When Fallujah fell to ISIS earlier this year, it didn’t raise that much of a stir. Then a couple more towns including Tikrit went the same way. Now Mosul has fallen and many are sitting bolt-upright. Thirty thousand men of the Iraqi army downed weapons and ran as though pursued by demons, their commanders leading the frenzied dash for safety. Half a million citizens followed.
The ‘demons’ in this instance were about 800 (according to reports published in The Guardian – it may have been double that, but comparatively few nonetheless) ISIS combatants descending on the city in unarmoured utilities. It should have been a clay-pigeon shoot for the defenders. Who are these supermen who can route a modern, well-equipped army by doing little more than glaring at them from the backs of their utes?
ISIS is variously translated from its name in Arabic as “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (hence the acronym ISIS in English) and “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. The latter is actually a better translation as the ‘Syria’ in ‘ISIS’ represents ‘Greater Syria’ – present-day Syria plus a few other bits and pieces including Lebanon and a chunk of Jordan. Hardly heard of a mere few years ago, ISIS is now the nemesis of the Iraqi state, threatening its very survival as such. ISIS fighters come from all over the Muslim world, and from outside it – Europe and Britain included. It is an international army on a – dare I use the word – Crusade. Fired up with religious zeal, they will take on anyone and everyone using whatever weapons and means are at their disposal. They expect no quarter and give none. Their brutality is already legendary – summary executions including crucifixion are the order of the day in areas they control. Mark Tran of The Guardian calls ISIS “a terror group too extreme even for al-Qaida”. Indeed, while ostensibly allied to al-Qaida, the two have been falling out of late and ISIS has openly defied its brothers-in-arms who have disavowed them in return.
But even ISIS doesn’t always get its own way. Things are going pretty well for them in Iraq at the moment, but a thorn in their side is Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The Syrian army and its allies, including Hezbollah, have not been throwing in the towel and scarpering in the face of an attack but have been taking them on. A complicating factor for ISIS in Syria has been that it has had to deal with constant skirmishes with other ‘opposition’ groups as well as the regime’s forces, which has dissipated their energies. The strategy on the part of ISIS now seems to be to establish a secure base in Iraq from which to launch a concerted campaign into Syria.
Other countries are getting nervous, not the least being Iran, as one of the last things on the Sunni-fundamentalist ISIS agenda is peaceful coexistence with the Shia branch of Islam. There might be just a little smug satisfaction in some Western quarters at the thought of Iran having to pull its horns in because of the threat posed by large areas in their neighbourhood coming under the control of ISIS, but an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – whether de jure or de facto – poses a threat that extends throughout and indeed far beyond the region all the way into Europe and North America. ISIS is Damascus’s and Teheran’s enemy, but that most definitely does not make it a friend of the West.
What can the West do about ISIS? Boots [back] on the ground in Iraq would presumably be politically impossible for the US and UK, and no way will the Europeans go in. The West needs to actively support regional forces that are fighting ISIS. But that includes the al-Assad regime in Damascus. The West is now in the invidious position where it simply cannot allow the al-Assad regime to fall, and yet it must be seen to be supportive of the ‘moderate opposition’ who are just about impotent in the face of both the regime and, more importantly, ISIS.
While Russia continues to back and arm the Syrian regime, the prospects of victory for ISIS in Syria are not inspiring – Homs is now back in government hands. An ISIS base in Iraq is unlikely to swing the odds the other way in the short term, but it would certainly add to the pressures on Damascus. Historical parallels present themselves in the form of a comparatively backward North Vietnam eventually bringing about the collapse of the relatively advanced and Western-backed South Vietnam in 1975. And that’s assuming the Russians continue their patronage – it could all happen a lot more quickly if they don’t do so for whatever reason.
As I sit here writing this article and sipping a Scotch in my Beirut apartment, the chilling thought strikes me that the only thing between me and ISIS is Bashar al-Assad’s army and Hezbollah holding them back in Syria. If the West has any sense at all, it will at the very least desist from doing anything that will weaken the Damascus regime or the resolve of Moscow to back it. If ISIS prevails, it won’t only be this Scotch-swilling Dutchy who pays the price.
Dr Barend Vlaardingerbroek is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.