The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria attacks in Paris A shift in strategy?
The massacre in Paris on November 13, following bombings in Beirut, Lebanon and the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Cairo all claimed by the ISIS reveals a terrorist organisation that has changed in significant ways from the West’s initial understanding of the group focused on holding territory in Syria and Iraq and building a Caliphate. The IS has for the first time engaged in what appears to be a centrally planned campaign of terrorist attacks aimed at inflicting huge civilian casualties on distant territory, forcing many counter terrorism officials in the United States and Europe to recalibrate their assessment of the group. They have crossed some kind of rubicon said William McCarts, a scholar of the Brookings institution and author of the ISIS Apocalypse. The attacks last week in Paris and Beirut have convinced everyone that the Central unit has directed it and with this attack a psychological barrier has been broken.
Origin of the ISIS
This ultimate of terrorist groups emerged simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. The origin of the group lies in the eternal divide between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. In Syria, the founder of Syria was a Shia and the population was divided between the Sunnis and the Shias. Regrettably when the father of the present ruler of Syria, took over Syria he and later his son did not rule the country impartially. The Sunnis felt let down and finally took to arms to remove the Shia head of the country. The Shia leader of Syria had good relations with Communist Russia and asked for help in his fight to put down the Sunni revolt. The Russians immediately extended a helping hand to Syria basically to have a naval outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. The Sunnis who were naturally suppressed by the Shiite president revolted and seeking help from Sunni governments began a fight for capturing power from the Shiite leaders in Syria. The continual oppression of the Sunnis by the Shias of Syria led to the Sunnis in Syria to start a fight against the Shia led government of Syria. The suppression of the Sunnis in Syria by the Shia leadership led to the creation of an extreme form of Sunni Islam that came to be called the Islamic State.
Simultaneously, in Iraq, Saddam Hussain a Sunni officer in the Iraqi army captured power. Suspecting him to have links with the Al Qaeda, an insurgent terrorist group in Iraq, the United States intervened and deposed Saddam Hussain and placed a Shia leader as the President in Iraq. After being suppressed by the Sunni leadership, the Shia leader who was placed at the helm of government in Iraq by the United States, became quite partial to the Shia population in administering the government. The disgruntled Sunni population began to collect arms to overthrow the Shiite government and having been pushed in to a corner evolved an extreme Sunni version of Islam, that came to be called the Islamic State.
A series of events occurred in both Iraq and Syria where there were horrifying massacres of Shias by the Sunni leadership. The new group of Sunni Muslim that was born came to be called as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The ISIS that was born in Iraq had a base in Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who had been discriminated by the Shias of Iraq. Similarly in Syria the ISIS born there had a solid base among the Sunnis of Syria who had been discriminated by the Shia leadership of Assad and his father.
The Tactical error of countering the ISIS
The major mistake in tactically handling this extremist group by both the United States and Russia was that both these countries hesitated to confront this new enemy on the ground. This was because there was no majority Muslim country, either Sunni or Shia willing to take on this extreme right wing Islamic group. Secondly, confronting this group on the ground would mean taking casualties. Neither the United States, nor Russia wanted to get body bags of their soldiers coming back home, and confronting such a virulent group would naturally mean taking casualties.
The second mistake was incidental. When the Governments in Iraq and Syria, both Shia, discriminated against the Sunnis, a back lash was natural. Besides, the areas controlled by the Sunnis who morphed into the Islamic State had sizeable stretches of land with populations, cities, oil installations, industries and farmland. They were thus self sufficient to a great extent. The leadership was also quite sober as regards administering the population. It was only in Iraq that the new cadres of the IS committed serious atrocities against non Muslim peoples like the Yazidis, who were neither Muslims nor Christians, but had their own animist religion. The Iraqi IS committed sheer genocide on the Yazidis, brutally executing their men and enslaving their women as sex slaves, horrifying the world at their enormous cruelty.
With both Iraq and Syria incapable of reacting to this serious development, it was left to the United States and Russia to react. Russia had a relationship with the Syrian dictator, while it was the United States that had intervened in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussain, the Iraqi leader, replacing him with a Shia leader, who precipitated the situation by blindly favouring the Shias.
