By Jay Holmes
On June 29, 2014, after gaining control over large swaths of northern Iraq, ISIS declared itself to be a caliphate.
Its intention is to expand this caliphate from Morocco to Malaysia and Indonesia. ISIS “Caliph,” is supreme leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—we’ll call him Abu. Abu made it clear that ISIS considers itself to be the one true Islamic authority for all of the world’s Islamic population. He called on all the world’s Muslims to declare their allegiance to ISIS and to obey his dictates. Fortunately, most of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims show no interest in bowing down to Abu. However, while Abu’s lack of majority support might confine his greater caliphate dreams to the fantasy realm, it will not keep ISIS from creating more misery in the real world.
If you have been following the news and find yourself unable to draw clear conclusions about ISIS’s impact and the world’s response to it, don’t feel bad. The media’s interpretations and opinions on ISIS vary even more widely than what we saw during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even well-respected analysts are struggling to achieve much consensus in their evaluations. Disliking ISIS is simple. Predicting the impacts of ISIS and defining effective responses requires a bit more work.
Reading the basics of ISIS history is a tedious challenge, even for CIA analysts that have been on the case for several years.
ISIS’s terror group pedigree is based on political incest and bastardry conducted at a frenetic pace. While ISIS is consistent in hating everyone that is not their brand of Sunni Muslim, ISIS’s best friend this morning is their avowed enemy this afternoon and their holy martyr tomorrow. Some of the rapid changes in alliances, friendships, and death lists are based on ruthless pragmatic opportunism. However, that alone can’t quite explain all of their instability. The Taliban are known to be opiate consumers, and many members of Al-Qaeda have a taste for hashish and alcohol. Perhaps ISIS is buying its “energy supplements for jihad” from Walter White. If they are not consuming meth, they are at least faking the symptoms quite well.
I am certain that publishing this article will have me near the top of the ISIS death list, but only for the briefest moment. In the ISIS universe, life is a rich pageantry of endless top priority targets that blossom with each new moment. In its loud and colorful world, hysteria is its own reward.
Western responses to ISIS have been yawningly predictable.
In the USA, Republican loyalists blame Obama, and Democrat loyalists blame Bush. In Europe, the responses range from “Blame it on America” to blaming it on whichever national political party they least like. The world is always so simple for party loyalists. It might be hard for some Americans and Europeans to imagine, but sometimes things actually do occur in the world without the USA or Europe being the cause.
ISIS has a complicated history, but it has some consistent characteristics. Such as, ISIS is barbaric and ruthlessly violent. In fact, it is so violent that it had a falling out with Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda terrorist leaders considered ISIS to be too violent and indiscriminate in its killing of fellow Sunnis. From Al-Qaeda’s point of view, the worst brutality should be reserved for non-Sunnis. That argument with Al-Qaeda, combined with generous funding from Gulf State billionaires, resulted in ISIS’s founding fathers abandoning their Al-Qaeda affiliation and setting their sights on creating their own world order.
A small portion of ISIS’s brutality toward the Yazd minority in northern Iraq has now been well documented by the media. What the media and the United Nations have not covered well is the ongoing genocide against Christian groups and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.
For several months, ISIS has conducted a systematic genocide against Christian communities in Syria. Thousands of Christians have been raped—boys and girls alike. Torture and beheadings are daily occurrences in ISIS’s war against Christianity. Christians represent a greater threat to ISIS because they are far more numerous and more cosmopolitan than the Yazd community.
ISIS’s wealthy Gulf State supporters have been aware of this genocide since it began, but they continued to fund the group.
Now that ISIS has succeeded in presenting a credible threat to the Iraqi government, some of their Gulf State patrons are having second thoughts. Funding genocide is all well and good until they have to greet the genocidal maniacs at their own doorsteps.
A few months ago, a decrease in funding from the Gulf States would have been a crisis for ISIS. Now, it hardly matters. Intelligence estimates indicate that ISIS has stolen nearly half a billion dollars from banks in the cities that they now control. As the badly-led Iraqi Army melted away during ISIS’s advance across northern Iraq, ISIS also captured ammunition, tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft weapons, trucks, radios and other assorted military equipment. ISIS is in better material condition than they ever have been before.
But it’s not all good news for ISIS.
While bribing and intimidating Iraqi Army leaders into desertion was easy, ISIS discovered that the Kurds are not quite as eager to desert their positions or surrender. As the Kurds brought the ISIS advance to a halt, and the Yazd genocide became the latest cause célèbre in the West, Western governments felt a ground swell of support for action in Iraq. After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s no simple task to get the jaded and bankrupted Western public interested in committing to action in a seemingly hopeless cause like Iraq, but ISIS has succeeded in doing just that.
The Kurds are, in some ways, unique in Iraq. Unlike other Iraqi communities, the Kurds have never seemed hopeless, and they have a track record of having delivered on the agreements that they have made with Western governments. The credibility that the Kurdish community has established with Westerners makes it easier for Europeans and Americans to accept delivering military and humanitarian aid to them. Western aid to the Kurds is clearly bad news for ISIS.
The bad news for ISIS doesn’t stop there. The group can no longer count on the feeble and inept government of Prime Minister Maliki to keep Iraq weak and fractured. Maliki is gone. He resigned on August 14. It’s possible he imagined that the West and most Iraqis were about to arrange an unfortunate accident for him, and that his Iranian pals were no longer going to be able to keep him safe.
The infamously corrupt and incredibly incompetent Maliki has been replaced by Haider al Abaidi. Al Abaidi will not remind anyone of George Washington. He in no way resembles Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is not a savior, and he will not resolve all of Iraq’s problems, but unlike Maliki, he will not do his determined best to alienate most of the Iraqi population. This translates into more cooperation with the West and, more importantly, more Iraqis cooperating with each other. That’s also bad news for ISIS.
In a German blitzkrieg-like fashion, ISIS has moved quickly and deliberately. The group stripped away much of its soldiers and equipment from its battle in Syria to conduct its offensive in Iraq. Now that ISIS is facing counterattack by American-backed Kurds and a better led Iraqi Army, it cannot shift its troops back to Syria. Assad’s Syrian Army and native Syrian rebels are in a position to take advantage of ISIS’s force realignment to Iraq, and they have begun to do so. Assad has celebrated some small victories and recaptured territory from ISIS. If the native Syrian rebels can find enough support, they might now establish a solid position in Syria.
ISIS is enjoying looking at its map of its new “Caliphate.” If it looks a little more closely, it will notice that it has maneuvered itself into a three front war, and two of their principal enemies are rapidly improving. More bad news for ISIS.
Many Western viewers have seen a photo of an ISIS wannabe holding up an ISIS flag in front of the White House. That’s as close as an ISIS flag will come to flying over the White House. Before ISIS can even establish a real caliphate across Islam, it will need to do two things. It will need to destroy its growing list of enemies in the Middle East, and it will need to competently administer the territory that it now holds. I doubt that it will do either.
Here is my best guess:
ISIS will not be swept aside quickly. It will continue its skilled manipulation of on-line media platforms. It also might conduct successful terrorist attacks against the West, even as it loses ground in Syria and the Middle East. However, now that ISIS has succeeded in alienating most of the planet, it will eventually be reduced to the marginalized position from whence it spawned.