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ISIS Thrives on the Disunity of Its Enemies

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The aftermath of terrorist attacks such as the massacre in Paris are a bad time to produce new policies, but they provide ideal political conditions for a government to take radical, if ill-thought-out, initiatives. Leaders are carried away by a heady sense of empowerment as a worried or frightened public demands that something be done in response to calamity and to prevent it happening again. The moment of greatest risk is not when the bombs explode or the guns fire, but when governments react to these atrocities.

Terrorism is, in the first instance, aimed at showing defiance, exacting revenge and demonstrating strength. But, to be truly successful, it needs to provoke a poorly considered overreaction by those targeted. This has always been true. The greatest success of the 9/11 hijackers was not destroying the World Trade Center, but tempting the US government into launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in which it failed to achieve its ends and which are still going on.

Britain blundered into the Afghan and Iraq wars behind the Americans and blundered out again without much idea of what it was doing there, aside from showing solidarity with its ally. Debate in Britain over military intervention in Syria against Isis is a bit better informed than it was over Iraq or Afghanistan, but there is almost the same ignorance about the battlefield we are about to enter. Of course, Britain’s proposed military contribution in Syria would be minimal, but putting one toe in a snake pit could be as dangerous as jumping into the middle of it.

One commentator described the conflict in Syria as being like three-dimensional chess played by nine players and with no known rules. He might have added that Iraq is even worse. But, at one level, it is not difficult to understand the dilemma facing the US, Britain, France and other Western powers launching air strikes to degrade and eliminate Isis. They know that more than 8,000 air strikes by the US-led coalition against the self-declared caliphate since last year have failed to contain it, as has been horribly demonstrated in Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad, Sinai and Paris. They know that there are limitations on what air power alone can achieve unless it is in partnership with an effective military force on the ground.

Those who seriously propose “boots on the ground”, the horrible cliché that suggests the introduction of American, British or French ground troops, have evidently not been reading the news for the past 15 years or noticed what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, public opinion in the US and Britain is unlikely to let their leaders send any more expeditionary forces to the Middle East. More likely is the use of drones and special forces to assassinate Isis leaders, whose demise, going by past experience, will do nothing to weaken the movement as a whole. The main purpose of these killings and tales of derring-do is to add substance to the pretence that something effective is being done.

If the Western powers are not going to provide ground troops and air strikes alone are not working, there is obviously a necessity for a local ally. But here there is a political problem. The largest military force fighting IS in Syria is the Syrian army, as the former British chief of general staff Baron Richards pointed out last week. It is overstretched, but it has at least four effective combat divisions. It has always been a myth that it has not been fighting Isis as is proven by the horror films posted by the jihadists on YouTube, showing captive Syrian soldiers having their heads cut off. But the US has studiously avoided attacking Isis from the air if it is fighting the Syrian army because it is frightened of being accused of helping President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power.

The beginning of the Russian air campaign in support of the Syrian army on 30 September has tipped the military balance against Isis, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, the three al-Qaeda-type groups dominating the armed resistance. But it is still too early to say how far it has tipped it. The Syrian army has suffered 47,000 killed in action and its paramilitary forces lost a further 31,000 over the past four years, leaving it exhausted and fought out.

Russian support has raised morale but its previous weaknesses remain, so it is unclear if it could win a major victory, such as capturing the opposition-held half of Aleppo. The Syrian Kurds have been the US air forces’ favourite ally, but there are limits to what they can do outside Kurdish-majority territory.

In Iraq, Isis’s position may be stronger and its enemies weaker than they look. The Iraqi-Kurdish victory at Sinjar took advantage of a heavy bombardment by US aircraft on a small city that Isis did not try to defend with a large force. The Iraqi army has never recovered from last year’s defeats and is less attractive for recruits than the three big Shia militias: Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. These paramilitaries are highly esteemed by the Shia majority, but they have failed to dislodge Isis from Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad. Overall, authority is still draining away from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his dysfunctional government.

Nevertheless, the self-styled Islamic State is somewhat weaker than it was. Though air forces commonly exaggerate what they can achieve by bombing alone, this does not mean that it does not have an impact. Veteran soldiers may be able to sustain themselves against the material damage and prolonged psychological strain, but it will erode the level of popular support for Isis in areas it controls. Of course, for such a ruthless well-organised movement that has no plans to run for election, this may not matter. A less tangible but significant loss for Isis is that the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies, who may not have liked Isis but once saw it as a potent weapon against the Shia, are now much more cautious. Turkey is more active against Isis cells and the Syrian Kurds have closed half the Syrian-Turkish border to Isis volunteers. The progressive removal of old sanctuaries in Turkey is a serious loss for the jihadis.

There may also be a sense that Isis and al-Qaeda-type groups, whom Sunni rulers and their peoples may once have esteemed as victorious military vanguards of their communities, are proving a disaster for the Sunni in Iraq and Syria. The majority of the 3.2 million displaced people in Iraq are Sunni and so, too, are the four million Syrian refugees. Most come from opposition areas devastated by the Syrian government’s artillery and air force. The Sunni in Baghdad were driven into a few enclaves, mostly in the west of the city, in 2006-7. There is now no truly safe place for an Iraqi Sunni to escape to inside the country.

Isis is under pressure and the wave of terrorist attacks over the past few months are one sign of this, but it is by no means close to collapse. This will happen only when its many enemies are more united.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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