The view from Raqqa: The many, many challenges of the Islamic State

Welcome to a world of imagination! So you go to bed one night and you wake up the next day in the body of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the leader of ISIS.  Now you might think you can imagine your way out of this scenario, since we’re in a land of magic and wonder, but much like the Neverending Story, there are rules you must play by.  The first rule is simple: you are either Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or you’re dead Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Once the initial shock wears off over morning tea, you are presented with the many, many challenges of ruling the nascent Islamic State.  If being magically transformed into a dour, overly religious man hunted by the U.S. wasn’t bad enough, you have a country to try to establish.

Let’s start with what you can pat yourself on the back for

You’ve done what seemed to be the impossible: you’ve broken the post-World War I order that’s made it so that Arabs have had virtually no say in their borders, rulers, or systems of governance.  Even Saudi Arabia was brought into existence thanks to British negligence.  You have claimed a new country on borders you’ve conquered in spite of the opposition of every country in the region and many around the world.  No mean feat.

Plus, you’ve gathered key allies in both Syria and Iraq that have paved the way for expansion beyond anyone’s dreams.  With the fall of Mosul came the bonanza of American-supplied arms, including tanks and Humvees, which have given you tactical parity with the Syrian regime and made Baghdad pause before trying to take the offensive.

And you’ve got the most legitimacy any jihadist group has had since the Afghan war against the Soviets.  For those who yearn to overthrow the Western-led order, you are the greatest hope.  You defy London, Washington, and Moscow by beheading journalists, attacking supposedly protected allies, and basically doing whatever you want in the pursuit of your goals.  You fear no man nor king; even Riyadh shivers to think of how loyal your foot soldiers are.

Classy guys. Real classy.

But that’s where the good times end

Beyond the feel-good moments of overthrowing Sykes-Picot and telling the western world to go fuck itself in as many ways as possible, you’re coming up against some hard limits.  Your litany of challenges are growing; some might even go so far as to call them outright problems.

Problem #1: your conquered territory is resource poor

You grabbed the Syrian oil fields, and good on you for that, but they are not exactly oceans of oil, and you don’t have a seaport to export them to the wider black market.  You have no pipelines and must truck the stuff to smugglers who will only pay you half of what it’s actually worth.  Fine and dandy as you do need to make basic payroll.  Even jihadists expect to feed their families.

But beyond that bit of oil, you don’t have much going for you: no heavy minerals, plenty of desert, and an agricultural zone that has been in decline since the Bronze Age.  Your water supply is decent, thanks to the rivers you now control, but few great empires have ever gone on to world conquest while having to rain dance between campaigns.  And while those rivers would be great to use for trade and further conquest, you don’t really have that option: the Iraqi dam network is back in your enemies’ hands, and even if you could make to the Persian Gulf, there awaits the mighty American navy ready to sink whatever flotillas you can cobble together.  Remember: without heavy minerals, you’ve got fuck all chance of building a navy that might challenge the 5th Fleet.

Problem #2: You can’t replace your heavy weapons

You can always buy bullets, RPGs, and other small arms on the black market; some asshole will be willing to bring that in no matter how hard the world clamps down.  But tanks, APCs, and missiles?  Those are the backbone of your nascent army, but they are in limited supply, and every loss you have is one you cannot replace.  Even if you manage to use these assets well, they’ll eventually get old and break down, and getting replacement parts will be hard, if not impossible.

Worse, the foot soldiers you’ve impressed so gosh darn much aren’t always the brightest bunch.  The tank mechanics, the pilots, and the guys who can build and design the heavy weapons you’ve come to love are still smart enough to stay loyal to Baghdad or Damascus.  Even if you’ve managed a few defections, there just aren’t enough of them to get a proper arms industry up and running.  Countries with far more advantages than you – in the Gulf states – have tried and failed for years to do just that.  Unlike them, you have no friends willing to trade your oil for their guns.

Better eat it before it melts.

