Since the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) organization, the media has been disseminating an apocalyptic portrayal of the situation.
According to the reports, the organization will soon be conquering Baghdad and indeed all of Iraq.
Likewise, there are assessments that also in Jordan, Kuwait and other Gulf nations,there is fear of suffering a similar fate from the powerful organization. Without underestimating the threat potential of the organization in light of its local achievements and murderous activities, it is worth understanding the wider context in which it has attained its achievements and strength.
A necessary initial clarification is the issue of the attribution of the organization to al-Qaida, which is widespread in the media. While it is true that ISIS constitutes a part of the global jihad camp which seeks a global Islamic caliphate in the fashion of the Taliban in the Levant region, the difficult dispute that erupted between the leader of the organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, led to the expulsion of ISIS from the alliance that al-Qaida created with several of its primary partners.
As such, the widely used term “forces of al-Qaida in Iraq” does not suit reality.
Furthermore, more than they are a result of military skill, the victories of ISIS in Iraq are a product first of all of the lack of public legitimation of the nation’s prime minister, the great weakness of the Iraqi army and the failed leadership of its commanders. A significant part of the organization’s activities in West Iraq has been characterized until recently by hit-and-run-style raids and by symbolic demonstrations of military presence in locations wherein its forces have conducted extravagant military parades.
In locations wherein they’ve been able to raise their flags, it was primarily because of lack of interest and resistance on the part of the local population, which at times even assisted the organization because of the deep resentment against the administration of Nouri al-Maliki, who is perceived as a corrupt tyrant that blatantly discriminates against the Sunni citizens.
This atmosphere has led the residents of regions conquered in West Iraq, at least at the present time, to perceive ISIS as the lesser evil, that they’ll contend with in future if the organization attempts to impose upon them the radical and unbending way of Islamic life.
The ambitions of the organization and the media tumult around it are much larger than the organization’s dimensions. First, the nature of the numbers disseminated in the media regarding the true order of forces at the disposal of ISIS is not necessarily reliable.
However, even if we regard it seriously, the estimate probably doesn’t exceed 10,000 people at most, a part of which are foreign volunteers. It is clear that a force such as this isn’t enough to conquer and administer Baghdad, which the Maliki administration, not to mention its residents, has a fundamental interest in protecting. Furthermore, in actuality, ISIS does not have the ability to fully control the other regions in Iraq, to say nothing of imposing upon the residents the traditional Islamic regime to which they aspire.
In Syria likewise, the organization is far from ruling over widespread areas and contents itself with controlling the region of Raqa and parts of Deir Azzour.
The worry and concern that the successes of the organization are creating in the nations that border upon Iraq, primarily Iran Turkey and Jordan, will stand as an obstacle to it. If ISIS were to make significant territorial gains in Baghdad and constitute a direct threat to the national security of its neighbors, it would encounter regional and possibly even American resistance, albeit limited.
Iran will assuredly come to the assistance of the Shi’ite Iraqi administration to preserve its own influence, and will forcibly prevent any threat to its borders by an aspiring jihadist Sunni Muslim regime. It is likewise possible to estimate that Turkey will also not remain idle were such a radical scenario to take place.
In summary, without underestimating the negative potential of the territorial achievements of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which are accompanied by radical brutality, it would be best to avoid inflating the image of its power to unrealistic dimensions and instead to focus on building a coalition of interested parties to block the organization and shatter the deluded vision shared by the global jihad organizations of creating a Taliban- style Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.
Realistically the negative impact of ISIS’s latest conquests in Iraq lies in the immense amounts of financial resources and large quantities of sophisticated and advanced armaments that have fallen into its hands.
This trove will probably find its ways to the hands of like-minded organizations in the Middle East and beyond and support their intentions to launch lethal terror campaigns to promote their common agenda.
The writer is the director of the Terrorism and Low-Intensity Warfare Project at the Institute for National Security Studies.