Dr. Andreas Krieg, Lecturer Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, Qatar Armed Forces – @andreas_krieg
The ‘Islamic State’ (IS), the self-declared caliphate of believers, continues to rage across the Levant leaving behind a trace of blood and destruction. Ethnic cleansing, mass-executions, rape and other horrific war crimes have become the trademark of an organization trampling Islamic values under foot. While Western publics got used to these atrocities, they have now been roused from a doze of general apathy by the carefully staged and broadcasted beheading of another US journalist in Syria. Sotloff’s cruel execution follows last month’s ferocious beheading of James Foley – both videos are a graphic demonstration of power amid superpower impotence exercised by an organization of merely a few thousand ideologically motivated thugs. Both times, the mummed executioner directly addressed the US President, calling on the superpower to stop its military operation against the ‘caliphate’. In reality, however, apart from intending to spread fear among adversaries or attracting new recruits, IS’ well-staged videos have one purpose: luring the superpower and its Western allies into escalating their military engagement in Iraq. And as it seems, Western publics take the bait. Public pressure on US President Obama is mounting. Both Republicans and Democrats urge the President to not just contain the threat of IS but to eliminate an organization that in the hearts and minds of Western publics has become the embodiment of evil. Yet, there are few Western options for bringing down this pseudo-Islamic empire – even fewer military options. But what can the world do to stop this bloodshed?
So far, the Islamic State does not constitute a direct threat to the West, neither to Europe nor to the US. Although its foreign fighters could become future perpetrators of terror in the West, were they to return, for the time being IS’ butchery primarily concerns the people in Lebanon, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq – and secondly, the riparian states in the region. The ‘Islamic State’ is a hollow construct, brutally trying to coerce Muslims and non-Muslims alike, into a submission to the radical utopia of a caliphate that in this shape and form has never existed. It is the chimaera of an old vanguard, nourished by decades of fruitless jihad and inspired by the transfigured interpretations of the Prophet’s teachings by unimpressive provincial clerics. The new generation of mujahedeen joining IS to follow this vanguard into abyss, are mostly disillusioned young adults barely able to speak Arabic, let alone recite Quran. They have become the willing executioners of an ideologically motivated criminal organization not just failing to respond to public grievances in the region but most importantly exacerbating public grievances in their area of responsibility. Their uncompromising application of misinterpreted divine laws does not resonate well with the millions of people IS has forced to pledge allegiance to Al Baghdadi, its wizard-in-chief. The economy in the ‘Islamic State’ lies in tatters, citizens have been deprived of their earthly pleasures and civil liberties, women and children subjected to humiliating and gruesome punishments. The little sympathy for the mujahedeen that IS might have initially enjoyed as the people’s liberator from Assad’s or Maliki’s patrimonial regimes, has vanished. In Mosul and Raqqa, the biggest cities in the Islamic State, a few thousand mujahedeen see themselves confronted with the challenge of coercing millions into allegiance whose hearts and minds they have lost a while ago. Public outreach initiatives by IS fighters distributing charity to the poor, cannot belie the long-term fragility of dissident masses being repressive ruled by a delusional band of bearded thugs. If not within the civilian population, where do the ‘Islamic State’s’ centres of gravity lie, and how can they be targeted to bring down this jihadist house of cards?
Strategically, the ‘Islamic State’ has three centres of gravity, namely what the military defines as the “source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act”. The most important strategic centre of gravity (CoG) for IS, are the Sunni tribes that have jumped on the jihadi bandwagon not based on ideological conviction but pragmatist considerations. Marginalized by a widely Shia dominated regime in Baghdad, many Sunni tribes, including members of Saddam’s Tikriti clan, have accepted IS as a vehicle to achieve their objective of ousting the sectarian patronage system permeating state institutions from Baghdad all the way to the local level. Second, IS relies on a well-established ‘jihadi highway’ that allows extra-regional recruits to join the organization. The steady flow of ideologically intoxicated, often Western youngsters making their way from Turkey to Syria, ensures that IS can keep its growing territory in check. Third, the ‘Caliphate’ can rely on an extensive self-sustaining economy of extortion financing its various activities. Although the resources might be scarce to adequately run a proper state of its current size, they generate an income that makes IS probably the most affluent jihadi organization in modern history. On the operational level, IS centre of gravity are its lines of communication enabling IS to rely on well-coordinated swarm tactics, i.e. a hybrid of traditional armoured formations supported by suicide bombers. It grants IS a high degree of manoeuvrability and operational flexibility in its rapid advances.
What good, can the West do in targeting these centres of gravity militarily, both on the strategic and operational level? The short answer is: very little. In a complex environment such as Northern Syria and Iraq, air strikes without boots on the ground can only provide cosmetic solutions at best. Even the employment of the Kurdish Peshmerga as Western proxies can only do little more than cracking the organization’s military façade. Due to its flexible operational approach, Al Baghdadi’s mujahedeen can only be contained by these external military operations, not eliminated. Armour and larger formations of fighters can be destroyed from the air, yet, in an urban environment small groups of mujahedeen become difficult to target. The unlikely alliance of the willing that has opened the front against IS in Northern Iraq, just embarked on a costly and long-lasting war of attrition that will not be won on the battlefield as long as IS’ strategic centres of gravity remain untouched. The solution to the ‘Islamic State’s’ disintegration, the elimination of its forlorn disciples as well as the burial of its crooked ideology, lies with the Sunni tribes who have provided the organization with the momentum it needed to advance. Winning over these tribesmen who are often in the fight for more autonomy and political self-determination rather than religious fanaticism, would be an approach that could eliminate this cancer from within – yet, it would be a strategy doomed to fail if pursued by the West. Given the West’s awful record of meddling with Arab and Muslim internal affairs in past decades, this political solution would have to be implemented by those who first, enjoy credibility among Sunni tribes; second, are abundant with resources to support the tribes; and third, enjoy the stability within a disintegrating Middle East to commit to this solution long-term: the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Increasingly recognizing the immense threat emanating from IS on its doorstep, the GCC has to overcome its negligible internal differences and assume the leadership role the West groomed it for in the past decade. This means going beyond clamping down on mujahedeen trying to join the ‘Islamic State’ or drying up IS’ increasingly unnecessary external donations. The West, including Turkey, should limit their strategic activities to eliminating the ‘jihadi highway’ and ensuring that IS cannot convert its extorted rents and produced oil into war-sustaining capability. For the GCC to be able to achieve its strategic objective, the international community in general and the West in particular, would probably have to abandon the idea of Iraq as a unitary nation-state. Accepting the de facto political fragmentation of Mesopotamia might be a prerequisite to dealing with the root cause of the current conflict, which IS has hijacked for its own ideological agenda.