Saturday, January 31, 2015

The ISIS 'Caliphate' 6 Months on

Two recent events took place which received some global media atten­tion and would indi­cate ISIS is expand­ing its capa­bil­i­ties and reach. On 12 Jan­u­ary 2015 as Barack Obama gave a speech in Wash­ing­ton on cybersecurity,[1] as he was speak­ing, ISIS suc­cess­fully hacked the US Cen­tral Com­mands twit­ter account in an act of cyber Jihad.[2] On 14 Jan­u­ary 2015 Saudi Ara­bia revealed details of its 600-mile-long “Great Wall,” to sep­a­rate the coun­try from Iraq. With much of the Saudi-Iraq bor­der under the con­trol of ISIS the buffer zone will con­sist of five lay­ers of fenc­ing with watch tow­ers, night-vision cam­eras and radar cameras.[3] All of this was after a sui­cide bomb­ing and gun attack killed two Saudi bor­der guards and their com­mand­ing offi­cer on 5 Jan­u­ary 2015, which the King­dom con­sid­ered the first attack by ISIS on Saudi Arabia.[4] It has now been over 6 months since the ISIS announce­ment of the Caliphate and whilst they have expanded their ter­ri­to­r­ial con­trol and faced-off against the other rebel groups, a closer exam­i­na­tion of ISISsuc­cess reveals much of it is a mirage in the desert.
ISIS’s pres­ence in Syria can be traced offi­cially to April 2013 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared  the  merger between his group in Iraq and Jab­hut al-Nusra in Syria. The rejec­tion of this by al-Nusra leader Muhammed Joulani led to the cre­ation of ISIS which entered into a pro­tracted bat­tle with al-Nusra and every other rebel group in Syria seiz­ing ter­ri­tory from them. Today, most of the Iraqi-Syrian bor­der is in ISIShands and much of the north of the coun­try from Deir ar Zour to ar-Raqqa gov­er­norate and Aleppo  gov­er­norate is under ISIS con­trol – although Aleppo is still being con­tested. Whilst this ter­ri­tory is vast, likely to be in the range of 400 square miles it is of lit­tle strSyriaHeartlandate­gic impor­tance. Ar-Raqqah to Mosul — the tra­di­tional region of al-Jazirah is of lit­tle eco­nomic, his­tor­i­cal or geopo­lit­i­cal weight. It is a desert heart­land and what agri­cul­tural poten­tial is there is usu­ally affected by drought and as a result the pop­u­la­tion in this area of Syria has his­tor­i­cally been extremely small. Deir al-Zour and Ar-Raqqah, even prior to the upris­ing played only a minor role in Syr­ian pol­i­tics. Syria’s core or heart­land is in the West of the coun­try — the cor­ri­dor run­ning from Aleppo in the north to Dam­as­cus in the South. This is why Syria’s his­toric polit­i­cal and eco­nomic cen­tres remain the cities of, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Dam­as­cus and Deraa. Despite gain­ing most of the global media head­lines ISIS controls none of the key ter­ri­tory in Syria.
ISIS shot to fame due to their rapid con­quest of Iraq’s largest city after Bagh­dad, Mosul, in June 2014. This was a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory for ISIS as it defeated two army divi­sions that were sta­tioned in Mosul. This was around 30,000 troops, there were also an addi­tional 10,000 fed­eral police and 30,000 local police and likely, some Iran­ian Quds Force offi­cers. The Iraqi army had tanks, planes, and Amer­i­can train­ing. ISIS had never fielded a tank or a plane. The Iraqi army in real­ity was inept, incom­pe­tent, full of nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion and was really com­posed of vol­un­teers look­ing for a reg­u­lar salary than a fight­ing forces secur­ing the coun­try. The mil­i­tary was led by an even more cor­rupt polit­i­cal class and sec­tar­ian lead­ers more inter­ested in pre­serv­ing their own office rather than defend­ing the coun­try. The capit­u­la­tion of the Iraqi army proves their dire state rather than ISIS capa­bil­ity. There iKobani1s also sig­nif­i­cant evi­dence from many Iraqi com­man­ders, who were in Mosul at the time of the attack, that they were ordered to leave the city and to leave their equip­ment behind. This deci­sion to aban­don Mosul could only have come from Malaki him­self. This explains why ISIShas strug­gled after months of fight­ing in Kobani. A town only a tiny frac­tion of Mosul. Despite mainly fac­ing Kur­dish fight­ers and other fight­ers who reside in the town ISIS has been los­ing ground in this north­ern town on the bor­der with Turkey. All this has taken place despite ISIS com­man­der Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi send­ing thou­sands of fight­ers to Kobani, lead­ing many to call Kobani ISIS’s Stal­in­grad.
