The World Fights Islamic State

Cover Story

President Obama’s preference of referring to the Islamic State militant group using their former name Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is more than political rhetoric, and is indicative of a strategy that is shaped by a counter-terrorism approach rather than acknowledging IS for what it is becoming, a rogue state. The international community should not be distracted by positioning itself to fight terrorists, but instead must respond by preventing the caliphate from becoming an entrenched reality in the region, avers Dr Denis Dragovic

What’s in a name? President Obama and other world leaders have refused to refer to the Islamic militants who surged onto the international stage by annexing a third of Iraq and along the way tearing down international borders and declaring a caliphate, as Islamic State (IS). Obama’s preference of referring to the militant group using their former name, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is more than political rhetoric. It is indicative of a strategy that is shaped by a counter-terrorism approach rather than where it needs to be and that is acknowledging IS for what it is becoming, a rogue state.

Counter Terrorism Strategy

Following a largely isolationist approach, President Obama announced in September a four point strategy to combat IS leading with military action across the entire territory of IS along with enhanced counter-terrorism activities and the provision of humanitarian support. “We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama explained. While airstrikes were critical to stopping the expansion of IS further into Iraq, they will prove ineffective in the effort to take back urban centres. Quite on the contrary, what we know from other engagements is that aerial bombardment, while effective at killing terrorists, creates resentment among civilian population, turning potential allies into enemies. The opportunity for airstrikes is to temporarily degrade, but not destroy.

To achieve more, the United States needs allies on the ground. In an effort to secure partners, Secretary Kerry met with 10 regional countries in Saudi Arabia on September 11 to present a united Muslim front against IS, yet Turkey, while present at the meeting, chose not to sign the communiqué and Iran, the first to respond to Iraqi Kurds’ calls for support after the fall of Mosul, was not invited. Other allies that the US will be dependent upon in its strategy include the Free Syrian Army, which Obama had only two months earlier described as, ‘former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime,’ and Syrian Kurdish groups affiliated with the PKK, who the US continues to regard as terrorists. On the Iraqi side, the change of government from Nouri al-Maliki to Haider al-Abadi has only changed the face of the government; the institutions of state remain highly sectarian with the powerful militias unlikely to lay down their weapons, militias who have themselves been accused of atrocities not dissimilar to those committed by IS. The only reliable partners on the ground are the Iraqi Kurds. Considering the limited number of viable partners, a mission to destroy IS is unlikely to succeed. Instead, attention should be directed to the incipient state and what can be done to facilitate its implosion.

Defeating a Rogue State

Unlike al-Qaeda, IS has focussed its resources on building a state. It has an executive, nine councils that operate as departments within a government and regional administrative divisions. It raises taxes, passes laws and provides services. An estimated 100,000 people are said to have sworn allegiance to IS, a form of party membership. (This figure is undoubtedly inflated through coercion and fear for speaking out or taking a stand, but even in the tens of thousands, alongside the 20,000 foreign fighters, the number is substantial).

Seeing what IS is attempting as a form of state building, not dissimilar to the international community’s efforts in rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan, provides insights into what the international community should be doing to defeat its enemy. There are three critical pillars that need to be established for a functioning post-conflict state — legitimacy of leadership, public security and provision of basic needs. To date, IS has shown an adeptness in all three far superior to other jihadist administrations such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia.

For a state to have legitimacy, it needs to be seen to abide by a set of laws that transcend generations ensuring that each political group is perceived to play by a common set of rules. The constitution offers such a framework dictating how political leaders should be chosen. In the context of political Islam, it is not the constitution but the Quran and how the Prophet ruled. For the Salafist ideology dominant within IS, the legitimate leader of Muslims should be both warrior and scholar. Unlike Osama bin Laden, a former engineer, or al-Qaeda’s current leader, a doctor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, meets the legitimacy threshold. Having risen to authority on the back of military success, he then began to flaunt his religious credentials – a PhD in Islamic studies, direct lineage from the Prophet Mohammad and experience as an imam. While this hasn’t provided him with broad based legitimacy, in particular among non-Sunnis, his claim to leadership meets the legitimacy criteria for a narrow but large enough group of followers.

Security under the Islamic State has varied depending upon the location. For those living within Syria, the uninterrupted chaos of three years has been brought to a standstill through the harsh and, in some cases, inconsistent application of Sharia law. This inconsistency and overzealousness of some of the emirs has resulted in their arrests, with what appears to be a concerted centralised effort at establishing legal norms. For example, ‘Circular No. 7’ prohibits the distribution of slaughter videos without the approval of the top leadership. This effort to establish a consistent application of the law is critical to the creation of a functional state. It isn’t the harshness of laws, but their inconsistent application through corruption or a poor judiciary that undermines state authority and in this case, it seems IS has learned from other’s missteps.

The last critical pillar is weakest for IS, namely delivering basic needs to its constituents. With a population ranging up to nine million people spread across two countries within a war economy, it will be crucial for IS to quickly rekindle the economy and in particular, oil production. Estimates from experts suggest that before air strikes, upwards of $1 billion per year was being earned from oil and another several hundred million from the sale of antiquities, ransoms, and taxation. While an impressive amount, it will hardly suffice to secure the goodwill of the people by directly providing IS branded food and services. Nevertheless IS is trying. From repairing electricity supplies, to distributing food and printing number plates, IS is taking on state administrative roles.

Best Response: Containment and Isolation

The international community should be prepared to respond to weaknesses and even actively undermine each of the three pillars. A strategy of containment, isolation and supporting alternative centres of authority could help nudge internal collapse. Containment through tactical airstrikes outside of urban areas will weaken IS’ legitimacy as the leadership will no longer be seen as having divine protection. Supporting alternative centres of authority such as the former Baathists or tribal leaders could weaken their grip on public security and allow others to win the hearts and minds of the people. Isolation, by closing off border trade would undermine IS’ ability to provide the basic needs required to satisfy the population and strategic airstrikes focussed at destroying sources of income such as mobile oil refineries and other economic infrastructure can contribute to weakening its ability to provide basic needs.

A containment and isolation strategy, though, requires geopolitical cooperation on the part of key regional players such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Pushing in one direction and weakening IS will in turn strengthen Bashar al-Assad, which is not an outcome Turkey is willing to countenance. The American strategy of concurrently strengthening the so called ‘moderate’ group, the Free Syrian Army, is not supported by Iran and Russia as it weakens Assad. Thrown into this geopolitical intrigue are the varied interests of the Kurds, arguably the largest nation of people in the world without a state. Military success in Syria for the Kurds could lead to renewed destabilisation in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. While looking south to the interests of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, we see countries concerned about an increasingly influential Iran, whose Shia proxies now reach the borders of the Saudi Kingdom.

Despite these challenges, a containment and isolation strategy would be the best response to the growing threat of IS. Recognising that IS aims to recreate a society reminiscent of the Hijaz in the seventh century means their effort and resources are focussed foremost on establishing a state. Terrorism is a means to this end. The international community should not be distracted by positioning itself to fight terrorists, but instead must respond by preventing the caliphate from becoming an entrenched reality in the region. Once a caliphate gains its legitimacy among Muslims of a particular theological persuasion, the risk is that it will be too hard to dislodge.

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Dr Denis Dragovic

Dr Denis Dragovic lectures at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and is an international development expert having worked for over a decade with various UN agencies and NGOs in conflict and post-conflict environments in the Middle East (including three years in Iraq), Africa and Asia. He is the author of Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives (Palgrave, 2015).

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