s really in many ways the latest manifestation of a jihadist ideology that’s been evolving for quite a few years now.

Noah Bonsey:

It’s not a flash in the pan. This is a group that has been around in one form or another since the U.S. invasion of Iraq (in 2003).

The question is, how big and how powerful will they remain? And that will depend largely on choices made by IS opponents within Iraq, within Syria and by the United States, and regional states who oppose it. 

In Iraq you have rising animosity among many of ISIS’s Sunni opponents, including (those) that initially welcomed ISIS’s advance against the Iraqi government.

But it’s not yet at a stage where it would be easy for an external actor such as the United States to exploit, and so that situation will likely develop.

You don’t have an American strategy to deal with Iraq and Syria, or even the ISIS problem within Iraq and Syria, and other actors in the region similarly lack a strategy.

What’s important to remember when talking about the region as a whole, is you have to keep in mind the level and extent of political division in this region right now. You have multiple fault lines where tensions are very high.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi:

I talk about a timescale of years, rather than over the next year or so ... they’ve amassed so much resources, so much territory, so much manpower now.

Other insurgent groups (in Iraq) ... are completely unwilling to confront Islamic State ... And the longer they put off confronting IS, the more IS’s power is going to grow and they really face the situation where they could end up like the rebels in Syria in various areas ... where they are confined to marginal resistance.

The Naqshbandi Army (a Baathist group in Mosul which is the second most influential group in the Iraqi Sunni insurgency) don’t even want to mention the Islamic State by name in their statements. They go so far as to blame the blowing up of shrines on the “sectarian government”, referring to the central government in Baghdad, and they seem to want to pretend Islamic State doesn’t exist.

2. Will IS be able to hold onto the territory it controls? 

Nigel Inkster:

Possibly not. At the end of the day this was always more about politics in Iraq than anything else. And a lot of the rise of Islamic State was a function of some very dysfunctional politics that were taking place within Baghdad – very, very sectarian and very exclusionary policies have alienated significant constituencies, and it remains to be seen whether, now that (former prime minister) Nuri al-Maliki who was the architect of these policies has stepped aside, something better may take their place. That I think is going to be key to addressing this problem. 

If we talk about Islamic State ... we’re talking about a hard core of jihadists, but we’re also talking about a pragmatic coalition of disenchanted groups who have attached themselves to Islamic State, more than anything out of despair with the politics of Iraq.

And it’s certainly true that Islamic State has taken a lot of territory and commands more real estate and resources than any other Islamist group has yet managed to do, how durable that will prove to be is an interesting question. I suspect actually to some extent it will, because Islamic State achieved a high degree of penetration in cities like Mosul before they actually physically occupied them. There had been a lot of subversion, a lot of extortion taking place within Mosul by Islamic State or the predecessor organisation (ISIS).

They’ve tried with some effect to provide some services to the populations they now control, and they’ve not done too badly in some respects, albeit from a pretty low base of expectation.

So it’s possible they will be able to maintain some of the territory they’ve occupied. I don’t think all of it.

Noah Bonsey:

At times it’s easy for us to overstate IS’s power because people look at maps and they see this giant swath (in Syria and Iraq) that’s controlled by IS. Well a lot of that area is sparsely populated, and in general much of IS’s power comes from the weakness in terms of organisation, in terms of arms ... among its opponents. For that reason I think it’s important to take IS seriously but also we don’t want to exaggerate its military capabilities.

Even if we assume that that number (of 15,000 to 25,000 IS fighters) is accurate, there is such a dramatic range not just in the level of training and efficiency, but also in the level of commitment to the group and to the cause within those ranks … We’re not talking about a level of manpower that is immovable or irresistible.

3. Given there’s a coalition of rebel groups fighting IS in Syria, and government forces and militias in Iraq, plus Turkish PKK fighters and Western airstrikes, what chance does IS have?

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi:

They (IS) are very militarily effective, they have advanced weaponry and equipment, they have co-opted people, they span borders.

Each of these actors in themselves prove themselves insufficient on a number of counts. The Syrian rebels have their own problems of divisions within their ranks, the fact that they’re fighting on multiple fronts as well, and that their priority is very much for example on making sure that Aleppo doesn’t fall to (Syrian President Assad’s) regime, they don’t have the manpower to push eastwards and retake substantial bits of IS territory.

Militarily the (Iraqi) army is quite incompetent at urban warfare, the Shia militia really aren’t much better either. They have been fighting in areas like the surroundings of Fallujah and Tikrit for months now but they still haven’t dislodged IS from either.

