It’s now been just about a year since the United States went to war with the Islamic State, which is commonly called ISIL by the Obama administration or ISIS by everyone else who feels awkward about using IS’s self-declared name. Here at Geopolitics Made Super, I don’t shy away from using the very name IS uses on its websites, Twitter, and social media platforms. For me, the group’s name doesn’t say very much about Islam, since IS’s take on Islam is really a super-austere mythological version of Wahhabism, unique unto itself in its ruthless demand for total domination.
But if they want to wave a flag, hold territory, set up services, and carry out a multi-front war against multiple enemies, then I figure they’ve earned the right to go by whatever name they want.
The very controversy over the name really goes to show how little we understand this enemy, or what to do about it. But understanding IS doesn’t require memorizing their nuanced version of Islam. Rather, how IS has survived so long, while still attracting recruits willing to die for it, is a matter of its existence in a very specific geopolitical condition.
And now, the cliff notes.
- The Islamic State can be split into two components: its jihadi idealists and its Saddam-era police state thugs, both of whom seek absolute power.
- Of the two, the Saddam-era officials have proven key to setting up the rudimentary functions of a state, displacing the Assad regime in Syria and the Baghdad government in Iraq.
- The breathing space the Islamic State got was because both Syria and Iraq were used as proxy battlegrounds by bigger powers to jockey for control of the Middle East.
- That jockeying broke two states completely and unleashed the hidden forces of jihadism that have been lurking under the surface for decades.
- Now, to destroy the Islamic State, one of those outside powers that started this mess to begin with must invade IS territory, occupy it, and stay for a long, long time.
- Which power will do so will depend entirely on who is threatened by IS the most.
So, what’s in the Islamic State? Let us travel back to the year 2004 and a place called Camp Bucca.
The long read is excellent, but here is the essential tale: when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda and its sympathizers saw an opportunity to open a second front against the Americans. The U.S. rolled into Iraq with a series of misunderstandings. U.S. leaders thought Iraqis would immediately embrace peaceful democracy after decades of terror by Saddam; it thought that gratitude for the invasion would keep the peace, that retribution would be rare, and that the sectarian balance of Iraq was mostly irrelevant.
instead, it got the long Iraqi insurgency. There were a lot of moving parts of that insurgency; criminals, warlords, would-be messiahs, and other nuts got into the mix alongside al-Qaeda, Saddam’s Ba’athist party, and Iran-sponsored militias. As the U.S. swept up elements of those groups, it mixed them together in a series of gigantic prison complexes.
Unlike Saddam-era prisons, there was opportunity for prisoners to mix and chat. Within one camp, Camp Bucca, jihadists mixed, plotted, and networked. A shadow organization formed.
On the outside, al-Qaeda’s man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, succeeded in fomenting a civil war between Shi’a and Sunnis in 2006. He was killed that same year, but his plan of breaking Iraq’s social contract between govern and governed was carried out ruthlessly by his successors. Even Osama bin Laden expressed some misgivings about the level of bloodshed al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, brought on.
Meanwhile, in the camps, many of these insurgents eventually were released, either because their American captors couldn’t pin any direct crimes on them or because the Iraqi government wanted to generate some goodwill. It seemed like a good enough idea at the time: by 2010, the U.S. and Iraq had effectively smashed al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was a reduced husk unable to carry out large scale attacks, let alone capture territory. As long as the U.S. kept applying direct ground power to Iraq, the country was held together. The insurgents simply couldn’t overcome U.S. power so long as tanks and Marines were in country.
And that might have been the end of it had two things not happened: the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq entirely and the implosion of Syria.
When both events happened, opportunity suddenly existed.
The destruction of the Assad state and the failure of the Iraqi state in the wake of the American withdrawal broke down the social contract in both Iraq and Syria. That meant anyone who could come in with a new contract, of any workable kind, could gain power. The one who came first was the newly-rechristened Islamic State, once al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, now shorn by al-Qaeda’s brand entirely.
While it’s not fully clear when Saddam’s former officials started hooking up with the Islamic State, it’s undeniable that they were instrumental in the blitz through Iraq last summer. One man in particular, who went by the name Hajji Bakr but whose real name was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi and who was once an Iraqi Air Force intelligence officer under Saddam had detailed charts and plans about setting up a new police state straddling both Iraq and Syria.
These officials were the backbone of the new Islamic State and are part of the reason it hasn’t collapsed to infighting. They knew very well how to run a totalitarian state, whether Sunni or Arab nationalist. Their knowledge has kept provided the basic sinews of the Islamic State’s body politic, providing basic services and security combined with ruthless terror. They’ve fused their formerly secular Arab nationalism to the flavor of the day, Sunni supremacism, which is a formula that seems to work within Sunni territory. They no longer execute people because Saddam says so, but invoke a much higher power.
Thus there are at least two big parts of the Islamic State: the jihadi idealists, some of whom came from al-Qaeda in Iraq, others who joined later, who are the shock troops, recruiters, and ideologues that allow the state to expand and wage aggressive wars.
The other is the ex-Saddam wing with probably a few Assad folks sprinkled in for good measure. They may or may not have genuinely converted to the hardcore version of Islam within the Islamic State; their primary motivations seem to be power and wealth, as good totalitarians are wont to do. They have the working knowledge to keep some of the lights on, organize both public and secret police forces, and run a state under siege. Remember, these guys would have been in Saddam’s government during the hard 1990s, when Iraq was essentially cut off from the world through sanctions and occasional bombings.
