Can ISIL be contained?

June 3, 2015
Can ISIL be contained?
Paul B. Rich
Paul B. Rich Non-Resident Fellow, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

It is clear that the rapid rise of ISIL/Daesh from the early months of last year has severely wrong-footed policy makers and analysts in the west and the Middle East region. What was dismissed by President Obama in early 2014 as “junior varsity” has morphed into a major strategic threat to the Middle East region.

There has been a tendency in some quarters to characterise ISIL/Daesh a latter day example of an “end of days”-type millenarian movement with whom it is simply impossible to reason or negotiate: it is almost as if a major army in the Middle East has suddenly come under the command of a religious fanatic like Jim Jones. There are dangers in such a simplistic analysis. While the movement clearly has a rigid doctrinal Salafism that leads it to destroy priceless archaeological sites, the reality is that behind the religious caliphate ISIL/Daesh created in June last year is a well-organised series of military formations that are mostly organised and commanded by former Baathist army officers. ISIL/Daesh functions as a harsh blowback to the ill-considered decision of Paul Bremer in 2003 to disband Saddam’s army of some 400,000 men and throw it onto the streets.

ISIL/Daesh is  both a religious insurgency and one guided by a range of tactical and strategic considerations that need to be carefully considered if any coherent counter strategy is to be developed to contain if not destroy it.  ISIL/Daesh has managed to develop its own version of hybrid warfare based on the effective use of terrorist bombings and assassination to demoralise its enemy; it has also resorted to more familiar forms of guerrilla warfare as well as using the rapid transportation of highly trained and motivated irregular forces into new battle zones to wage what be called in old-fashioned parlance “small war”.

It is hard to see the movement maintaining this sort of momentum indefinitely. Part of its success in Anbar Province west of Baghdad, for instance, is that many of its former Baathist commanders come from this region and know it well. They have made use of their detailed knowledge of the geographical terrain and the social and tribal composition of the local population as force multipliers in situations when they are often at a numerical disadvantage against the Iraq Security Forces (ISF). It is hard to see how they can replicate this if they move into new and more unfamiliar terrains such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, though threats to invade these states must be considered a high probability if ISIL/Daesh is not contained..

ISIL/Daesh, indeed, has managed over the last year to establish itself as a major player in Iraq and Syria as well as forging a large links with a range of supporting organisations world-wide: it is estimated that it has at least 32 partner organisations and has recruited between 20-30,000 foreign fighters, though many of these have minimal military skills or training.[i] The large numbers of willing new recruits helps it overcome a high rate of battlefield casualties but this might become increasingly difficult if restrictions are successfully enforced on movement into areas under its control.  It is also hard to see how ISIL/Daesh can continually replenish much of the weaponry it has captured and many of these assets will doubtless degrade if no spare parts to service them can be obtained. Some analysts have suggested that the caliphate has already lost up to 75% of its former finances and the movement will find it increasingly hard to function as a serious state once it is unable to obtain the constant supplies of new revenue: it may indeed be forced to extort more and more resources from the population under its control, so possibly undermining its popular base among sunnis. [ii]

As we have seen ISIL/Daesh is not a weakly-led movement that simply reacts to external events: its considerable military gains in the middle of 2014 appear to have been well planned. The collapse last year of the ISF came in the wake of a long “soldiers harvest” campaign involving attacks on check points, assassinations of soldiers off duty as well as the destruction of soldiers’ homes. The campaign was concentrated in Mosul and Ninawa, the main targets of the advance in June 2014. [iii] The movement has also been remarkably successful in maintaining its momentum by opening up new surprise attacks even when it has been thrown back on other fronts. This was seen recently, for instance, when a small ISIL/Daesh force of well-trained militants took the city of Ramadi after earlier losing Tikrit following a protracted assault by the ISF with its Shi’a militia allies. The attack on Ramadi was aided by the use of massive suicide bomb attacks which had the effect of demoralising the poorly-led ISF forces numbering some 2000 against an ISIL/Daesh force of only 200. The capture of the town proved highly symbolic for it was here that the local leaders were especially important in mobilising the support of the Sunni tribes behind the “Anbar Awakening” against the AQI in 2006-7. [iv]

Clearly an apocalyptic jihadi ideology can help to galvanise and motivate a military formation; but its success is also due to its ability to deploy a range of battlefield tactics. This is also a movement that has an army with extensive battlefield experience across a variety of regions: some of its jihadist volunteers, for instance, come from older conflicts such as Chechnya in the Caucasus. The more ISIL/Daesh wins on the ground the more it will be able to garner further support internationally including jihadi volunteers as well as the affiliation of bandwagoning Islamic movements. Forming a coherent strategy to at least contain, if not roll back such an organisation will not be easy.

