Strength and Weakness of the Islamic State
By Alexander Kuznetsov for Strategic Culture Foundation
Strategic Culture Foundation
March 8, 2016
Posted at Quemado Institute
March 8, 2016
On Feb. 28 armed groups from the Daesh terrorist organization made a swift raid on Abu Ghraib near Baghdad and for a day held their positions in the city.
Abu Ghraib is actually a suburb of the Iraqi capital, located twenty kilometers from the center of Baghdad. Back during the American occupation it gained notoriety for its military prison, where those who took part in the patriotic resistance movement were sent.
The sudden capture of Abu Ghraib by terrorists took place at a time when the insurgents were losing their positions. Last March Iraqi forces seized Tikrit (Saddam’s hometown) from Daesh militants. In late December, the Iraqi army joined the Shiite al-Hashd al-Shaabi militias to finally liberate the strategically important center of Ramadi in Anbar province. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters managed to wrest away the Sinjar Mountains from the terrorists.
Why is the specter of Daesh now reemerging? The answer can be found in Iraq’s recent history.
The Americans who occupied Iraq in 2003 not only overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, but also dismantled all government institutions and decimated the army and civil services. One hundred eighty thousand former members of the Baath Party, most of whom were Sunnis, lost their jobs. Those included not only officers from the army and security services, but also doctors and teachers.
Iraq’s Sunni community, relegated to second-class citizenship after the US intervention, took up arms. For a while the bloody feud between the Shiites and Sunnis was working to the Americans’ advantage. In keeping with the ancient maxim of «divide and conquer», the occupiers preferred that the Shiites and Sunnis fight each other rather than fight back. This produced a powerful surge of Islamic radicalism in Iraq.
By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the Americans created a vacuum of power and influence. The religious leaders in Najaf and Karbala filled that vacuum within the Shiite community. After the ban on the Baath party, the influence of the radical Wahhabi and Salafi clerics increased among the Sunnis. Jihadists from other countries flocked to the battlefield like vultures. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, led by the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, unleashed a far-reaching reign of terror.
As a result, by the fall of 2006 the situation had become intolerable even for the Americans. The Sahwa («Awakening») militias, drawing mainly from Sunni tribes in Anbar province and led by Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, were formed, with 90,000 members. Within three years al-Qaeda was defeated, but the government of Nouri al-Maliki never thought to thank its saviors, instead launching new waves of brutal repression against the Sunnis. Sahwa units were disbanded and stripped of their pay. The most basic public utilities were cut off in Iraq’s Sunni regions – even electricity was supplied only for five hours a day. Sweeps were regularly conducted in Sunni cities, and innocent people thrown into prison on false charges of «terrorism». In 2014, 12,000 inmates in Iraqi prisons were awaiting execution, accused of «terrorism». Most of the charges had been fabricated.
Having done away with all armed combatants, the Maliki government then began to eliminate moderate Sunni politicians who were already well-established throughout the government. In late 2011, the Iraqi security services wanted to put the country’s Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, behind bars on «terrorism» charges, prompting him to flee to Turkey. Shortly afterward, a similar fate threatened Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, who was unwilling to be part of the government corruption, and under threat of arrest ended up leaving the country for Jordan.
In fact, once the Americans arrived, Iraqi Sunnis found themselves even more powerless than the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.
As a result, reanimated resistance movements sprang up in the Sunni regions of Iraq. The underground Baath Party, led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, played a insignificant role in this, and planned after seizing Mosul to announce the restoration of the Republic of Iraq on a broad, nonsectarian basis, as it had been under Saddam. But that didn’t happen. The jihadists seized control over the uprising, with assistance from Turkey and some Gulf monarchies. Many of the Baathists were wiped out, and others were recruited by the terrorists.
Wherein lies the strength of the Islamic State?
First of all, in the synthesis of regular and irregular fighting techniques. The former includes shrewd military tactics and discipline: many of Saddam Hussein’s former army officers can be found among the Daesh commanders. Their irregular techniques involve the use of terror (the utilization of suicide bombers, public intimidation in the occupied areas, and mass executions). Next, it enjoys the support or loyalty of many of the Sunni tribes that are drawn to IS in the hope of escaping discrimination and repression by the government in Baghdad.
And what is Daesh’s weakness?
Its weakness lies in the fact that the notorious Islamic State is in no way a state, and it can never become a state. IS is a classic anti-system (to use Lev Gumilyov’s terminology). IS eschews the act of creation and offers no kind of positive program. Any anti-system is destined to act as a parasite, making predatory use of natural resources and conducting rapacious raids upon its neighbors.
After the successful air strikes by the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces in Syria, which cut off the oil smugglers’ route into Turkey, the economic picture in the territories occupied by the jihadists is becoming increasingly calamitous. Mosul is in want of basic food supplies and medicines. Prices have soared. According to refugees who are in flight from the areas seized by the jihadists, an average Iraqi family in that city could live on $500 per month at the end of 2015, but now they cannot get by even on $1,000. Regions with a shattered economy and mass unemployment are on the brink of starvation. The terrorists, who initially sought to win favor from the local population by restoring utilities, have now abandoned that tactic. Power outages have reappeared, and terror is used to stifle any signs of discontent. Thus there is no reason for Iraqi Sunnis to fight for the Islamic State.
However, they are also wary of any attempts to draw them into the anti-terrorist movement. As mentioned above, the Shiite al-Hashd al-Shaabi militia represents the razor’s edge of the struggle against IS in Iraq. Most Sunnis do not like al-Hashd al-Shaabi and do not trust its fighters.
Objectively, Iraq is faced with the task of encouraging the Sunni rebels to join the battle against the terrorists, but in order to do that the population of Mosul and Anbar need promises that their autonomy and rights will be respected. The regime of Nouri al-Maliki, installed by Washington, cannot offer those assurances.
In order to defeat the terrorists in Iraq, one must first deprive them of the support of the local population and pry the Sunni tribes and former Baathists away from IS, by promising them amnesty and guaranteeing that they will have a role in governing the new Iraq (whether through autonomy for the Sunnis or through their broad representation in the central government). Only by creating a state that respects the interests of all communities and religions will it be possible to slay the anti-system dragon known as the Islamic State, which was midwifed by the American occupation of Iraq.