ISIL and the permissive international environment of the Middle East

February 1, 2015
ISIL and the permissive international environment of the Middle East
Paul B. Rich
Paul B. Rich Non-Resident Fellow, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency

The extraordinary expansion of ISIL across northern and western Iraq as well as Syria remains a puzzling matter for a number of commentators. Its rapid success from 2013 onwards can be easily put down to large sources of external funding as well as the incredible prize of huge amounts of military hardware captured from the retreating Iraqi army. Along with this has been a willingness to publicise its terrorist activities involving the murder of captives, the mass killing of “heretics” such as the Yazidis and the mass enslavement and rape of women. This is apparently a new type of movement that has moved beyond being a terrorist network operating in the shadows into becoming what Jerry Meyerle calls a “semi overt insurgency”, combining terrorist tactics with an effective insurgency campaign. ISIL has managed, it appears, to mobilise its followers behind a simplistic Jihadist ideology offering up the vision of building a new caliphate that will ultimately overthrow, it is envisaged, the entire state system of the Middle East established in the aftermath of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919.

However, seeing ISIL as simply a rather exotic new form of terrorist/insurgent movement avoids the regional context in which it emerged. As I shall suggest in this short essay, it is also necessary to look at it in the context of what I shall term the “permissive international environment” of the Middle East in the years after the final US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.

Permissive international environments occur at various times in international history when there no great powers present to prevent new and sometimes revolutionary states or political movements emerging to threaten international order. This absence of great power involvement can be due to a range of factors: a basic lack of political will, perhaps due to previous experiences in war; a domestic economic or political crisis that diverts attention from international issues; or simply indifference, based on a calculation that the region concerned is not really that important to great power interests.

A permissive international environment thus started in the early 1930s, as Japan got away with its invasion of Manchuria in 1931 exposing a weak League of Nations. Similarly, another such permissive environment emerged in the late 1970s under the Carter administration in Washington, following the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. This led to the 1979 Iranian revolution as well as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the same year: the latter example based on a calculation that neither the US nor the west would respond in any serious manner to a massive projection of Soviet military power.

These examples of international permissiveness also show that any actor who wants to take advantage of these situations needs to be strongly unified and motivated and with a clear set of goals. Japan, Italy and Nazi Germany all showed this kind of resolution in the 1930s as the Soviet Union appeared, initially, to do in 1979. Any apparent divisions within the challenger can easily undermine political credibility and open up avenues for those calling for diplomatic mediation: if diplomacy is to be employed it is best used as a fig leaf for political ambitions such as the “diplomacy” of Hitler in 1938 in the Sudeten Crisis, where he simply ended up escalating his demands.

Permissive international environments can also be cumulative as the apparent success in a revisionist state in one crisis can lead it to attempt to repeat it in other instances: President Putin, for example, calculated that the apparently permissive environment in Europe and the political divisions among West European states would enable him to repeat in Eastern Ukraine what he had already achieved against Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in early 2014. The incursions into Ukraine have ended up testing NATO resolve and produced escalating sanctions that the Kremlin did not, it appears, think very likely: these responses indicate that there may be a diminution in the permissiveness of the European international environment in the next few years, though much will probably depend on the lead given by the next US president.

When we turn to the Middle East, we can see that the permissive environment there has been a crucial factor in the emergence of ISIL. The departure of the US in 2011 meant there could be no possible repetition of the “Anbar Awakening” in 2007 which led to the successful winning over of the Sunni tribes to US counterinsurgency against the Al Qaeda-inspired terror campaign at that time. The remoteness of the Maliki regime in Baghdad was not alleviated by the strong diplomatic presence of an external actor that could have secured a new political pact with the Sunni tribes until it was too late.

At the same time, the crisis in Iraq was made worse by the failure to resolve the Syrian civil war as the Assad regime was able to survive through support of a number of powerful actors such as Iran and Russia. Diplomacy itself in this situation appears to have become less and less credible, exemplified recently in the remarks of one senior Arab diplomat that “everyone’s influence in the Middle East has decreased. It is just a complete mess.” 1

The ISIL leadership has been only too aware of the possibilities from this international permissiveness and developed a strategy of state building to distinguish themselves from their Al Qaeda rivals. Bin Laden, as has emerged from documents captured at the time of his assassination, had been careful to warn his followers in the Arabian Peninsula not to try to capture territory since this only exposed them to military reprisals. The strategy led to quite a gloomy outlook among other AQ-aligned militants caught up in Syria. In a position paper in early 2013 they felt that “a Crusader power, will, inevitably, arrive on Syrian territory, using multiple pretexts.”2

ISIL rapidly carved out a profile for itself by challenging this pessimism of AQ. It created a different strategy combining dramatic media-focused terrorist atrocities, such as the murders of western hostages or the mass shooting and even burying alive of civilian prisoners, with insurgent warfare in Syria and northern Iraq. The free publicity from its brazen terrorist murders has paid off to the degree that it has made its existence known globally. It has also gained the added bonuses of a growing number of Jihadi recruits, both men and women, from abroad. Its activities are also being emulated by other jihadist groups from Nigeria to the Philippines and it now represents, unless checked, a significant challenge to long-term regional stability in the Middle East, as well as a potential nucleus for global terrorist activities in the decades to come.

ISIL also exemplifies the gloomy conclusion from the historical study of terrorist movements that terror pays of and can be used as an instrument of state building. As we have learned ever since the pioneering study by Eugene Walter on the formation of the Zulu state, terror can be a highly effective means for state consolidation. 3 Time, therefore, may not be on the side of those forces that seek the elimination of ISIL unless a resolute and coherent coalition is formed to defeat it with a clear set of strategic goals.

How therefore can the ISIL challenge be met? The focus on the permissive international environment in which it has been allowed to flourish indicates that military action will have only limited effect in the short to medium term. The escalation of bombing by the US and other air forces in the region will help to degrade its military capabilities and some form of “population-centric counterinsurgency” by the Iraqi government may help to limit some of its appeal among the Sunni tribes in northern Iraq. The key, though, is a resolution of the Syrian civil war. The defeat of the Assad regime will at least enable a more coherent strategy at last to be forged to combat ISIL as a new regime can be formed in Damascus based on the majority Sunni population in Syria. This can then be linked to a programme to win over the Sunni tribes in Iraq to the Baghdad government and remove the key basis for ISIL to operate. Such a strategy will require strong resolution from both regional actors and other great powers if the permissive environment of the last few years is finally to be ended.

1 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Saudis Expand Regional Power as Others Falter,” New York Times January 25 2015.

2 Cited in J. Dana Stuster, “Jihadi forum issues white paper on struggle ahead in Syria,” March 4 2013.


3 E.V. Walter, Terror and Resistance. Oxford: OUP, 1969