Over the last year the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) has been getting a lot of airtime on the mainstream news. They’ve beheaded western journalists and prisoners, and now control large territories throughout Iraq and Syria. In the beginning of this year ISIL forces managed to take much of Al-Anbar province in western Iraq. ISIL is a violent non-State actor striving to become a State, just as the Taliban began as a non-State movement (including Osama Bin Laden) to resist Russian occupation, and became the State in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. ISIL and the Taliban both started out as a resistance to occupation, and like the Taliban, ISIL may already qualify as the de facto State in the Levant region.
What is a State? One definition that may prove useful is:
“A nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government.” ~Oxford English Dictionary
ISIL was previously known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” but split from Al-Qaeda early this year. It’s simply the latest name in a long list going back to the first US intervention in Iraq. ISIL regards itself as a global Caliphate, with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as the Caliph. ISIL is fighting both rebel groups and government forces in Syria and Iraq, and rules according to a harsh Salafist form of Sharia law. Tribal leaders in the area are complacent to their rule, because those who have resisted were met with incredible brutality. ISIL’s current plan is to expand in the Levant, an eastern mediterranean region consisting of Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. Indeed, ISIL’s motto is “Remaining and Expanding.”
ISIL is organized. It controls territory, and governs it. And it is able hold neighboring governments at bay. So, ISIL fits all the conditions of being a State. While their rhetoric shows their intent to attack the United States, to date they have shown more proficiency in conventional, and guerrilla warfare than in terror tradecraft.
The sections that follow are divided to analyze the strategy from the perspective of each actor in the region. How an anarchist either in the US or in the Middle East should respond to these events is an open debate.
In June ISIL launched a major offensive in Iraq. Iraqi security forces abandoned their uniforms and equipment, and fled. This desertion demonstrated that the Iraqi military was unable to organize and command its soldiers. It also allowed ISIL to seize supplies, including military equipment, and the contents of a bank. ISIL also freed hundreds of prisoners, potentially adding members and sympathizers to their cause as they consolidate their power in the region.
ISIL took Mosul, which was Al-Qaeda’s de facto capital prior to the troop surge of 2007, and a strategic Al-Qaeda stronghold even after that. ISIL now uses Mosul as a cash cow, extorting an estimated $1.6 million a month in protection money from local businesses. In the United States street gangs operate similarly, extortingmoney from businesses in their turf using the same racket. In fact, all States have a similar set up. They call it taxes.
Iraqi security forces are stretched thin. They do not have the ability to eradicate ISIL, nor to prevent ISIL cells from operating inside Baghdad. Some strategists recommend closer cooperation with Kurdish security forces, but warn that it may bolster Kurdish ambitions for a separate Kurdish State. A more powerful Iraqi/Kurdish alliance may be preferable to an ISIL controlled Iraq, but any increase in government power is obviously sub optimal. On the other hand, greater autonomy for a separate Kurdish State would likely bring stability to the region. The current borders in the Middle East were established in 1916 as a part of secret deal called the Sykes Picot Agreement. This deal divided the Middle East into areas of British and French control.
There are significant Kurdish populations in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, which could play an important role in handling the ISIL threat in those countries. Independent Kurdish forces have already mobilized defensive and offensive operations against ISIL.
This month ISIL has clashed with Iraqi security forces and retaken ground within a mile of Baghdad. However, the concentration of Iraqi security forces and Shia militias in Baghdad means that ISIL probably won’t be able to take the capital anytime soon. ISIL has conducted local terrorist attacks, however only the Al-Qaeda core (the original founders, and their franchise) has demonstrated the ability or ambition to operate at an international level.
The situation in Iraq is obviously still volatile.
The Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria is known as “the Al-Nusra Front,” and has been fighting ISIL forces. ISIL’s push into Iraq could force them to commit fighters to Iraq, taking pressure off Syrian rebel groups, and the Assad regime. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposes both ISIL and Assad, and has allied with the Al-Nusra Front in the past. US airstrikes targeted both ISIL and the Al-Nusra Front, which angered some rebel groups opposing ISIL and Assad, due to the fact that Al-Nusra has helped them.
The Assad regime has been getting support from Hezbollah, and Iran in the form of arms and fighters. Shiite fighters from Iraqi militias have also been fighting ISIL in Syria. According to Stratfor Intelligence, foreign influence in Syria will be more important than the elections. Although, it is widely acknowledged that the Syrian elections are rigged in favor of President Assad.
As ISIL spreads across Iraq it moves closer to the Iranian border. Iran seems to be playing the sectarian game, supporting Assad (Alawis are a branch of Twelver Shia Islam), Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia fighters. ISIL is a Sunni group. Iran and the US have opposing interests in Syria because Obama wants to see Assad out of power. However, Iranian interests agree with US interests in Iraq because both want to stop ISIL from expanding. Iran has supported the current Shia government in Baghdad, but in light of Iraqi security force losses to ISIL they have begun supplying men and arms to local Shia militias, which may ultimately weaken Baghdad, harming any gains Iran makes there.
Jordan and Israel
Being located in the Levant region, ISIL has ambitions to take over Jordan and Israel at some point. However, for the moment ISIL is focused on taking territory in Syria and Iraq where its resources and manpower are spread thin in the midst of heavy casualties. Analysts suggest that Jordan could not withstand an ISIL invasion alone, especially if ISIL captures the resources available in Iraq and Syria, which would reportedly include M1 Abrams tanks, more typical of a conventional State military, and less common among terrorist groups. It has also been suggested that if ISIL threatens Jordan, Israel would defend it. At the moment Jordan and Israel are allies, and that would be consistent with the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty in which each country agreed to cooperate against terrorism, including thwarting border attacks, and preventing any hostile attack from outside. Both countries are also heavily in the US sphere of influence, and Jordan is a participating in the airstrikes with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), against ISIL.
