Will ISIS grow or is it set to meet its death?

American President Barack Obama is betting that over time, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will be eliminated

Jamal Khashoggi
Jamal Khashoggi
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American President Barack Obama is betting that over time, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be eliminated. He clearly said so during a televised interview last Sunday. Obama said: “Local residents in Iraq will eventually reject extremists due to their violence and extremism.” Now, unless the ISIS surprises us with a new policy, slyness and wisdom, this is an acceptable and possible theory especially when considering the history of similar salafist jihadist groups who exhausted themselves by their extremism, hastiness and confidence in their own power.

So, there’s no American military operation against the ISIS. Last Wednesday, the Americans were quick to deny a state-run Iraqi television’s news report alleging that American jets shelled ISIS posts. The Americans denied this report just minutes after it was released. This confirms their concern to avoid the confrontation with the organization - until now. It’s an American military and political analysis that’s even considered acceptable and proper by America’s allies who are worried about the expansion of the ISIS - allies like Saudi Arabia. In an article published in The Telegraph, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UK, Mohammad bin Nawaf, clearly called for not intervening and said Iraqis must sort out their crisis by themselves. He was also more specific as he clearly voiced his rejection of air strikes against extremists. “An airstrike will not just eliminate extremists – who we do not support – but will effectively sign the death warrant of many Iraqi citizens,” he said.

There are six million people who now live under ISIS, who will pay their wages? Who will provide for their needs?

Jamal Kashoggi

It’s an accurate description of the current situation. The only one who wants American airstrikes against ISIS - where they are stationed in Sunni Iraqi areas - is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who’s supposed to be the protector of all Iraq. When yesterday’s allies told him they will not be the air force of sectarian Shiite militias, he ordered his jets to shell rebel areas and allowed his other sectarian ally Bashar al-Assad to shell targets inside what is supposedly his country. This resulted in more victims and saw Assad’s barrel bomb tactic being used in Iraq. It also resulted in more Iraqi Sunni hatred of Maliki, his regime and sect and further welcoming of the ISIS.

A bigger dream

Therefore, it’s possible to say that the ISIS will last but will not “expand,” knowing that the slogan “lasting and expanding” is the ISIS’ most popular slogan on social media networks. These angry youths have a bigger dream than the mere state of Iraq and Syria.

Another reason it is possible to say ISIS is “lasting” is that ISIS, as Kurdish politician Barham Salih put it, “has grown through the gaps which Iraqi politicians created among them.” Mr. Maliki is steadily creating more gaps. It’s as if he intentionally wants to grant ISIS more reasons to be powerful. He strongly opposes ceding power and he still deals with the constitution - which he violated more than once - like it still means something, even after the notion of “one country” collapsed. Unless active American and British pressures on Baghdad, Riyadh, Tehran and Arbil succeed and unless a government that can confront ISIS is installed, the group will last.

It’s clear that the outburst of Mosul’s victory and what followed of the Iraqi army’s collapse and ISIS’ entrance to several cities and towns and its seizure of military bases have decreased as if it’s reached its peak. It’s now possible to draw an approximate map of ISIS’ territory: It’s most of Sunni Iraq and central Iraq. It’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kurdistan as it also began to draw the borders it wants for itself and has established a buffer zone between ISIS and Iran. In the east and south, ISIS has reached its extent. Although Samraa is Sunni, ISIS did not enter it due to the government’s power there and due to the strong presence of the Islamic party there. Instead, ISIS attacked the Brotherhood there and accused them of treason. As for Baghdad, it’s still unattainable for ISIS as Maliki and those before him altered its demographics. Its Sunnis have decreased by 13 percent and therefore ISIS has lost possible supporters in the city. When it comes to its victories, ISIS does not depend on its military power - which experts disagree over and which certainly doubled after seizing Mosul - and it does not depend on the policy of intimidation and horror which it spreads. It depends on dismantling the political and social infrastructure of cities and regions it targets through sleeper cells and through recruiting men and terrorizing people. It also targets this infrastructure by exploiting the mistakes of politicians like Maliki and others who resemble him. It then sweeps these cities and towns like a torrent sweeps a low-lying land. Perhaps the aforementioned also answers the question of whether ISIS will not just last, but also expand.

Black banners and flags

No ceasefire will be announced but black banners and flags of the Islamic state have begun to flutter on the Kurdish-ISIS borders - so to speak. Then it’s only a matter of time and borders will be drawn with Shiite Iraq (maybe this is what Maliki and Iran want), and then some sort of secret agreement will be reached to cease shelling in exchange for ending suicide bombing operations in the Shiite heartland of Iraq.

Then , time will go on and the outcome will completely depend on the performance of ISIS which will confront three challenges. The first one is specifying its relations with other factions and tribes. Its problem is that it does not see itself as an organization. It views itself as the “Islamic state” and believes everyone must listen to it and obey it. Success brings victories and so does intimidation, but it could also lead to rejection as occurred in 2008 when local tribes turned against al-Qaeda and its leader Zarqawi in Anbar. ISIS hasn’t forgiven them for this until now but it seems it’s learnt from that mistake.

The second challenge is its relations with the residents. There are six million people who now live under ISIS, who will pay their wages? Who will provide for their needs? How will they export their oil? Will the world besiege their state? The Kurds will certainly not. Will they interfere in residents’ lives and restructure them according to their extremist salafist convictions? Will this be a reason to revolt? Only time will tell.

The third and most dangerous challenge is the carefree hours in Anbar when ISIS leaders relax following a heavy meal and gather around a calm fire sipping tea, and when someone asks their emir what their next move will be and whether it’s a terrorist operation in New York, London or Riyadh as time and distance are no longer a problem. In this case, even Obama will turn into a George Bush.

There’s no need to worry as there’s still time to take action and there is time until a massive and all-inclusive battle in Syria. But until then, I hope our countries stay safe.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 1, 2014.


Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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