Barron's Cover

Islamic State in Retreat

An unlikely coalition is beating back ISIS, pointing to more Mideast stability and economic growth amid low oil prices and shifting power dynamics

By Jonathan R. Laing           
.

cat
Members of an Iraqi counterterrorism unit signal victory last December during their successful campaign to retake Ramadi, which had fallen to ISIS in May. Photo: HMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
 
 
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the prospects for the Middle East over the next decade. This is especially so given the number of security consultants such as ex-Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden who regularly appear in the media predicting continual civil war for the Mideast and the inevitability of heightened jihadi terrorism in the West. In fact, Hayden regularly likens the current situation in the Middle East to the Thirty Years’ War in 17th-century Europe, in which religious strife produced a bloody conflict that drew in all the great powers. According to Hayden, the Mideast has just started on a similar cycle.
 
Of course, such apocalyptic rumination is great for consulting fees. But Barron’s doesn’t share these dire assessments, a view encouraged by recent discussions with academics acquainted with the complex geopolitics of the region, as well as observers who live in the Mideast or frequently travel there.

For example, we expect an important source of regional violence, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to see its power and territory greatly diminished by the end of 2017. The major reason for a more optimistic outlook is that the Islamic State caliphate has suffered a string of territorial losses, including key cities such as Tikrit, Ramadi, and Sinjar in Iraq and, more recently, Palmyra in Syria.

Continued progress depends on an admittedly fragile coalition of regional and global powers coordinating their military and diplomatic efforts even more closely than they’ve begun to do recently. Working together could actually improve relations among the participants, lending political stability and promoting much-needed economic growth in the region.

WE’RE NOT SO NAIVE as to believe the Middle East will suddenly fix itself. It won’t. The Islamic State is still training terrorists and sending scores of them from its battle zones in Syria and Iraq to Europe and even possibly the U.S. (See map below.) Likewise, the Islamic State has inspired terrorism by homegrown players. We expect both forms of terrorism to continue.
Despite recent military defeats, the Islamic State sprawls over swaths of Iraq and Syria, and its affiliates have established areas of control in Libya, the Egyptian Sinai, and southern Yemen.
 


EUROPEAN TARGETS: Using recruits from around the world, ISIS and its adherents have been able to launch a total of 26 successful terrorist attacks in Europe from January 2014 to March 25 of this year; another 24 have been thwarted. These can be expected to continue.

The Islamic State caliphate has been a magnet for Sunni youths living in the Mideast, Europe, and beyond who resent their lack of economic opportunity and political voice. The Islamic State has attracted volunteers from 90 different nations, according to intelligence reports. For young men it offers a paying job, the fantasy of military glory, and female companionship. The imaginations of many of these recruits are fired by the opportunity for death and the transfiguration of martyrdom. Eternal paradise beckons.

Moreover, the civil wars now raging in Syria and Iraq, in which former governments have been reduced to just another armed faction, are kaleidoscopic in their complexity. Much of the Mideast is now a Hobbesian netherworld pitting Shiites against Sunnis, tribes against tribes, and militias against militias, often in a violent mosaic that outsiders find hard to fathom. (See table.)
 
 
The consequent refugee crisis has cast millions of the displaced into camps in Turkey and Jordan and beyond. In Europe, the fabric of the post-World War II experiment of open borders and liberal social policies has been badly frayed. Xenophobia and extreme political sentiment have surged as a result of the refugee tsunami washing westward from the Mideast.

And there’s the fear—we think it’s overblown—that powerhouses of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar could get engulfed in the Middle East’s ring of fire, interrupting the flow of oil into world markets. Saudi Arabia, for example, is still very much a tribal regime with the financial means to fend off opposition forces both inside and outside its borders.

THE RISKS IN THE MIDDLE EAST are enormous, but we should also consider events that could lessen the damage. In the next year, the Islamic State is likely to be ejected from Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, which it captured in a desert blitzkrieg in the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State is also likely to lose its self-declared capital Raqqa, in eastern Syria, according to a number of experts.

“These losses will deal a severe blow to the group’s image as an indomitable expansionary force that has attracted so many recruits from the Mideast, Europe, and elsewhere in the Islamic world,” notes Paul Pillar, who had a 28-year career as a CIA analyst and National Intelligence Council member and later was a member of the Georgetown University faculty.