Problem #3: No airpower, and none coming

Even the skeleton of Assad’s air force need not fear you.  When your forces mass in the open, they can be bombed.  And bombed they will be.  While this is not a recipe for victory, and your forces can do as Saddam did and go underground while still controlling territory, this is far from ideal.  Once more, being mineral poor and human capital weak makes building an air force out of the question.  Never mind that your many enemies would blow up any factories you built long before you got them running anyway.

Problem #4: If the Turks invade, you are screwed

Right now, you can maintain your balance because both Baghdad and Damascus are running emaciated states that can barely wake up for their morning coffee, let alone run affairs.  But to bring the nearest neighbor – the Turks – into the mix will result in destruction.  Thankfully, the Turks have no incentive to do so right now.  But a misstep could bring them over the border and into Raqqa.  Assad couldn’t stop them; under the circumstances, he might not want to.

So the game is afoot!  Survive the airstrikes, gather ye suicide bombers, and hope Carlos Marighella was right

If good ol’ Charles was right, then the Western response should inspire Sunnis around the region to rise up and join your ranks, as their new war will be another overreaction that should force Sunnis to close ranks.  Thus should fall Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, along with all the little states like the UAE and Libya along the way.  This final outrage against Islam must be avenged!  But if it’s not, get ready to be buried by history.

Worse, you can’t moderate any time soon

You’ve built an ideological edifice that has inspired people to do crazy things – like attack Mosul – and gotten some rather stunning results.  But the result for you is that you cannot start cutting deals or else you might be tarred a traitor to the pure cause of the Islamic State.  Hardliners within the ranks could cut your throat as easily as they do aid workers; you must be as hard as them, if not worse, or else risk losing your position and your life.  After all, these are the guys you’ll be having regular breakfasts with.

Keep that beard nice and long and nobody will question your leadership.

Worst case scenario, besides being killed in an airstrike, is going back underground

Here your ideological purity can remain.  But thankfully for you the political will to invade your territory is weak all around.  The Assad regime wants to maintain a weird, ugly balance of power between you, them, and the FSA.  Baghdad’s Shi’a led government is too weak to move into Sunni territory as conquerors.  Iran won’t send its forces there either; their government too is weaker than it looks.  Saudi Arabia has the same problem; their own soldiers might just switch sides, like the Irish in Braveheart, if they dared commit.  The only powers that could send troops – Turkey and the United States – both have strong political incentives to avoid doing so.  Having just ended nearly a decade in Iraq, Americans have no appetite to bringing a ground war to Syria as well as having a sequel to Iraq.  Meanwhile, the Turks are embroiled in domestic affairs as Erdogen hopes to enthrone himself as an institution unto itself; if he finds use for war, Turkey will jump into it, but no conditions exist right now that would reward him for conquering Syria.

So avoid the drones and find young men, and perhaps kids too, dumb enough to stand in the open as targets

Your main enemies will be the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds, and to them you must exert what energies you can.  But they will both be backed by the mighty U.S. Air Force, and as the Northern Alliance showed in the 2001 war in Afghanistan, raggedy militias can accomplish great things when accompanied by B-52s.  Your main hope is that the Kurds lose interest and the FSA turns on itself, as it has historically done, until America gets tired and lets you get back to the business of building your Islamic State.

Well, it’s a living

Avoid your own death and hope your foes overreach yet again; you may yet see the 2020s.  But your days are numbered.  No great state can be formed from Raqqa.  Better hope the masses give you Damascus soon.

5 thoughts on “The view from Raqqa: The many, many challenges of the Islamic State

  1. Excellent post Ryan…I have been following your website for a while and I have finally signed up!
    Well done n keep’em coming….

  2. Well written! The sad part I fear is once ISIS fails (which is will), another group will just step up in it’s place. Until theses borders are redrawn or Baghdad and Damascus can reinstate the old ones, this will just be a cycle of destruction and violence.

    1. Long time no see! Good to have you back.:)

      You’re quite right; the violent Islamist strain is an ideology that will take many shapes over the course of time. Much like how communism took on Chinese, Russian, Korean, and other forms, so too will violent Islamism. Only when the local elites themselves discredit Islamism will it end; that’s something we can’t do anything about.

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