On the global scene ISIS has con­firmed all the stereo­types many have of an Islamic state. Behead­ings, killings, mur­ders, kid­nap­pings, slav­ery, lack of jus­tice, dic­ta­tor­ship and poverty are the images the world has of the ISIS Caliphate. Despite the slick use of social media, none of this has show­cased the capa­bil­i­ties of a state or why the Mus­lims around the world should immi­grate to the Caliphate. There is no doubt ISIS is com­posed skilled mul­ti­me­dia per­son­nel and acoustics engi­neers, but what is needed to develop a mod­ern state is engi­neers and skills to develop indus­try, weapons and infra­struc­ture. ISIS for the moment is sur­viv­ing on loot from Mosul and as a result can shoot down a mil­i­tary jet or counter a tank, but tack­ling an entire squadron or per­ma­nently neu­tral­is­ing air-sorties against a con­ven­tional army that can con­stantly pro­duce mil­i­tary plat­form is another mat­ter. This is why ISIS can do noth­ing against US air attacks sup­ported by the other air forces in the region as they lack com­plete author­ity over ter­ri­tory they pur­port to con­trol. ISIS con­sists of a loose coali­tion of 20 year olds, for­mer Ba’athists and many for­eign­ers and is at most an insur­gent force with lit­tle capa­bil­ity in run­ning a state.
Anec­do­tal reports sug­gest food, med­i­cine and other essen­tial goods are in scarce sup­ply and that the res­i­dents of cities such as Raqaa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq are becom­ing unhappy with the many taxes the Islamic State has levied to sup­port its econ­omy. With very lit­tle other eco­nomic activ­ity, shak­ing down the local pop­u­la­tion for taxes can work only for so long until peo­ple are bled dry.[5] ISIS has turned most of Iraq and much of Syria into another North Korea, iso­lated in the world and not pre­sent­ing any pos­i­tive image of the Caliphate. ISIS ter­ri­to­ries, which are mostly arable desert, are not con­ducive for eco­nomic devel­op­ment and it would be impos­si­ble to estab­lish a state upon it in order to sur­vive. A mod­ern nation will need to engage in inter­na­tional trade to sur­vive. This requires mutual recog­ni­tion between ‘states’ and some inter­na­tional cred­i­bil­ity. Basic equip­ment such as an MRI machine for a Mosul hos­pi­tal or chem­i­cals to treat water, as well as med­ical drugs or the infra­struc­ture for air trans­port requires inter­na­tional rela­tions. The nations that pro­duce such equip­ment and mate­ri­als can­not and will not sell to ISIS, turn­ing them into another North Korea. This is a huge blow to the ‘Islamic project’ and its credibility.
ISIS is con­sid­ered by many as the most suc­cess­ful Jihadi group that con­trols large sec­tions of Syria and Iraq. Although it has accom­plished a lot over the past 6 months, jihadi emi­rates have gen­er­ally been rel­a­tively short-lived. ISIS has grown on the ground in Iraq and Syria, both by absorb­ing other groups and by recruit­ing new local and for­eign fight­ers. It has how­ever not expanded beyond its core areas of oper­a­tion. The organisation’s growth out­side its core area has only been when other groups rebranded them­selves. Only a lim­ited num­ber of groups that have declared alle­giance to ISIS, these groups have gen­er­ally been splin­ters off exist­ing jihadi groups rather than new enti­ties. ISIS sup­port­ers around the world have gen­er­ally been online and a few pseudo-clerics with lit­tle cred­i­bil­ity. After 6 months ISIS pos­sesses sub­stan­tial ter­ri­tory but lit­tle else that is needed to func­tion as a mod­ern state.

[5] Jihadism in 2014: Assess­ing the Islamic State, Strat­for, Jan­u­ary 8 2015,

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