Analysis: Is ISIS here to stay in the Middle East?

Differences abound on whether the group that has already outlived many expectations will become a permanent fixture.

By ROBERT SWIFT/ THE MEDIA LINE
August 27, 2015 16:23
4 minute read.
ISIS executes Syrian soldiers in ruins of ampitheater in Palmyra

ISIS executes Syrian soldiers in ruins of ampitheater in Palmyra. (photo credit: WELAYAT HOMS / AFP)

The Islamic State (ISIS) has already outlived predictions of its early demise offered by some US military officials. The Islamist group has survived the near fatal assassination of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by airstrike earlier this year and has continued its voracious march across Iraq and Syria virtually unimpeded, holding on to territory roughly equal to the size of Belgium, despite the reported deaths of some 15,000 of its fighters who were killed by US-led air strikes.

That the group has been targeted by the coalition of more than a dozen militaries including the US, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, has led some commentators to suggest that a possible future exists in which the Islamic State is a permanent part of the geography of the Middle East.

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“First, the pressure is from the air, and air campaigns never succeed,” James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang University in Singapore, with a focus on ethnic and religious conflicts, told The Media Line. “(Secondly), the pressure is economic and the effects of economic embargoes are limited – look at Iran,” Dorsey added. The well-financed Islamic State is likely to be able to float itself on funds from black market oil and antiques sales despite international isolation. If airstrikes and financial blockades are not enough to end the radical Sunni group, then the unpalatable and unlikely option of ground forces remains.

But while a return of US troops to Iraq would be the scenario most threatening to ISIS, any gains from this would be short lived and could lead to a backlash, Dorsey said. And since this is not likely to happen, then it must be concluded that ISIS could persevere, Dorsey argued. “They have lost a little territory but expanded elsewhere. Personnel losses (from airstrikes) have not put a dent in them, they are able to take it,” he opined.

The increasing reality of an established (read permanent) ISIS is a growing topic of discussion in Israel, where security and defense experts postulate Israel’s position in a changed Middle East.

Israel’s borders have been identified as potential weak points in the defense of the nation. Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line that in the North, although ISIS is not directly on Israel’s border, the Al-Nusra Front, whom Schweitzer described as being “cut from the same cloth as ISIS” – are. In the South, the Sinai Province, a particularly dangerous and effective terrorist group responsible for killing hundreds of Egyptian police officers and soldiers, has previously targeted Israel.

But it is the threat posed to Jordan that Schweitzer viewed as being of greatest concern to the Jewish state. If the Jordanian government’s survival is threatened, Israel would risk losing a strategic ally, Schweitzer said, adding the caveat that for the time being the Hashemite Kingdom’s security apparatus seems up to its task.

Such a scenario might keep Israel alert, but appeared unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, said Schweitzer, who argued that ISIS is unlikely to be able to maintain its territorial hold and would “almost definitely not” become a functioning state. Iran would never let the group take Baghdad, and even if Assad falls, at least one of the super powers would step in to prevent a caliphate in Syria, he explained. “There are simply too many different groups opposed to the radical Sunni organization for it to last.”

“People are (already) discovering that it is only an ideology of dictatorship and totalitarianism, I don’t think ISIS will remain for a long time,” Abdul Ibrahim, of the political science department at Birzeit University in the West Bank, told The Media Line. “People are moving back to the idea of an Iraqi state and putting aside sectarianism as a direct result of the actions of ISIS,” Ibrahim said. Similar events are happening in Lebanon following protests over trash collection, he added.

For the time being, the presence of the Islamic State has benefited Israel, the political scientist argued. “They can say that ‘we are angels’ and that ISIS is the alternative – that ‘we do nothing to the Palestinians in comparison to what happens under ISIS,’” Ibrahim said.

But even if the Islamic State were not to emerge as a functioning state, or if it were to be effectively destroyed, the Middle East’s woes could continue.

ISIS is a symptom, not the problem in the Middle East, according to James M. Dorsey. “Destroying them is not a solution, it is a short term fix.”

He explained that the region has been in transition since 2011 and this is continuing, with the Islamic State just one single expression of this. Regimes that placed their own survival over the needs of their citizens used sectarianism to divide opposition while violently quashing peaceful calls for reform, leading to the emergence of groups like ISIS, Dorsey explained.

If Islamic State is to be vanquished, people might prefer to have it around again after they see what replaces it, Dorsey explained.

The Israeli Defense Ministry declined to comment on the topics addressed in this article.

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