The Islamic State, which grew out of the murderous al Qaeda in Iraq, reminds Pillar of Peru’s Shining Path guerillas, who operated in the 1980s and 1990s. “After the Maoist group controlled much of Peru, it largely self-destructed as a result of its wanton brutality and finally a strong military response. By late 2017, I suspect that the Islamic State will be reduced to some roving guerrilla bands riding around Syria,” he says.

Conquering and holding territory is crucial to the allure of the caliphate. It represents a triumph of Islamic conquest reminiscent of the times of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. The Islamic State also taps into a well-spring of fanaticism that is a part of so-called Salafi Jihadist Sunni Islam, which says that apostates, Shiites, and nonbelievers must be put to the sword.

STANDING BETWEEN the Islamic State and its grandiose plan for a global caliphate is an array of regional Mideast powers and foreign adversaries, says George Friedman, the founder of the private intelligence concern Stratfor and, more recently, Geopolitical Futures, both headquartered in Austin, Texas.

The anti-Islamic State powers include Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, bolstered by the U.S., Russia, and the European Union.

The primary reason that this prospective grand alliance has been hamstrung to date, according to F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, is that the Islamic State is only “the second most important enemy” for many of the main players. For instance, Turkey with its restive Kurdish population is less concerned about the Islamic State than with Kurdish militia forces battling the Islamic State to Turkey’s south.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia regarded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as their primary foe in the area. At least until recently, the U.S. fervently wanted regime change in Syria because of Assad’s brutal repression of the rebellion that broke out in 2011 in reaction to the Arab Spring. The Saudis, on the other hand, opposed Assad because Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, Iran, had longstanding ties to Syria and was aiding him in the civil war, sending in military advisors and Iranian-backed military forces from its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.

And finally Russia, as a longtime Assad ally, supplied Syria with military aid and, beginning last fall, air support with missions flown from Syrian air bases and special forces units. Russia concentrated its firepower on Syrian rebel forces backed by Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and other Western nations.

BUT THIS TOPSY-TURVY DIPLOMATIC situation, which gave the Islamic State a bit of a free pass, is starting to change for the better. A Syrian cease-fire agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia has somewhat protected from Russian attacks most of the rebel groups, save the Islamic State and the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. Russia and the U.S. are now coordinating their air campaigns in Syria against the Islamic State. Russian air power, in fact, played an important role in the Syrian army’s ejection of the Islamic State from Palmyra.
Recent reports indicate that Russian troops are helping train and advise Kurdish forces along with the U.S. in Iraq and Syria. Even Israel and Saudi Arabia are now enjoying warming relations.

The Iranian nuclear arms deal and the consequent lifting of many economic sanctions against Iran has led to a de facto rapprochement between the U.S and Iran in Iraq. So far coordination is fairly spotty but nonetheless present. Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisors supported Iraq’s retaking of Tikrit and Ramadi from the Islamic State in the past year. (See map below.)

 
CEDING CITIES: Although its sway is substantial, ISIS has lost control of several cities (circled above), including Tikrit, Ramadi, Sinjar, and Hit in Iraq, and Deraa and Palmyra in Syria. The Kurds have gained solid control in northeastern Iraq. The next key fights will be for Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq
                           
“Truth be told, the U.S. owes both Russia and Iran a debt of gratitude for the latter two’s military involvement in Syria and Iraq,” Friedman insists. “Russia, for its own national interests to be sure, saved the Assad regime from possible collapse with its air attacks and help on the ground. Its help has stabilized the situation. As for Iran, without its militias and advisors helping to stem the Islamic State onslaught in al Anbar Province and Sunni areas further north, Iraq would be in much worse shape militarily today,” he says.

The threat from the Islamic State and general mayhem in the region has exposed a number of national power dynamics that will shape the region in the years ahead. Take Iran, for example.

The nation is often depicted by pro-Israeli lobbyists and neoconservatives as a malevolent force that is already using the money resulting from its lightened sanctions to foment terrorism, engage in illegal ballistic-missile tests, and fund territorial expansion plans.

Yet Iran has shown itself as a less-than-invincible force during the Mideast crisis. Its advisors and Hezbollah proxy forces from Iraq were losing ground in the Syrian civil war, which necessitated the entry of Russian air power last fall.

