A year on, no quick fix to halt the rise of the Is­lamic State ‘caliphate’

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY SARA HUS­SEIN

A year af­ter its es­tab­lish­ment, the Is­lamic State group’s self­de­clared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq re­mains well- funded and heav­ily armed, and ex­perts say it could be around for years to come.

The would-be state headed by IS chief Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi — called Caliph Ibrahim by his fol­low­ers — has suf­fered set­backs in the months since it was pro­claimed.

A U.S.-led coali­tion is car­ry­ing out strikes against the group through­out its ter­ri­tory and this week it lost the key Syr­ian bor­der town of Tal Abyad to Kur­dish forces.

But the group has con­tin­ued to score shock­ing vic­to­ries else­where, in­clud­ing the seizure of Syria’s an­cient city of Palmyra, and ex­perts say IS and its “caliphate” have the means to last for years.

“The group op­er­ates as an in­sur­gency and might shrink in one re­gion and ex­pand in another, but it’ll stay with us for the fore­see­able fu­ture,” said Has­san Has­san, as­so­ciate fel­low at the Chatham House think tank’s Mid­dle East and North Africa pro­gram.

“I see it ex­ist­ing and ac­tive for at least a decade.”

Other ex­perts agree that while the cur­rent borders of the caliphate are likely to shift, the en­tity is far from on its last legs.

“The very idea of the caliphate and ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ will surely re­main for many of the move­ment’s mem­bers and sup­port­ers around the world,” said Charles Lis­ter, a vis­ing fel­low at the Brook­ings Doha Cen­ter think thank.

Well-funded, Well-armed

IS’s suc­cess is driven by var­i­ous fac­tors, chief among them its sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial re­sources, su­pe­rior fire­power, and abil­ity to play on the le­git­i­mate griev­ances of lo­cal pop­u­la­tions in Syria and Iraq.

“It re­mains the rich­est ter­ror­ist group in the world,” with weekly rev­enues of about US$2 mil­lion (1.7 mil­lion eu­ros), said Pa­trick John­ston, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Rand Cor­po­ra­tion think tank.

U.S.-led strikes on the group’s oil in­fra­struc­ture and a drop in the price of crude have cut into its funds, but it has found ways to com­pen­sate.

“Key among them are ex­tor­tion, tax­a­tion, and the sale of looted goods from ar­eas they have cap­tured,” John­ston said.

More im­por­tantly, the group’s op­er­at­ing costs are rel­a­tively low: it has a steady sup­ply of re­cruits, par­tic­u­larly for­eign fight­ers, and its vast ar­mory is stocked largely from the spoils of bat­tles against armies and other rebel groups.

Fight­ers have ac­cess to a range of small arms and light weapons, as well as ar­tillery, anti- tank guns and a “seem­ingly un­end­ing sup­ply of pick- up trucks and cap­tured ar­mored ve­hi­cles and, in Syria, tanks,” ac­cord­ing to Lis­ter.

He said the group seeks to “en­sure a near-con­stant se­ries of tac­ti­cal-level vic­to­ries are won, thereby re­sult­ing in the cap­ture of ad­di­tional weapons sup­plies.”

IS also buys arms from the black mar­ket, mak­ing it “one of the most equipped groups in Syria and Iraq,” said Has­san, au­thor of a book on the group.

“IS has the weapons, train­ing and means to op­er­ate as a

small army,” he said.

A Lack of Al­ter­na­tives

The U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing IS has had some suc­cesses, but ex­perts say it is con­strained by a lack of re­li­able ground forces and rel­a­tively poor in­tel­li­gence.

IS mean­while has strate­gi­cally fo­cused its ex­pan­sion on ar­eas where lo­cal gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity is weak.

And it quickly im­ple­ments gov­er­nance in cap­tured ter­ri­tory, John­ston said, us­ing its bu­reau­crats and po­lice to con­sol­i­date its con­trol.

The ji­hadists use a car­rot-and­stick ap­proach with lo­cal pop­u­la­tions, ter­ror­iz­ing with bru­tal public ex­e­cu­tions but also of­fer­ing rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity and public ser­vices in­clud­ing healthcare and ed­u­ca­tion.

“Its pop­u­lar­ity is fluid ... but gen­er­ally it still has what it takes to rule with­out much pres­sure from within its ar­eas,” said Has­san.

“Peo­ple on the ground still fear the group’s ret­ri­bu­tion, see value in its model of gov­er­nance, and don’t have any other ac­cept­able al­ter­na­tives.”

The lack of al­ter­na­tives has been key to IS’s suc­cess in Syria and Iraq, where Sunni Mus­lims feel ex­cluded from the rul­ing class.

In Syria, Sun­nis have led the upris­ing against Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, who hails from the Alaw­ite off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam.

In Iraq, they fre­quently ac­cuse the Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Those dy­nam­ics mean a purely mil­i­tary ap­proach to the “caliphate prob­lem” will fall short.

“So long as As­sad re­mains in Syria and so long as Bagh­dad’s im­prove­ments in rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment do not trans­late into a shift in per­cep­tions on the ground, IS will al­ways re­tain a chance of ac­quir­ing peo­ple’s tacit ac­cep­tance,” Lis­ter said.

“Ul­ti­mately the only gen­uine so­lu­tion to IS is to solve the un­der­ly­ing is­sues of so­ci­etal di­vi­sion and po­lit­i­cal fail­ure that IS has sought to ex­ac­er­bate and ex­ploit to its ad­van­tage.”

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