But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture: Iraq and Syria are proxy battlegrounds, and have been for decades.
Since the Cold War began, both Iraq and Syria were seen as something of geopolitical sweet spots: they were just vulnerable enough to influence, and just powerful enough to want. Both the U.S. and USSR threw cash and arms at both. To counter Soviet influence in Syria, the U.S. propped up Israel and Turkey.
But while communism is dead, the need to control, or at least manage, the Middle East is as urgent as ever. So long as the world’s energy supplies come from the Persian Gulf, the need to secure the Middle East will remain for all world powers. Key to Middle Eastern security are Iraq and Syria. Iraq sits on massive oil supplies, and worse can also threaten other oil supplies in the Gulf, as it did during the 1991 Kuwait War. Syria, meanwhile, is a crossroad to the Mediterranean Sea, and would be the shortest route between Gulf oil and Europe if they could ever get a pipeline through it.
The U.S. made a huge mistake in thinking it could just waltz into Iraq and set up a sunbeam democracy overnight. But that action was driven by need: the U.S. had to secure Iraq to secure the region. Its tactics can be roundly criticized, but its overall strategy makes a good deal of sense.
Meanwhile, other states in the region, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, both seek a dominant role in the Middle East either directly under America’s wing or, in Iran’s case, just outside it. Both of them see Iraq and Syria rather differently than the U.S.: both being oil powers, the value of Iraq and Syria comes from their flanking power, for he who controls Baghdad and Damascus may well control Tehran or Riyadh next.
The American need for domination in the Middle East drove it to invade Iraq: human agency made that a disaster, as the American rulers made mistake after mistake. Saudi Arabian and Iranian need for domination drove them to throw dollops of cash and guns towards whichever proxy served their interests. In the course of all three major actions, Iraq and Syria disintegrated. When Syria joined the Arab Spring, it was doomed, for no outside power wanted a Syria that valued compromise and plurality.
As the fires burned hot enough, the jihadis-cum-Ba’athists had an opportunity to build a new state out of two destroyed ones.
The proxy wars had rent asunder Syria and Iraq, and now the Islamic State surges forth as a local alternative to repeated manipulation by outsiders.
And when you see Islamic State as a local reaction to perennial interference, its origins make more sense.
If you ditch the local adjectives like “Syrian”, “Arab,” and “Islamic,” the situation becomes more understandable. Imagine any other two countries subject to such proxy wars and jockeying for influence; they too would invariably produce some kind of ultra-conservative, mythological political force that would sell itself as the only way to bring order to the chaos.
So what now? How can the Islamic State be defeated? Well, it’s quite possible, but it requires outside forces to either commit to win or to accept defeat, neither of which is an easy prospect.
Because the Islamic State and Syria’s civil war don’t yet menace the Middle East’s energy supplies, the United States is not willing to deploy enough force to destroy it. The U.S. must keep reserves for Russia, China, and any other flashpoint that might emerge, so unless something critical happens, like Islamic State takes Baghdad and the road to Iraq’s oil fields open, the U.S. will continue to use as little power as possible and rely on local forces, like the Kurds and Syria’s rebels, to try to contain rather than outright defeat IS.
And while Iran hates and fears IS, it is unwilling to help fix the Syrian civil war by forcing Assad’s regimes into a peaceful stance. Iran still sees Assad as critical to its interests in the Middle East, and views his fall as a loss to Saudi Arabia. So long as the Syrian civil war continues, IS will have breeding grounds there.
The final major player, Saudi Arabia, wants to win Syria and marginalize Iraq at all costs. The Saudi regime is growing increasingly paranoid, and that paranoia will grow more murderous with each year. Already Saudi Arabia has gone to war in Yemen and played hardball to secure a pro-Saudi regime in Egypt.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran lack the power to defeat one another in these proxy wars and thereby exterminate the Islamic State. The United States lack the rationale; if IS stays away from the major oil fields, there’s no true threat to American interests. Instead, the U.S. can choose to contain the scourge while Saudi Arabia and Iran hope to defeat the other through attrition.
There’s a final card in this deck, though: Turkey. Turkey has a modern and capable army that could, under U.S. air support, push into Syria and settle the Syrian civil war. That would cripple IS and allow the Iraqi government to retake Mosul with far greater ease. But Turkey has yet to see IS as its greatest threat: within Syria’s chaos have come emboldened Kurds, and Turkey has just gone back to war with its own Kurdish rebels, the PKK. For Turkey, ending the Syrian civil war is growing more important because the war has allowed yet another Kurdish force to emerge on its border.
Turkey may well move into Syria in the coming months: whether it will push as far as Damascus is anyone’s guess, but the incentive is growing. Turkey is the one power that could break the logjam between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but first its elites must build support from its own citizens, a task that isn’t easy since many Turks don’t see the point of war in Syria.
Human agency makes the decisions, but geopolitics creates the decisions to begin with.
The Islamic State can only be defeated when the conditions that created it are changed. Syria and Iraq must be put to order, and to put them to order requires either outsiders to deploy enough force to decisively win their proxy wars, or for each side to negotiate truces.
Until those conditions change, the Islamic State will live on.