It is at this stage that both Russia, the patron behind the Syrians and the United States, the patron behind Iraq decided to take on this new extreme right wing Islamic group. This would naturally have resulted in casualties for their respective troops, and body bags of their soldiers killed in encounters being evacuated to the United States and Russia respectively. This was not acceptable to both the United States and Russia. Both the United States and Russia, therefore, resorted to bombing the IS targets in Iraq and Syria. Several allies of the United States also carried out bombing raids, attacking targets in Iraq. Very obviously the rockets fired at oil installations in Iraq and Syria also led to human casualties, some military, but also civilians too. This naturally aggravated the situation and the ISIS only became more recalcitrant in retaliation. Since they could not muster an air attack on the United States or Russia, or the western countries allies of the United States, they retaliated with the horrifying attacks in Paris, an ally of the United States resulting in the killing of dozens of innocent people who had no quarrel with Iraq or Syria.
The Mayhem in Paris
The synchronised mayhem in the city of light on November 13, 2015, shook the foundations of the European Union with its wide open borders and paltry defense budgets. A gloating ISIS spokesperson, released a statement saying the attack was but the first of a storm! It was another turning point in the ISIS’ history of mayhem and misery. Previous turns since the movement caught fire, include the capture of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, where over a hundred US troops gave their lives during two key battles of the Iraqi war- in early 2014, the seizure of oil rich Mosul five months later, the proclamation of a restored caliphate and the escalating sadism of an ISIS rule. All these turning points, it is now obvious, turn in the same direction-a downward spiral! That is how things appear to most of the reeling world, which is why people search for a leader to tell them what happens next. The early results were dismaying. The French President Francois Hollande promised to eradicate the ISIS, but every one knows that France lacks the military tools to deliver the all out war he promised. Other European officials look nervously at the tide of Syrian refugees streaming onto the continent. This leaves President Obama, who has always been wary of leading the free world. Facing the press at an international summit in Turkey, he was weary and querulous, when the world wanted galvanising. He called the carnage in France, a setback. In the fashion of struggling commanders down through history, he found solace in data amid the smoke of an apparent defeat. Obama promised an intensification, but no changes in the strategy he was putting forward which he felt is the strategy that is ultimately going to work. Liberty loving people would like to believe him, but the passionless Obama, seemed barely convinced himself. In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack, in the West, in over a decade the President came across as impatient and irritable. What was wanted was the same thing people always want, when they face a threat to their way of life, a leader who gives voice to their shared strength and lights the path to victory, however arduous. But Obama’s problem in rallying the world was not as some aides suggested, a lack of understanding by his listeners. People can see that the ISIS persists, despite Obama’s dismissal of it nearly two years ago as a terrorist “jayvee’ team to Al Qaeda’s varsity. They can see that a regional disaster has metastasised into a global menace, thanks to its sophisticated, agile, often highly encrypted internet operations, which woo young disaffected recruits with a thrilling mixture of torture videos, stirring music and calls to join a world historic cause. People learned even as the bodies were being counted in Paris-129 dead in the immediate aftermath, with many others badly wounded and fighting for life, that France is home to far more terrorism suspects than French authorities can keep track of. At least two of the killers had been tagged as suspicious by the authorities, yet neither was being watched. People learned that Belgium was so lax in its anti terrorism efforts that a neighbourhood just across a canal from Brussels has become a hotbed of terror plots. As the Belgian Minister of security and home affairs put it disconcertingly-“We do not have things under control at this moment.” As for those bombing sorties on the President’s spread sheet which supposedly killed 1000 terrorists per month, they have not stopped the flow of ISIS recruits to and from the Caliphate. The US’s 500 million dollars project to train pro- western fighters to take on ISIS in Syria was abandoned as an utter flop. The Pentagon plan to rally an Iraqi army to liberate Mosul last spring was also a dream.
