Where does Iraq and the “Islamic State” go now?

Photo Courtesy of Wall Street Journal

Photo Courtesy of Wall Street Journal



With a very propagandistic announcement by “the Islamic State of the Levant” that its occupied areas of Syria and Iraq would now be called the “Islamic State” and with a call for all Muslims to declare fealty to the “emir’ Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, it was predictable that it would raise red flags all over the Middle East and the West.

Torrents of conspiracy theories are racing around the journalistic and social media worlds.  So after reading as much as my patience would allow I offer some bottom lines I draw based on Middle Eastern history and the trends   surfaced by  the real experts  those judgment I trust .

The Sunni Arab counties, which previously have made superficial claims opposing the aims of the ISIS (ISIL), are now beginning to be somewhat alarmed, and  they should be. The ISIL is not really a military organization. It is an ideological and political movement. Their “victories” in Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq were “psychological triumphs.” The largely Shi’a enlisted ranks of the ill-trained Iraqi army were deserted by their Sunni officers, many of whom are sympathizers with the ISIL and former members of the Ba’ath party.  A number were former officers in Saddam’s army.

The Shi’a officers in the Iraqi army are largely unprofessional and promoted through affiliation to the DAWA party of PM Nouri al Maliki. The untrained and ill-led Shi’a soldiers felt like aliens in the Sunni -populated  Anbar province. Leaderless, the soldiers most or all of whom have access to smart phones, were subjected to the highly publicized  brutality and media driven military prowess of the ISIL and their allies.

The Shi’a soldiers, who like most Shi’a, have an inferiority complex compared to the Sunnis. This has been acquired over hundreds of years of Sunni ascendancy. Taken together, the grisly scenes of execution and bravado distributed via social media was enough to basically dissolve the Iraqi army resistance. This is not a new occurrence in military history.

Field Marshal Sir Edmund Ironside , C.I.G.S. of the  B ritish army made the same observation of the French army, once thought to be the  best army in the world, as it dissolved under German attack in WWII. The French were terrified by a seemingly overwhelming military might of the German army. They were defeated in their minds.

As a sidebar this should give pause to the conventional thinkers who have always blamed the deba’thfication and dissolution of Saddam’s army as grievous mistakes. This should have given rise to the question of how long a largely Saddamist army would have defended liberated Iraq from its enemies, external and internal. But of course it will not. Conventional wisdom has become so deeply engrained that many decades will pass before we have good revisionist history.

The ISIL is a movement, and like all ideological movements, it must expand or begin to implode. The idea that the ISIL and their many supporters will be satisfied with a rump state in the mostly desert of Anbar province and northern desert of Syria, mostly bereft of real economic resources, is wishful thinking. They have reached the borders of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, And in both countries the ISIL has sympathetic followers, especially Jordan. In Jordan, the Palestinians, many of whom side with any political movement that proclaims itself an enemy of the Hashemite regime may well see the ISIL as a gate to Palestine. It should also be remembered that the Jordanian army has a long history of working with the Iraqi army of Saddam.

Within the core leadership of the ISIL are many Ba’ath and former Saddam military personnel and intelligence  operatives who still have links with the Jordanians.

Saudi Arabia is currently going trough a leadership crisis. The deputy defense minister has been changed five times in 15 months and the aging king is caught between two enemies, one partially of the Kingdom’s own making; the funding of Sunni insurgents against the al Maliki Shi’a government of Iraq as a way of fighting expanding Iranian and Shi’a influence in the Gulf.

There can be little doubt that Saudi has been funding Islamic militants in Syria, and private individuals all over the Gulf have opening their pockets to fund Sunni militants against the Alawi government of Syria.

The Kurds are another matter. They, like Beirut in an earlier era, has prospered because they have been an oasis of stability in a turbulent Middle East, but in the long term they have no friends and have to view the ISIL as an implacable enemy. Small clashes are occurring daily along the borders of the “Caliphate” and Kurdistan. Kurdistan has taken advantage of the weakness of the Iraqi state to become a de facto independent entity.  However their temporary love affair with the Turks cannot possibly be maintained. As the Kurds of Turkey continue to resist “turkification”, the pull of an independent Kurdistan just across the border is a magnet for conflict.

Moreover Turkey, which has been supporting the Islamic insurgents in Syria, has a large restive population of Alevis residing mostly in the south who have an engrained fear and loathing of Sunni extremism which is being covertly supported by Turkish intelligence organizations. In other words the genie is out of the box and Erdogan’s Arab adventures have   backfired.

The West, Europe and the U.S., have some worries as well, beyond the question of oil supplies. It is the influx of would be  Western jihadis coming to Iraq and Syria, for adventure, loot, or  trying to put some meaning in their mostly dysfunctional lives. As the “Emirate” disintegrates, as it surely will within a few years or less, these Jihadis will be returning to their humdrum lives in the West. This spawn of evil will be with us for some time.

In sum, I do not see a long life for the ‘Caliphate.”  Despite all the verbiage in the media about the death of the Sykes-Picot state borders, Arab states have shown great resiliency in maintaining their borders, and the divisions within the ISIL supporters and their fertile imaginations of their leaders have doomed it. It is just another example of the “dream palaces” of which the late great Fouad Ajami wrote; “the proclivity of the Arabs to pursue chimeras and false prophets”. The ISIL Emirate is the latest example of  Ajami’s “dream palace.”

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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