Rumors suggest that Turkey has been secretly supporting ISIL. A New York Times article claims that Turkey tolerated an ISIL recruiting station in Ankara’s tourist district. Turkey also wants to keep Turkish Kurds within their national sphere. Helping ISIL could be a way to weaken and intimidate Kurdish separatists. ISIL also recently released 49 abducted Turkish diplomats, which some think confirms their support.
Turkey’s reluctance to get involved doesn’t necessarily mean a conspiracy with ISIL. If we look at events in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Russian occupation, and compare them to Turkey today, things make a little more sense. In the 80s Russia tried to expand into Afghanistan, and ended up in a long guerrilla war against the Mujahadeen operating out of Pakistan, and backed by the US (essentially the opposite of what is going on today). The Mujahadeen (some of whom became the Taliban), and other fighters used Pakistan as a staging area during operations in Afghanistan. In 2003 Turkey refused to allow US troops to stage in their territory for a northern invasion of Iraq. Pakistan is still having border troubles. Perhaps some of Turkey’s reluctance comes from a desire to avoid similar border instability.
Border instability is likely to occur anyway as the result of the ongoing conflict in Syria. This month Turkey’s parliament approved deployment of troops to Syria and Iraq to fight ISIL, which may disprove the rumors of cooperation. In response, the foreign ministry of the Assad regime warned Turkey that any form of military intervention in Syria would be seen as an act of aggression. A recent battle in Kobani is located on the Turkish border with Syria. Spillover is bound to happen, and it seems like Turkey’s moves are designed to protect its borders.
Last month Obama promised to destroy ISIL without putting conventional troops on the ground. Instead he sent in Special Ops to train “moderate” rebel fighters in Syria, and is attempting to create a coalition of regional powers to combat ISIL. A “moderate” rebel is pretty much just the one that the State wants to support. “Moderate” is most likely a fluff word intended to pacify those who remember that Osama bin Laden was once armed and trained by the US.
Last month Airstrikes were carried out by the US and a number of Muslim majority countries including Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This included strikes against twelve makeshift oil refineries near the cities of Abu Kamal, al-Mayadeen and Al-Hasakah. These refineries supplied more than half of ISIL’s financial resources.
Qatar supported several rebel movements during the Arab Spring, and continues to support groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, putting it at odds with other GCC members. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, UAE, and Russia all consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization. In March Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar. The participation of Qatar in these airstrikes is a huge step for the GCC.
There are obviously risks to arming rebels in Syria, as have been noted. High on the list is the difficulty in vetting the fighters receiving US aid. Obviously it’s counter-productive for the US to arm rebels intent on attacking the US. Obama’s challenge is to find “moderate” rebels that are resisting both the Assad regime and ISIL, and that aren’t committing war crimes. One option would be the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The legend goes that Syrian armed forces were targeting civilians, and that some officers and soldiers refused to follow those orders, deserting their positions, and forming the FSA to fight those who were committing war crimes. Although, if the FSA aren’t who they claim to be, the US could be arming the enemy Obama is trying to combat.
Sleeper Cells in the US
The fear that ISIL may use sleeper cells in the US is put forward as the reason to fight ISIL in the Middle East. This is likely more propaganda than strategy, because conducting an attack inside the US wouldn’t be expensive or complicated. That’s the asymmetrical nature of terrorism. A sleeper cell is a small group of agents designed to blend into society and remain dormant until called upon. Typically to set up a sleeper cell an organization has to have the funds to maintain the agents in the foreign land for an extended period of time. ISIL likely doesn’t have the resources to do this, especially considering the losses they’ve incurred as they expand in Iraq and Syria. But when a cause is ideological another strategy is to attempt to radicalize new agents that are already embedded and financially maintaining themselves, and then encourage them to commit attacks where they live. ISIL has apparently tried to launch terror attacks in the US and failed, suggesting ISIL doesn’t have the necessary financial or ideological support to pull of such an attack.
At the moment the only terrorist organization that has displayed the ability to project power internationally has been the Al-Qaeda core, which has sustained heavy hits recently and has lost its experienced leaders. Some sources are claiming that recent missile attacks against the Al-Nasra Front have killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the alleged leader of the Al-Qaeda core.
In other words, ISIL is primarily able to fight a conventional and guerrilla war, but can’t pull off the asymmetrical tactics of typical terrorist groups, another way in which they more closely resemble a nation State.
The fact that ISIL is taking territory, building a tax infrastructure, and conducting war the expensive way suggests they’re behaving more like a conventional State than a terrorist militia. Their rhetoric clearly shows their intent to conduct terrorist operations outside of their standard Area of Operations, but as yet they haven’t developed the necessary terror tradecraft to make attacks successful.
What’s an anarchist in the region to do? It depends on who you ask. Sure, blame the blow back on government foreign policy for the last century. But if you want to fight ISIL, what if you have to ally yourself with the Iraqi State, or the Kurdish security forces, or Iran, or even the US? I’d be willing to bet that most anarchists would make the pragmatic choice, rather than the principled one, if directly faced with the ISIL threat. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” can make for strange allies. If you were an anarchist on the ground in Iraq or Levant what would you do? Would you want the US, or the GCC, or even Iran to help you fight ISIL?