Iran has faced growing problems in imposing its will on the seemingly friendly Shiite central government in Iraq despite the presence there of Iran’s elite Quds fighting force and a number of Iranian-financed Iraqi militia groups. Some of these militias have been sidelined by Baghdad in recent campaigns because of the bad optics of Iraqi government dependence on foreign-backed fighters operating in Sunni areas. Certainly, Iran retains close ties to many of the powerful Shiite political parties in Iraq. But Iran lacks the military power to transform Iraq into a Shiite satellite. The ethnic divide between Persians and Arabs is just too intractable, and it even outweighs Shiite sectarian common interests. Iran hasn’t been as tough as expected, Friedman avers.

Turkey, with its military and economic stature, past Ottoman Empire domination of the Mideast, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership, would seem to be a potential hegemon to bring order to the region. But beyond its obsession with Kurdish terrorism, Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s regime is preoccupied with internal problems created by his increasingly autocratic rule, suppression of the press and political dissent, and imposition of Islamization on a once-secular nation. Some Syrian rebel groups supported by Turkey are still largely deployed against Assad.

The Gulf States—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the Emirates—were able to maintain their Sunni tribal autocracies even in the face of the democratizing forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia is a good proxy for these nations, with lots of oil wealth even after the year-and-a-half market slide in crude prices. Saudi Arabia likely will be able to control jihadi infiltration within its borders and engage in slow, piecemeal reform to quell political dissent.

The Saudis should weather Islamic State-related upheavals because they have a security and intelligence system sufficient to keep order despite yawning income inequality among their citizenry of some 20 million, plus about 10 million nonnationals, ranging from Filipina amahs and Bangladeshi laborers to high-powered Western oil experts.

Just last week, the Saudi government laid out a bold revitalization plan aimed at cutting dependence on oil revenue and reducing fuel and power subsidies. It has even imposed new fees and taxes to try to bolster the kingdom’s coffers. Among other initiatives announced, the Saudi royal family said it would sell off a small piece of the country’s oil monopoly, Saudi Aramco, and is in the process of raising $10 billion from a consortium of international banks.

It’s ironic that the Islamic State is a threat to Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, since the group is the stepchild of the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment, with its adherence to strict Sharia law and a literalist, conservative reading of the Koran. The Saudi government has long used its oil wealth to support mosques and madrassas all over the globe to propagate fundamentalist Islamic doctrines. In return, the Wahhabi establishment in the kingdom has looked the other way at indiscretions by the 10,000-strong Saudi royal family.

Recent economic and political reform is designed to contend not just with lower oil prices but also Saudi Arabia’s declining influence in the world’s energy markets. As energy guru Daniel Yergin pointed out at January’s Davos World Economic Forum, the Saudis can still set the bottom in global oil markets but can no longer push prices unilaterally to great heights by withholding supply. U.S. frackers have succeeded the Saudis as the key swing producers, because they can rapidly bring on new productive capacity as prices move above the frackers’ break-even costs of about $50 a barrel.

As a result, Yergin sees oil prices likely to be pinned at $60 a barrel or lower for at least the next year, despite all the cuts in global exploration budgets and production levels.

A number of other trends are diminishing the pricing power of Saudi Arabia beyond the leap in non-OPEC oil supplies from, most notably, frackers and Russians. Economist Gary Shilling points to the increasing squabbling inside the cartel that has destroyed cohesion and discipline.

Iran and Iraq, for example, refuse to cotton to any production cuts given their parlous economic situations. Weak global economic growth and a discernible shift in China from goods production to services also are curbing demand for oil, he points out.

Finally, conservation and government-subsidized renewable-energy sources are adding to OPEC’s problems.

AS FOR THE COCKPITS of today’s struggles, Syria and Iraq, many observers see the two states devolving into federal systems in which local regions comprising Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish populations will have significant autonomy. The lines on the map delineating Syria and Iraq since their fixing after World War I may remain in place. But the two central governments will be so in name only. Thorny issues such as the distribution of oil revenues, administrative power, and military and police control will have to be worked out through difficult negotiation.