So really I think the key issue is the IS would have to break up internally. There could be a number of scenarios that could trigger that – let’s say (IS leader) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi got killed, there’s a very big question of who would succeed him.

Other Sunni insurgents in Iraq really do have to turn against IS as soon as possible and have a coordinated effort against them, and there’s no sign of that happening at the moment and the longer they put that off – if they do plan to fight IS – then the worse it will become.

Ultimately the IS is ruling a failed state. They might be the world’s richest terrorist group, but they are one of the world’s poorest states. They’re ruling a vast population spanning borders and it’s not like they have the resources to improve quality of life in a substantial way.

But also you would really need to have internal breaking up of the IS from within, or someone is going to have to put troops on the ground to deal with this problem – it’s not going to go away through air strikes, and arming those you want to support.

4. Has IS lost wider Sunni support in Iraq as a result of the atrocities it has committed?

Nigel Inkster:

These (atrocities) in and of themselves may not necessarily alienate populations depending on what else happens (and whether their own needs are being met), which at the moment to some extent they are.

I suspect at the end of the day, Islamic State policies will end up alienating substantial sections of the population they’re aspiring to control, but we’ll have to see.

I don’t think we should assume that a re-run of the 2007 Anbar awakening (a rebellion of Sunni tribes against al Qaeda in Iraq) is likely to happen, because the conditions that made that possible simply don’t exist any more in the form of a very substantial U.S. military commitment.

If it does happen I suspect it is likely to be more piecemeal this time around. It probably will happen at some point, there are signs it already is in some areas.

We have to bear in mind that a lot of the effect of Islamic State has been psychological through a very carefully thought out and executed media campaign (to spread fear).

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi:

Some of those who might have welcomed them into Mosul, for example, have regrets now when they see IS blow up shrines and things like this. On the other hand, (IS) can intimidate people, but they can also co-opt people with some forms of social outreach ... distribution of gifts during Eid, provisions of meat and other commodities.

5. How has IS’s expansion in Iraq affected the war in Syria?

Nigel Inkster:

They’ve established a significant presence within the northeast of (Syria). But there they are much more one of a number of contending parties, and it’s not axiomatic that they have or can expect to continue to have the upper hand.

And we’ve now seen that an Assad regime that was broadly content to let these jihadist groups run on the basis that they proved the essential Assad argument that this was a fight against jihadist extremists, we’ve now seen the Syrian state starting to attack IS positions in Syria for the first time.

I think that the Iranians will simply not let the Assad regime fold ... The Syria we had before 2011 has gone and it’s not coming back, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Assad will be driven out or lose territory to the point where his regime is no longer tenable.

Noah Bonsey:

Its gains in Iraq have fuelled subsequent gains in Syria to the extent that it was able to defeat a pretty strong alliance of rebel forces throughout the province of Deir al-Zor within the space of a few weeks.

IS is now fighting to expand westward, fighting to take back areas north of Aleppo that they had lost.

There’s no question that gains in Iraq have strengthened the group overall and helped fuel its expansion in Syria.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi:

It’s really reinforced the break-up of the country. The rebels in particular are now by far the weakest force. They are suffering a huge amount of fragmentation. For example, the Islamic Front is pretty much on the verge of collapse.

Assad doesn’t have the ability to crush (IS). He doesn’t have sufficient manpower ... He could crush the rebels in the west of Syria and re-take Aleppo, but he couldn’t re-conquer the entirety of Syria.

6. Is there a danger that the conflict will spread to Turkey?

Nigel Inkster:

In a situation of such instability as we’ve now got, pretty much anything is possible. But I think that Turkey probably has the capacity to keep this within bounds – it certainly has got the technical capability to do it. I think again it’s going to be more about politics.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi:

Not yet. IS know that many of the goods (basic commodities) they end up distributing come in via the Turkish border, and they wouldn’t want to disrupt that ... Although they took Turkish hostages in the Mosul area, there is no evidence that they want to start attacking Turkish territory yet.

There are charity organisations that for the sake of humanitarian services go into IS territory to distribute things to locals, and IS doesn’t interfere with that.

7. What impact is IS having on the region as a whole?

Nigel Inkster:

One of the things that IS has majored on and very, very consciously emphasised in their own propaganda is the end of the Sykes-Picot era, the destruction of that line on a map. And I think the geography of this region looks as if it is going to be rearranged for better or worse.

Effectively I think that the Kurdish region has become more autonomous, less attracted to remaining part of Iraq, I think the Shia and the Sunni (in Iraq) are more alienated from one another than before, and the post-World War One borders I don’t think are coming back.

What does that mean? Very hard to say. But what I think it means is a very fluid and very messy situation which is going to take quite some time to settle down.

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