It is hard to believe however that, despite their wealth, international support, fanaticism and good organisation, a territorially located terrorist organisation could resist the genuine military campaign of a broad coalition of forces involving the United States and other powerful Western countries; Arab nations; well-trained Iran backed Shia militias and lately even Turkey. Could this mean that the forces currently fighting against Daesh might in fact be lacking the will and motivation to take the necessary actions to eradicate the terrorist organisation and their ambition to create a jihadi state in the heart of the Middle East? Unfortunately it seems that this might well be the case.
On both sides of the Syria/Iraq border, it appears that Daesh has succeeded in establishing a controlled territory. In Syria, President Bashar al Assad recently recognised that his army was facing difficulties due to a lack of manpower and had to adapt its strategy to focus on retaining control over important geographical areas. In other words, Assad is currently giving up his ambitions to regain the control of some areas controlled by a rebellion dominated by jihadis (Daesh and al Qaeda affiliated groups such as the Al Nusra Front). His allies from Hezbollah are unlikely to play another role than to protect the areas neighbouring Lebanon against the spread of Sunni extremists on their own land.
In Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa calling his followers (the vast majority of Iraq’s Shia population) to take up arms against Daesh to defend the Iraqi nation succeeded in stopping Daesh’s advance on Baghdad and the Southern Shia territories. It is very unlikely however that his religious edict will push the Shias North and West to liberate Sunni areas. Even Iran backed Shia militias such as the Imam Ali Brigades do not seem eager to risk their lives to retake these parts of the Iraqi territory. The Iraqi army has shown an even greater lack of will in their fight against Daesh as the videos showing them fleeing Ramadi without much of a fight illustrate.
Sunni Arab Nations do not seem very eager to fight against Daesh either. The recent military campaign against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen has shown that these nations are much more concerned with the eventual rise of political Shia Islam in the region than with Sunni terrorism. Their stance against Daesh could be interpreted as one of containment whereby Daesh is kept under control so that it does not become a threat to Sunni Arab monarchies while remaining a nuisance and distraction for the Shias of Iraq and Syria (and, to a lesser extent, Iran). The recent bombings against Shia mosques in Eastern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are both reminders that the threat of terrorism is never far away and that a Shia rebellion (ongoing for the past few years in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia) in the Gulf would bring about severe troubles for the Shias.
Many analysts also point to the lack of will of the Americans and their Western allies in their fight against Daesh and argue that a military campaign using airstrike is not an efficient way to combat an organisation which has already adapted to these types of attacks. An American led ground offensive is nonetheless unlikely under president Obama and could lead to further chaos in Iraq since Moqtada al Sadr, who recently reappeared on the Iraqi political scene, made it clear that the militias loyal to his ideology would consider the US army as an invading force and would re-enact its 2004 uprising against the United States.
Finally, Turkey, who recently joined the fight against “terrorists”, has arguably used the current situation as a pretext for military action against Kurdish militants lumped together with Daesh under the single category of “terrorists”. Turkey’s use of the “terrorist” threat to pursue specific strategic goals has sadly become all too common in the post-9/11 world, as states across the globe have used the “war on terror” as a justification for pursuing clear national interest (most notably Putin’s counter-insurgency in Chechnya). Consequently, Turkey’s involvement in the fight against Daesh should be viewed with scepticism and not as a game-changing event.
So what does this lack of genuine will to fight Daesh means for the region? It appears that Daesh and the nationalist agenda behind it which differentiates the “Islamic State” from Al Qaeda might be able to remain in control of its territory for some times. The ex-Ba’athist elements amongst its leadership have already installed the bureaucratic apparatus of a State in the region under their control and the forced homogenisation resulting from the ethno-religious cleansing happening on its territory create the conditions for a (more stable) state of sort to exist. For example, the Taliban, armed and trained by the US, were able to remain in control of Afghanistan for near a decade. How long will the well-equipped, internationally sponsored and wealthiest terrorist organisation in history remain in control of this newly created “state”? What is certain is that the impact of Daesh’s “politics” on ethnic, religious and national identities in the region will remain strong well after its demise.
Nicolas Pirsoul is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research interests include issues around identity politics, indigenous recognition, democracy and Middle Eastern politics.
Photo sourced from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iraqi_insurgents_with_guns.JPG