The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

ISIS: “A Rash or a Cancer?”

“I would suggest that IS, as a decisive element in regional stability, is on the wane.”

Frederick W. Axelgard | November 21, 2014
| Print | Google plus Google plus linkedin share button
The symbols of the flag of the Islamic State

The year 2014 is drawing to a close, and it will likely be remembered for the chaos that erupted in international affairs. Instability and violence in the Middle East have been especially alarming. We have witnessed the emergence of ISIS, a third Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza, and continued turmoil in Syria that seems to have no likelihood of ending soon. It is difficult to predict the lasting impact these events might have. Nevertheless, by way of a year-end review, let’s try to put at least one of these issues in perspective.

First, how big a concern should the Islamic State (IS) be? There is no doubt that IS’s large, rapid acquisition of land and resources was a frightening and disturbing development. The Iraqi military’s flight from Mosul in the face of a few thousand IS fighters raised many questions, including whether the years of US military training in Iraq had had any effect. The violent brutality of IS tactics and its declaration of an Islamic caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria further heightened the group’s image of terror and invincibility. But analysts rightfully questioned whether IS had over reached. Did they have the wherewithal to set up and govern a viable political entity? How long would their resources last? How long would their tactical alliances endure in the face of IS suppression and brutalities? These questions remain unanswered, but signs of weakness have started to emerge. IS military progress has stalled both in Iraq and in the Kurdish areas near the Turkey-Syria border. US air strikes have played an important role in this success, but it is vital not to overlook the work on the ground done by local forces. In the best-known example, Kurdish peshmerga forces fought fiercely for weeks in the town of Kobane. This militia lacked much in the way of formal military training and faced off against tanks, armored vehicles, and other weaponry with only man-portable weapons of their own.

It has become increasingly evident that a major role has been played by the elite Iranian al Quds forces

Meanwhile, it has become increasingly evident that a major role has been played by the elite Iranian al Quds forces, and their commander Qassem Suleimani. Suleimani is a shadowy figure who has reportedly been the strategic planner behind the Asad regime’s defenses in Syria. Once a clandestine figure, now he is being openly credited with saving Baghdad from the IS onslaught; he has also been photographed with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq as well.

One item of concern is that, on the political front, IS may be seeking to build cooperation with the extremist Jabhat al Nusra (JN) group in Syria. The two groups have been seen as competitors. During the summer, JN declared its own caliphate in Syria in response to the IS. It remains to be seen whether differences can be overcome and an effective brand of cooperation established; or whether these reports signal the temporizing of IS ideology and strategy.

With all factors taken together, including the successful way the incremental involvement of US troops has been managed, I would suggest that IS, as a decisive element in regional stability, is on the wane. It will take several more months for the military and political situation to clarify, but when it does we may well see IS contained and chastened.

I would suggest that IS, as a decisive element in regional stability, is on the wane.

But the reality is that as long as the situation in Syria remains as chaotic as it is, there will be room for groups like IS and JN to operate and wreak havoc. After nearly four years of civil war, the hopelessness of a military solution to Syria’s problems seems evident. Hopes for a political solution seem just as remote, but the UN Secretary General recently proposed a truce agreement for the city of Homs to the Syrian government and rebel forces. The proposal seeks to take advantage of the fact that myriad, uncoordinated local truces have taken hold in towns and cities across Syria. It has been suggested that these ceasefires offer a way forward, that they might expand and somehow merge (like growing inkblots) into a wider pattern of stability. These conditions would theoretically allow for foreign assistance to be received and a degree of rebuilding to begin.[1] The weaknesses in this approach are many, but the fact that Ban ki-Moon has invoked it illustrates the paucity of options in Syria.

One wonders whether the same might be said of the confrontation with IS. It seems likely that, at some point, it will become apparent that the costs of destroying IS militarily are too high, and/or that their political appeal is too real to ignore. It beggars belief at this moment to suggest that a way to negotiate with IS – or some reconfigured hybrid of IS and JN – could be found. Nevertheless, it is the Middle East, and stranger things have happened. 2015 might be a very interesting year in its own right.

[1] Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “A New Plan for Syria,” The New York Review of Books Blog, entry posted September 26, 2014, (accessed November 19, 2014).