The Western powers and Russia will obviously have a hand in the reshaping of the Mideast, relying on a judicious application of balance of power politics to achieve their goals. The blowback of jihadi terrorism in Paris, San Bernardino, Calif., and Brussels is enough motivation. To date, the U.S., Britain, and France have largely relied on air power with limited use of boots on the ground to go after the Islamic State in the Sunni badlands of Iraq and Syria.

Russia has plenty of reasons to join in the effort. The Islamic State took credit for the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt last October that killed 224 passengers and crew. Among the most fervent and murderous of the Islamic State front-line troops are Chechens, who Russians fear will engage in terrorist acts in the Russian homeland.

Sectarian divides in Syrian and Iraqi government forces could prove a hindrance to truly degrading the Islamic State. Part of the holdup in the final assault on Mosul, a largely Sunni city, revolves around proper staging. Baghdad must decide on the right mix of Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, and Iran-backed militias to employ without inflaming Sunni sensibilities to the west and south of the city.

A war correspondent we know tells us that the Iraqi military is considerably improved from its deplorable performance in 2014: “The training of the Iraq military by the U.S., British, Australian, and Kiwi advisors is really starting to pay off in better tactical integration of infantry, armor, artillery, and engineering units. We saw this in the retaking of Ramadi this December and January. The Iraqi Golden Brigade is a particularly good unit. For the first time, I’m seeing buy-in by Iraqi forces.”

The U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign and special-operations units are beginning to seriously hurt the Islamic State. Attacks on Islamic State oil facilities and truck convoys have materially reduced the flow of funds into caliphate coffers. An American special-ops mission in northern Syria killed the No. 2 figure in the Islamic State, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli. The Pentagon also claims to have killed in recent months the Islamic State minister of war.

FORMER CIA ANALYST PILLAR attaches import to the leaking by an Islamic State insider of the group’s personnel records on some 20,000 fighters, complete with family home phone numbers and next-of-kin addresses, to media outlets in both Germany and Britain. The records were authentic, if somewhat dated: A number of the fighters on the list had already been martyred. “The point is that there’s obviously a morale problem in the top reaches of the Islamic State if somebody with high access was willing to engage in treason against the group,” observes Pillar.

Ultimately, the Islamic State will be laid low by blowback from the brutality of the caliphate.

Reigns of terror generally only succeed in countries with deep and perduring totalitarian roots.

The caliphate is hardly Stalinist Russia or Maoist China in its longevity.

In fact, Paul Salem, vice president for policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that the Islamic State finds itself largely alone, having alienated rival Sunni rebel groups in Syria and local populations in areas it rules. With cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in the air campaign and Islamic State enemies from Syrian and Iraqi militaries to the Kurds, Turks, rival insurgent groups, and some Sunni tribal leaders, Salem says that time is running out on the caliphate.

WHERE WILL ALL THE MAYHEM in the Mideast stand in a decade? While the physical destruction of the caliphate will delegitimize the area’s appeal as a magnet for recruits around the globe to serve on its front lines or engage in acts of terror at home or abroad, it won’t end jihadi terrorism immediately.

The quashing of the caliphate could fan resentment against existing Mideast regimes and most certainly against the “Crusader forces” in the West responsible for its demise. For decades, Islamic terror groups have fed off the brutality perpetrated by outsiders on Muslims in places like Bosnia and Chechnya. A number of terror attacks still occur in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and Yemen, mounted by groups in the name of al Qaeda even though the central apparatus of the group has been decimated.

But one can only hope that even if self-radicalization in the Sunni communities of Europe and elsewhere is hard to thwart, the Mideast will no longer be the font of trained jihadi fighters returning to their homelands to engage in terrorism. Sadly, however, the Islamic State will retain a powerful Internet presence long after the group is gone, with its arresting videos running the gamut from dreamy depictions of the glorious Muslim past with scimitared warriors on white steeds riding across the countryside to revolting films of executions obviously rehearsed and staged with Hollywood production values in mind.

The Mideast is likely to remain a cauldron of simmering tensions, but at a much lower boil than at present.

The Clash of Civilizations between Islam and the West that political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted over two decades ago doesn’t seem imminent. One can only hope that the struggle ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

While continued military vigilance will be required in the region beyond next year, the main task remaining at that point will be preventing the Islamic State from mounting further terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. And that’s no small job. 


0 comentarios:

Publicar un comentario en la entrada