Time Bomb: The Islamic State Implodes

Washington will defeat ISIS by waiting it out as the organization cracks from within.

The Arab League’s call this week for a multi-national force to push Daesh (the Islamic State) out of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq may will be appealing to those who fear the impact of the growing Iranian position in Syria and Iraq but remain concerned that the U.S.-led airstrikes aren’t an effective solution to an on-the-ground insurgency. Boko Haram’s opportunistic pledge of loyalty to Daesh stokes further fears about the group’s growing position in the international jihadi movement and the need for a more assertive solution, which both pushes Daesh back and stems its ability to recruit foreign fighters.

However, Daesh is facing its own existential crisis in terms of both its organization and ideology. Confronted by war on a number of fronts, Daesh’s self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has struggled to create a state in practice, focusing more of the group’s attention on further expansion and elaborate media stunts than establishing an actual institutional polity.

In theory, Daesh has an organizational hierarchy to “govern” its territory, but this structure is dependent on a growing number of Arab and foreign fighters, who have varying aims, motivations, and differences amongst them. As Liz Sly noted this week in The Washington Post, foreign and Arab fighters are unhappily co-existing with the local population and fighting at times with one another over Daesh’s war aims, their status within the new state, and the allocation of the state’s resources.

This raises critical questions about whether Baghdadi will be able to maintain his “state” as he is increasingly pressed on multiple fronts.  Numerous reports suggest that Syrians and Iraqis living under Daesh’s rule are finding that life in the new state isn’t what many had hoped for after decades of mismanagement under the former regimes.

Beyond these organizational problems and contradictions, Daesh’s ideology—which, unlike Al Qaeda—focuses on on the “near enemy”—may help it form new alliances with groups like Boko Haram and militants in Libya and Yemen, which are also fighting various vestiges of state governments. Nonetheless, this ideology hasn’t been attractive enough to sustain the group’s territorial expansion to new areas of Syria and Iraq where local officials and fighters neither share Daesh’s ideology nor its vision.

If history is any guide, Daesh’s ideology may also prove the group’s undoing. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, learned this lesson two decades ago in Egypt when, as the leader of the Islamic Jihad, he unsuccessfully challenged former President Hosni Mubarak’s government. Islamic Jihad’s failure in Egypt was largely the result of the brutality of the group’s tactics, which alienated the local population. Osama Bin Laden criticized the “near enemy” approach for this this very reason and, consequently, ordered Al Qaeda to target the “far enemy.”

Beyond these organizational and ideological challenges, Daesh faces a host of military challenges, including the growing causality rate of foreign fighters and a slow loss of territory. The ongoing siege of Tikrit and a late spring or summer Mosul offensive will only compound Daesh’s increasingly strenuous position in Iraq. These offensives alone cannot eradicate Daesh from Iraq. At the very least, however, they will put the group on the defensive until alternative government structures can be built.

In Syria, on the other hand, Daesh’s territorial control is currently being challenged by both a U.S.-led air campaign and a separate ground campaign conducted by the Syrian army and Hezbollah. The group will therefore be increasingly squeezed territorially and financially as it loses access to smuggling routes, oil facilities, and urban sanctuaries. Nonetheless, Daesh’s likely to avoid complete defeat in Syria as long as a political solution to that country’s ongoing civil war remains elusive.

Regardless of its ability to hold territory or finance itself, Daesh’s destruction is sewn into the organization’s deficiencies and ideology. A government at war is a government not focused on state building, and the natural moderation needed for governing compared to fighting a war will lead to splits within the organization and a struggle over the allocation of resources.

A “state” then increasingly fueled and sustained by its own radicalism and violence will never become the idealized state that many of its most radical supporters struggle for. Instead, it will be a ruin within the sands of Iraq and Syria.  

It is thus wiser for the United States, the EU, and their regional partners to reinforce existing counter-ISIL strategies, while avoiding the temptation of a new military ground campaign in Syria and Iraq, which has its own risks and limitations.

Regardless of CVE initiatives and counter-terrorism measures, Washington will defeat Daesh more so by waiting it out as the organization implodes from within. As such, the West should focus on supporting alternative governance options for Syria and Iraq, which can offer a more sustainable future than the violent and austere future Baghdadi has presented to Syrians and Iraqis.

Andrew Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

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