The Obama administration has so far adopted a policy of containment, though this might be more accurately called “containment-lite” since it has been pivoted around the central premise that there should be no more “boots on the ground.” This containment policy has amounted to a range of measures that include the selective bombing of ISIL/Daesh targets, efforts to limit the external financing of the ISIL/Daesh regime as well as the flow of jihadi fighters, the building up and training of the ISF in Iraq and a broader effort to try and delegitimize the ISIL/Daesh ideological “brand”. It has also adopted some surprise attacks by special forces to assassinate middle level ISIL/Daesh cadres, on lines similar to those developed by the Israelis. However, none of these measure have, so far, been especially successful. [v]

True containment stretching back to the formulation of the original containment policy in the late 1940s by the Truman administration never precluded military engagement – indeed the policy led to the eventual creation of NATO in 1949. Replicating such a strategy in the Middle East in the context of severe state crisis in both Syria and Iraq will be politically risky, though it is possible to see such a strategy eventually emerging in a more coherent form in the medium to longer term.

The ISIL/Daesh threat to regional stability will be increasingly heightened if this quasi-state manages to capture a major capital such as Baghdad or Damascus. While either city might fall Damascus must look the more likely in the context of a general western reluctance to aid the Assad regime, though the fall-out from the black ISIL/Daesh flag flying over the centre of this city would be profound. The symbolism would resonate throughout the Arab world generating increasing panic among many Arab states. It might be, at this point, that a more coherent containment policy could at last start to be applied in the region even though it risks further ISIL/Daesh gains in the short run. The two most obvious states immediately at risk after such as success in Syria would clearly be Jordan and Saudi Arabia – the case of Jordan raises the inevitable question of any likely Israeli response since it is hard to imagine that any government in Jerusalem could accept the collapse of its neighbour and the prospect of direct ISIL/Daesh incursions into Israeli territory, with the concomitant prospect of a revolutionary mobilisation of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.

The major western powers may then be faced here with a situation roughly akin to the Gulf War One when a missile defence system was installed in Israel to prevent a direct Israeli military response to the rocket attacks from Iraq that would threaten the cohesion of the alliance forged by the Bush administration to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Any similar direct Israeli responses against ISIL/Daesh would also undermine the alliance against ISIL/Daesh and confirm for ISIL/Daesh propagandists the apparent alliance between Zionism and the “apostate” states in the Middle East.

A direct western military presence, then, is probably going to be inevitable at least to protect the Jordanian regime from ISIL/Daesh attacks: assets may also need to be placed in the south western part of Syria in support of Syrian forces supported and trained by the west, though these are at present almost non-existent given the virtual collapse of the Free Syrian Army.  Likewise it may be necessary to send back a corps size force (30,000 +) into Iraq in order to stabilise the situation in Baghdad and enable the ISF to have some breathing space given that any programme of recruitment and training that could take several years. Making a case for this sort of western re-insertion is unpopular in the current isolationist climate in Washington, London and other capitals and it may be that the march of military events will dictate in the end the pattern of western response.

Certainly any roll back of ISIL/Daesh forces is going to be difficult short of a major military coalition being put into place at ground level. One far more immediate strategic concern is the restoration of some level of legitimacy of the Iraqi state. Here its reliance upon shi’a militias known as the Hashid Shaabi is likely to prove self-defeating in the longer term. While the shi’a may be able to regain control of some military positions their clear support for the government in Baghdad appears to confirm only too clearly the sectarian regime that was constructed by Nuri al-Maliki in the years after 2006. As Geraint Hughes has recently pointed out, using militias frequently enhance rather than reduce ethnic or sectarian conflict as well as intensifying the level of military brutality as the war takes on a sectarian overtone. [vi] Militias might still be used as auxiliaries by a state, especially in the areas from which they are recruited, but on the whole it is bad strategy to reply on them as substitutes for a proper national army.

Seen in this light, it is probably going to become inevitable within the next few years that there will be a future western re-engagement in the Middle East. This will become essential to prevent ISIL/Daesh developing to the point where it threatens regional war, military escalation to possible nuclear levels and a massive shock to the global economy. It is essential to start thinking through a coherent strategy by which this re-engagement can be most successfully prosecuted. If left unchecked, ISIL/Daesh threatens to expand into a monstrous regional theocracy that might begin to compare to North Korea: it would be foolhardy to assume that any such entity will simply collapse from its apparent internal contradictions.

[i] Jamsheed K. Choksy, “Ending the Islamic State’s Siren Song”, May 14 2015. Accessed 20 May 2015.

[ii] “The caliphate cracks,” The Economist, March 21 2015.

[iii] Michael Knights, “ISIL’s Political-Military Power in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel, 7, 8 August 2014, 2.

[iv] Hassan, “The ISIS March Continues: From Ramadi on to Baghdad?” May 19 2015. Accessed 20 May 2015.

[v] Derek, “ISIS is not losing, so the US is not winning,” 19 May 2015. www.http://derekharvey,org/2015/05/19. Accessed 20 May 2015.

[vi] Geraint Hughes, “Militias in Internal Warfare: From the Colonial Era to the Contemporary Middle East,” presented to be presented to the Proxy Actors Workshop, University of Glasgow, 22-23 June 2015.