With Latest Onslaught, Islamic State Vision Takes Shape in Iraq

In the absence of strong, central governments in Iraq and Syria, the Western strategy in the region is in urgent need of revision.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Fighters from the Al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant marching in Raqqa, Syria, in an undated photo posted on a militant website, Jan. 14, 2014.
Fighters from the Al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant marching in Raqqa, Syria, in an undated photo posted on a militant website, Jan. 14, 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has chalked up two strategic victories. He built a command stronghold in Syria, which became an independent target, thus splitting the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. By doing so, he has managed to give Assad the status of fighting against radical Islam, which would make him of strategic value to the West. In Iraq, Baghdadi has taken control of the country’s largest province, Nineveh, and its capital Mosul, and threatens the newly elected democratic government there.

Al-Baghdadi represents the third generation of jihadists trained by Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, a generation that poses a new strategic threat as it searches for a new leader, after Osama Bin Laden’s death and the apparent blindness of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Unlike the mass terrorist attacks that characterized Al-Qaida activity under Bin Laden, or the small-scale attacks on cities or neighborhoods in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, this third generation of leaders is not content with terror attacks or guerilla warfare. Instead, they look to rule.

In Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, the four states in which Bin Laden’s successors are based, there are no longer any Western targets to hit directly. There are no longer any American forces (save for in Afghanistan, where the foreign troops will be gone by the end of the year) to serve as legitimate targets of occupiers. Their presence used to assist the terror organizations with recruitment. Now, the targets in these countries are the regimes themselves, which are mostly without military power, public support or the ability to stop the terrorist organizations.

Groups like Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have in the past been cut off from the civilian infrastructures that they’ve damaged. They’ve generally been supported by the Sunni populations in Iraq or Syria, and have used their infrastructure as bases from which to wage their wars against the regimes. Now, however, it seems that tactic is changing, as in many provinces and cities they’ve captured, the groups have been establishing themselves as governments.

In Syria, for example, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has become responsible for distributing food, as well as the school systems, and it has styled itself the defender of the Christian minority. The group regulates traffic, levies taxes and puts criminals on trial. It took Mosul unopposed, with its population of 2 million, as well as the oil producing city of Baiji, with the country’s largest refineries. After it seized government offices in Nineveh, it was quick to call government officials back in to work. It has resumed public services and is guaranteeing safety and security for the hundreds of thousands of citizens who fled their homes and are currently waiting on the border between Nineveh and the independent Kurdish area.

Mosul isn’t the first city captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group previously occupied Fallujah and parts of Anbar in western Iraq. This is the first time, however, it has attempted to assert control over an entire province. As its ideological vision — founding an Islamic state — becomes reality, it is learning the importance of managing a population.

Due to the lack of a strong central government in Iraq and Syria, and especially due to both nations’ lack of military strength — thousands have defected from the Iraqi army, and the Syrian army is bogged down trying to regain control of territory it has lost to rebels — Western strategy in the region is in need of revision.

Until now, the United States believed it could provide support to local armies, as an intelligence provider and remote attacker with drones, while allowing the locals to make the primary moves. The United States also believed that assassinating terrorist leaders would strip fighters of their ability and motivation to fight. Both assumptions were wrong. Countless terrorist leaders have been killed, but both motivation and infrastructure remain.

Unlike with rogue states, there is no way to level sanctions on jihadist organizations. Also, they have independent sources of finance, and sustain themselves during fighting. In Syria, they’ve managed to take over Syrian army caches. In Iraq, they’ve taken over property and imposed protection taxes on local citizens. They receive donations from ideological supporters or those who wish to see the local governments overthrown. In the absence of a military solution, the result is likely to be de facto recognition of these organizations’ rule, and perhaps even cooperation with them.

This wouldn’t be an entirely new phenomenon. The U.S. cooperated with the Taliban while it ruled Afghanistan, and sought to reconcile it and the Afghan government. In Syria, Washington has been open to cooperating with the “moderate organizations,” which include some that are religiously extreme. Paradoxically, the West decided that the Nusra Front, which is actually linked to Al-Qaida, is preferable to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Although some believe the Syrian crisis will continue for a decade, the real threat comes from Iraq, which is likely to lose a significant piece of territory, which will threaten Turkey, the Kurdish strip, Iranian interests and perhaps even Iraq’s very existence.

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