international analysis and commentary

The Islamic State may win battles, but will it win the war?


In a rare public speech held shortly after the self-styled “Islamic State” declared its caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the enigmatic Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not beat around the bush regarding his attitude towards the use of violence. Addressing an audience in the Grand Mosque in Mosul, the leader of the Islamic State stipulated that “[t]errorism is to worship Allah as He ordered you. Terrorism is to refuse humiliation, subjugation, and subordination. Terrorism is for the Muslim to live as a Muslim, honorably with might and freedom. Terrorism is to insist upon your rights and not give them up.” That his men are taking these words to heart is clear from the seemingly endless stream of videos and pictures of their horrific misdeeds. In fact, their campaign is too much even for their jihadi brethren in Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front, certainly not known for their moderate views on anything. Another testament to the group’s vehemence is that they managed to make President Obama abandon his “hands off” policy regarding Iraq. But dangerous as the Islamic State may be, it is far from sure that their current successes will translate into long-term gains, as the group’s greatest strength also constitutes a major weakness. The Islamic State is made up of merciless, aggressive fighters, which may enhance the group’s ability to win battles, but makes it unlikely that they will win the war.

For insurgent groups to take root, they need to find some modus vivendi with, or even win the active and passive support of, the population of the areas they are operating in. To this end, many insurgent groups have put time and effort into providing services to the population. The Provisional IRA, for instance, gained popularity by fighting drug dealing and petty crime in poorly policed areas in Northern Ireland. In the same vein, Hamas and Hezbollah are famously involved in providing healthcare and education, and the Naxalites, a Maoist insurgent movement in India, is assisting the local population in their fight for women’s and workers’ rights.

The Islamic State does follow these examples, as its units in Syria fix potholes, fight crime, take contraband medication off the market and run a public transport system. Such efforts, though, are unlikely to make up for the crucifixions, beheadings and other brutal punishments that the group is meting out for even the most innocuous offences. Moreover, given the group’s extremely sectarian religious views, living up to the Islamic State’s religious standards is nearly impossible. This means that large numbers of people will become victims of the Islamic State’s cruelty, and thus many potential supporters will be turned into sworn enemies. The extortion of small businesses, another strand of violent activity that Al-Baghdadi’s men enthusiastically engage in, does not help much either.

Interestingly, the leadership of the Islamic State appears to realize that it has few people with the skills and composure needed to strike up a rapport with the local population. In a notable display of self-reflection, Al-Baghdadi recently called on Muslim doctors, engineers, administrators and judges to move to the new caliphate, apparently aware that running a state requires more than merely battlefield prowess. It should come as no surprise, however, that there is currently no record of such professionals flocking towards Syria and Iraq in great numbers. Given the nature of the group’s propaganda, which consists mostly of graphic depictions and even celebrations of murder and mayhem, it is more likely that it will only attract more thrill-seeking, murderous thugs.

All this being the case, the Islamic State is bound to meet with popular resistance and, perhaps more important strategically, is likely to face the unraveling of the alliances that have been crucial to the group’s recent successes. It should be remembered that in Iraq the Islamic State has received support from Baathist militias and local tribes that seized the opportunity to rid the Sunni part of the country of the rule of the central government, until recently led by the much-resented Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since the jihadist-Baathist-tribal coalition is held together only by a common hatred of Shiite rule, it is a matter of time before the Islamic State and its non-jihadist allies come to blows over the way Al-Baghdadi’s men are treating the population in the newly-conquered territories. In Syria, the Islamic State is trying to keep the alliances intact by paying wages to tribal fighters and marrying into the tribal leaders’ families. This appears to be working in some regions, but there are also reports of armed tribal resistance against the jihadist group’s dominance.

Furthermore, the Islamic State’s aggression and military successes are generating a good deal of external resistance. The US air strikes and the reinvigorated Peshmerga, the Kurdish militias that are now being equipped by the US and several European countries, are already slowing down the jihadists’ northward advance. Also, Iran, understandably unnerved by the Islamic State’s onslaught, may well decide to step up its support to the Iraqi army, and there are even reports of Iranian ground troops moving into Iraq to fight the new enemy. Similarly, the Assad regime is increasing the number of air strikes on Islamic State positions, thus ending a period in which Assad and his associates were happy to watch the Islamic State take out other jihadist groups. Having made such a wide range of enemies, it is clear that the Islamic State has to establish its rule while under severe attack. This was hard to do for more than 100,000 US Army troops, which means that it is impossible to do for the 10,000 men that Al-Baghdadi is estimated to have under arms.

When analyzing insurgent groups on the rise, it is tempting to focus on their strengths and ignore the possibility that one may at a later stage have to explain that same group’s downfall. This is also true for the Islamic State, whose admittedly remarkable rise has prompted many to stress its financial resources, combat skills, discipline, strategic insight and propagandistic cunningness. However, as should be clear from the fates of Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, once held to be “the next big things” in the international jihadist movement, jihadist groups are by no means invincible. The Islamic State’s successes are disturbing, but should not blind us to the inherent unsustainability of the group’s campaign. In order to survive, the Islamic State will somehow have to take a less aggressive stance, and it is doubtful whether it will be able to do so. Al-Baghdadi’s fighters appear to be motivated at least partially by a yearning for violence, bloodshed and self-sacrifice, which in the end may stand in the way of their ambition to consolidate exactly the Islamic State they named themselves after.