The ISIS Paradox: A Mirage or Mortal Threat?

While the group has made significant gains over its adversaries, and controls large swaths of strategic territory in Iraq and Syria, it is beset by several internal contradictions and vulnerabilities. 

It is no simple feat to leap almost overnight from being a relatively unknown organization to capturing headlines around the world. From Washington’s vantage point, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has catapulted itself from being merely a localized challenger to secular rebel groups battling the Assad regime in Syria, to now posing a broader threat to regional stability and to the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria. By capturing large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq, including strategic border crossings, and then subsuming these spoils of war under a self-proclaimed Caliphate, ISIS is making a mockery of the existing regional order, claiming to have permanently erased the boundaries that have served as the framework for regional stability since the end of World War 1. Moreover, in a potentially stunning reversal of fortune, ISIS poses a threat to al-Qaeda, challenging its jihadist cachet and the durability of some of its most strategic alliances.

Washington is treating the threat of ISIS as a byproduct of the governance problems in Iraq and the chronic civil war in Syria. But the problem we are facing today is that ISIS has now already crossed the Rubicon from being merely a symptom of existing conflicts to becoming a source and catalyst of new conflicts. It has done this through its territorial gains, by conflating the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars into one large battlefield, and by threatening the stability of the broader region. What this means is that solutions that might have worked in the past, like changes in the make-up of the Iraqi and Syrian governments, might be necessary, but are unlikely to be sufficient under current circumstances.

As nightmarishly impressive as ISIS’s accomplishments are, it is necessary to also understand that the group represents a paradox: it is both an opponent with very real and treacherous capabilities and ambitions, but it is also a mirage in the sense that those same strengths are likely to become its greatest weaknesses over the long term. While it has made significant gains over its adversaries, and controls large swaths of strategic territory in Iraq and Syria, it is beset by several internal contradictions and vulnerabilities, which over time could lead to its undoing.  

First, let’s examine what is real about ISIS’s strengths. The group’s capability derives largely from its charismatic leader, known by the nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The narrative he has crafted and his very real, and largely destructive, accomplishments appeal to disenfranchised Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, and other largely Sunni constituents in the region, who are committed to overturn what they deem to be an unjust and unsustainable status quo. And to those with a jihadist bent who believe that al-Qaeda is a diminished organization, he represents the best hope to achieve Osama Bin Laden's aspirations. To them ISIS is in the process of making al-Qaeda’s longer term aspirational goals, of destroying corrupt states like Syria and Iraq, erasing illegitimate and artificial boundaries, and creating a new Islamic Caliphate, a reality today.

What is also real is that ISIS’s planning, execution and how it strategically leveraged its battle-tested strengths and victories in Syria, to then swing back to Iraq with tornado-like ferocity, demonstrates that it is heir to some of the best strategic thinking that was embodied by earlier jihadist efforts. ISIS has defined not only the battlefield, which it has carefully prepared through a difficult-to-execute combination of terrorist methods and insurgency warfare. But it has also proven nimble enough to combine secular revolutionary methods, some drawn from Maoist doctrine, with more cosmic religious dogma that resonates with mostly young, disenfranchised Sunni Muslim men. 

Another very real part of ISIS’s capability is that it knows that it must work with other groups if it is to control significant territory. These groups are usually local and may be either allied or simply networked temporarily with ISIS to achieve complementary goals, like the Iraqi Sunni tribal and political leaders. As long as ISIS is winning and expanding, such alliances will act as a force multiplier and potentially provide the manpower for a more conventional defense force, while ISIS troops act as the fighting vanguard for onward expansion. Given ISIS’s hubris, its brutality, the fragility of the region, and its alliances, it could pose significant threats beyond the areas it currently holds. It threatens an already weakened Jordan, controlling all of its border crossings with Iraq. And it could potentially pose a threat to Saudi Arabia, a reality which is already being acknowledged in, and eliciting a response from, Riyadh.

Second, let’s tease out what about ISIS’s strength and ambitions represent a mirage. Its duly noted real strengths notwithstanding, it is riddled with internal contradictions and potential vulnerabilities. An example is the Caliphate that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has boldly self-proclaimed in recent days.