Op-Ed: Why ISIS is not as strong as it appears

Posted Oct 29, 2014 by Stephen Morgan
The myth of ISIS has been created by ignorance, sensationalism and fear. Its strengths are exaggerated and its weaknesses are underestimated — some of the worst mistakes you can make when facing an enemy.
The Face of Terror: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
The Face of Terror: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
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The spectacular advance of ISIS across Iraq and Syria has created an aura of invincibility around this organization, which is unfounded. Its military successes rest primarily on a number of exceptionally favourable circumstances, which may prove temporary in character. It could certainly never have advanced as far as it has, had it not been for massive outside help in terms of finances and arms, the lack of virtually any serious opposition to its expansion in Iraq and the aid of local forces with which it has struck up tactical alliances.
Lack of Opposition
The Dutch Army on bicycles would probably have mounted a more effective defence of Iraqi territory, than its own army did. If there were an Olympic competition for running backwards, it would have won gold, silver and bronze hands down.
Being mostly Shiite in composition and command, its troops had no intention to shed their blood to defend and protect Sunni areas. In fact, the Iraqi Army was little more than a uniformed, criminal gang, extorting money at roadblocks and from businesses. At the same time, it operated as a sectarian force bloodily repressing any Sunni opposition to the Shiite government in Baghdad. The Iraqi Army was despised by the local population, who looked on it as little more than an army of occupation, compared to which rule by ISIS seemed almost preferable to some.
ISIS was able to manipulate these sectarian divisions to its advantage. The hatred towards the Shiite government in Baghdad had reached such levels that defending Iraq as it stood, held no attraction to Sunnis. And to make things even easier for ISIS, the Sunni tribes, religious and political leaders struck up alliances with it, which made its advance look like a walk in the park.
Outside help
In Syria, things are somewhat different, because events there have developed through civil war. However, here again ISIS had an enormous outside advantage which helped facilitate its advance. Unlike all the other groups fighting Assad, logistical aid, money and weapons poured in from sugar daddies and covert government operations in the Gulf states and, of course, from neighbouring Turkey. These myopic benefactors, who saw this as a tactical decision to weaken the Shiite arc in the Middle East, were matched only in their short-sightedness by Western powers dithering over sending military supplies to the FSA out of fear of helping jihadists. Thus, US inaction also inadvertently, became a source of strength for ISIS.
Consequently, FSA fighters found themselves having to desert their positions because they lacked the fire power to fight back; in many cases deserting positions simply because they ran out of bullets. As a result, ISIS and other jihadist groups were attracted hundreds, if not thousands of moderate anti-Assad fighters just because they were “the guys with the guns.”
Now the White House is promising to train and equip thousands of FSA fighters. It seems they have forgotten that they just spend 10 years training and super-equipping the Iraqi Army, which proved to be about as effective as Puff the Magic Dragon in a sandstorm.
Of course, ISIS has been involved in some tough fighting, but the advantages bestowed on it from without and the lack of effective opposition from within gave it exceptional advantages which enabled it to make such impressive progress.
Internal Cohesion
However, success can also bring with it problems and also expose weaknesses. A major question is just how much can ISIS rely on the new recruits it has gained in the course of their success? Estimates of their size now range between 20-30,000, however, the hard core cadres probably only amount to some 5-7,000. These are the fanatics who will fight to the end with a cult-like belief that they are the “chosen ones” on a mission from God. They have been through the indoctrination camps and some are also battle-hardened foreigners from Chechnya and Afghanistan.
However, the logistics of brainwashing another 25,000 recruits, while simultaneously keeping up their military commitments, policing occupied areas, imposing fundamentalist laws and taking on the tasks of government, as well as running an economy, may be stretching ISIS resources to the limit. So, just as they are now encountering the tasks of governing a semi-state, they are also having to deal with the organization and running of a semi-conventional army, instead of a small guerilla/terrorist group.
Furthermore, the inordinate amount to which ISIS seems to depend on foreign fighters like the Chechens would seem to confirm that operational problems. The Chechens are the main force which have been given the task of fighting to defend and control the crucial Sunni heartland of Al-Anbar province in Iraq. In fact, they are reported to have been given a freehand to proceed as they wish.
If core forces are no longer under central command, that could spell problems in the future, when tensions could give rise to splits, like we have seen before when ISIS broke away from Al Qaida and with the al-Nusra Front in Syria. Indeed, it has been reported that the former Al Qaida-affliated group, The Raqqa Brigade is now fighting ISIS alongside Kurds in Kobani.
Rapid expansion, therefore, threatens ISIS with the ideological dilution of its movement, which has been the group's motor force until now. Consequently, the ideological understanding and the motivation of their soldiers must be much lower than it was when it was a small, group of cadres. Many of those who have joined ISIS in the recent period are with it because it is the “winning team” rather than strong convictions in its aims and methods. Beyond waving black flags and shouting some slogans, most of the new recruits wouldn't be able to answer five questions on what ISIS stands for.
Once ISIS faces serious setbacks, which undermine its appearance of unconquerablility, it is likely that there will be both splits at the top and haemorrhaging from below. Popular discontent and armed opposition from major tribes and other Sunni forces could well attract thousands of those currently fighting under the ISIS flag to their side. This, in turn, would accelerate its military problems and probably force it to retreat into a far smaller territory, with a much reduced influence in the region.
Fragile Alliances
The alliances it has struck up with tribes and other Sunni groups are extremely fragile. Those now supporting ISIS do not share the majority of its ideals, goals or methods. Most see this alliance as a mutually beneficial, but temporary marriage of convenience, which has facilitated the liberation of Sunni areas from the Shiite Baghdad government. However, nearly all of them are not interested in creating any sort of Caliphate with Syria and have the goal of securing an autonomous or fully independent Sunni state within the old Iraqi borders.
Clashes have already taken place between the secular, pro-Hussein, Baathist, Naqshbandi Army and ISIS and also with tribes in the province of Kirkuk. Once the alliances break down, ISIS will face an uprising of tribes and other groups, which will amount to a war of liberation. The tribes, in particular, can call on far larger forces than ISIS can boast and they have the knowledge and confidence that they have defeated the jihadists before in 2005.
Lack of popular support
No army of occupation can sustain itself indefinitely without the support of the local people and any enthusiasm there may have been among some for ISIS is rapidly disappearing. This is the reason why ISIS has reverted to extreme measures designed to try to terrify the population and wipe out local opposition. It is, in fact, a sign of weakness rather than strength.
The sight of the severed heads of Iraqi resistance fighters, FSA or Kurdish soldiers skewered on spikes in town centres, the beheadings, crucifixions, stonings and amputations may cause fear, but it also disgusts people and engenders hatred towards the fanatics. Its extremist, fundamentalist actions are an anathema to the traditionally quasi-secular/moderate Islamic culture of the peoples of both countries. The fact that they are having to dragoon children into their ranks is the result of their inability to recruit volunteers from the adult population.
The terrible treatment of women, the introduction of slavery, the banning of TV, sports, smoking and alcohol are things which foster a festering animosity towards them and a sense that they are aliens on their soil. Indeed, reports suggest that they are often using foreign fighters to police the towns, because they often speak little or no Arabic and are, therefore, less likely to be influenced by local discontent than native Iraqi and Syrian.
Economic problems
ISIS stays in power for the moment because on the one hand it is still capable of delivering electricity, food and water and on the other because no other alternative is being offered. Some are impressed by the way ISIS has been able to keep the economy afloat, pay wages and give social handouts. But it is a big step from a cash economy based on robbing banks, smuggling oil, extorting businesses and relying on kidnappings to creating a stable modern economy.
While it is true that ISIS is the world's most wealthy terrorist organization - mostly due the seizure of banks in Mosul- this doesn't mean that it wont face economic problems maintaining the semi-state which has arisen on its territory. Unless it intends to return to Year Zero like Pol Pot's Cambodia or construct a stone age society like that of the Taliban in Afghanistan (minus the heroin trade upon which they subsisted), it will be forced to trade on international markets and do business with the Satanic West. Not even the hermit kingdom of North Korea can cut itself off from the global capitalist economy any longer.
This will create ideological problems for ISIS. Many people are attracted to ISIS because the idea of a Caliphate seems to offer a new form of society which is the antithesis of modern capitalism, much in the way that many people were attracted to socialism in the past. Indeed, you could say that bin Laden became a sort of “Islamic Che Guevara” to many radical Muslim youth.
How then will ISIS ideologues square the vision of the Caliphate with the practice of selling oil to Western companies, importing cars from Germany or attracting foreign investment? ISIS has already been forced to trade with Turkish businessmen, Kurdish oil refineries, Lebanese Shiite merchants and even the Assad regime.
Kobani - a turning point?
Some military commentators have been suggesting that ISIS may now find itself overstretched. Perhaps the battle for Kobani is indicative of this. Regardless of who eventually wins, the fact that it has already been such a drawn out battle, may not only be due to the heroism and determination of the Kurdish fighters, but also because ISIS lacks the ability to switch enough manpower to the town in order to win, without, at the same time, endangering its control of other key cities. This is despite the fact that it has become a strategically important test for both sides, with the eyes of the world watching developments.
A defeat for ISIS in Kobani could be a turning point. Things could then begin to unravel for ISIS, with a series of defeats across the region, undermining its prestige, causing splits in ranks and large scale desertions, which would force it back into a far smaller territory with much less influence.
The invincibility of ISIS is a mirage. Back in 2005, the control its forerunner, Al Qaida in Iraq, had over the Sunni heartland of Al Anbar appeared unchallengeable. Not even the existence of 160,000 US troops was capable of dislodging them. But once the Sunni tribes rose up against Al Qaida, they not only drove them off their lands, but left the group isolated and ineffective for years. So, while ISIS itself, or jihadism in general, may be a tumour which can never be fully removed, local resistance can certainly shrink, cauterize, and contain its cancerous spread.