Problem from Hell
ISIS is a particularly difficult problem because it starts with this distressing fact-the forces closest to it are not sure they want to solve it. The Islamic State is a fibroid of territory enmeshed in a cat’s cradle of ethnic tribal and religious and geopolitical strands so densely tangled, as to defy solution. Part of it lies in Syria, a chaos of competing factions trying to overthrow a murderous tyrant, Bashar Assad, who is propped up by Iran and Vladimir Putin the President of Russia. Assad is clinging to power in the face of Western demands for his ouster. Other rivalries loom large in the infected region. The ethnic Kurds of northern Iraq and Syria have raised the only effective anti ISIS force to engage so far. But the Kurds have long been enemies of the Turks, so much so that Turkey, a member of NATO is using the pretence of war on the ISIS to bomb them. Forced to choose between honouring the western alliance and preventing the rise of a Kurdish nation, Turkey would likely stick to old hatreds. Analysts and candidates, who fill the air waves with easy talk of “taking out the ISIS, “establishing safe zones in Syria”, or strengthening the Kurds, are skipping the most difficult questions. For every key player in the region who might join in one of the projects, there is sure to be at least one other key player, adamantly opposed. And unlike the U S, those players are in the region for ever. Which means that temporary solutions will not do.. Furthermore, ISIS is different things in different places; in Syria and Iraq, it is a military force and quasi-state; in Southeast Asia and North Africa, it is a loose network of radical movements, like Boko Haram in Africa, the ISIS affiliate in Libya and the Sinai insurgency in Egypt. In Europe and the U S, ISIS is an extremist ideology binding would be terrorists and their hangers on. Eradicating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even if it could be accomplished would likely demoralise its far flung satellites , but would not wipe it out. Nor would the loss of money and security that comes with having a home base kill it off. The three recent terror plots were not expensive. And the internet provides a virtual space in which the ISIS operates fluidly.
And ISIS has emerged as the key recruiter. ISIS’s command of the online battlefield rests on its use of social media to attract and indoctrinate. This is the dark side of globalisation, said anthropologist Scott Aran who testified on ISIS recruitment at the UN Security Council. Young people, especially immigrants and children of immigrants identify less with their physical communities and nations and rely more on their on-line connections which can be penetrated by ISIS propagandists.
Much of the world agrees that the ISIS needs to be crushed. But, how that can be accomplished and what the unintended consequences may be is a lot more complicated. The groups have proven to be as flexible and amoeba like as it is apocalyptic and brutal; it thrives under pressure and a stepped war by the west may be just what it wants to draw in new recruits.. And do not forget; a predecessor group, the Al Qaeda, set up to fight the United States after the invasion of Iraq, was defeated once before in Mesopotamia and its leaders killed by 2009. That took hundreds of United States’ lives, many billions of dollars. But after the United States left Iraq, the group rose again from the shadows and in its reincarnation became even more brutal and more determined. Now that an army of regional and world powers including rivals like Russia and the United States, Saudi
Arabia and Iran Agree that the ISIS must be crushed, the question is–how to avoid a repeat of past failures! Talking to a diverse array of experts, officials, religious scholars and former jihadi states, it is clear that that there is no consensus on a simple strategy to defeat the ISIS. But there are some common themes- from a need to take a decisive role in the Syrian conflict to pushing a broader reformation of Islam- that arrange of people who follow the ISIS say, must be part of a solution.
My feeling is that the cancer of the ISIS is now far too dangerous. I feel the main issue is that the ISIS must be tackled on the ground and they should be defeated inch by inch and decimated. The ISIS has been able to sustain itself till now , because they have been holding the ground in Syria and Iraq. They are controlling oil wells, and administering large areas of Syria, and Iraq. This giving them sustenance. They are selling oil and getting revenue.
Unless they are confronted on the ground and they are defeated and denied any land or people to administer, they cannot be defeated.
Till date ground forces have not advanced on the territory held by the ISIS and defeated them in ground battles. The only ground forces that have faced them on the ground and beaten them are the Kurds. In the early stages of the ascendency of the ISIS, they had tried to capture a small town, Kobane, located in Syria on the Turkish border. The Turkish government, because of their internal strife with the Kurds initially tried to obstruct the Kurds in Turkey to help their brethren in Kobane who were being threatened by the ISIS. The Kurds however managed to slip into Kobane and reinforced their brethren in Kobane and confronted the ISIS in pitched battles. The Kurds who were confronting the ISIS cadres in Kobane was able to send the positions of the ISIS forces by wireless to their counterparts in Turkey who in turn informed the US air forces operating against the ISIS. The ISIS forces were then subjected to missile strikes by the US air force in Kobane and they were forced to retreat and the Kurds took them on frontally on the ground and soundly defeated them and established their hold on Kobane. They are still holding it today.
I feel bombing the ISIS from the air is not going to defeat them. Both in Syria and Iraq, the strategy should be to send sorties, strafe and bomb the ISIS positions on the ground and then send in ground forces and capture the territory and establish authority on the ground. The ISIS must be denied to hold ground. Step by step the ISIS must be forced to retreat until they are completely decimated.
By E N rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF)