By Jonathan Power
Within a matter of days a self-appointed ISIS “lone wolf”, Omar Mateen, with no actual links to home office Isis has created mayhem in Orlando, Florida, with his killing of 49 people in a gay club, and the Iraq army has pushed Isis troops out of most of the important city of Falluja.
Maybe it is an exaggeration to say that ISIS is on the run its bailiwicks of Iraq and Syria but it is certainly taking very bad hits. Two years after sweeping through northern Iraq and capturing the oil city of Mosul in 2014 they are now on the defensive. ISIS has lost nearly half of the Iraqi territory it held. (i.e. an area about half that of the UK). It has lost much of its oil infrastructure.
It is taking lots of casualties. In Syria it is fighting on two contradictory fronts – the regime in Damascus, supported by Iran and Russia and against the non-Islamist rebels, supported by the US and the Arab states.
Meanwhile the flow of foreign fighters on which it has depended is slowing up and large numbers are returning home. Funding is drying up.
This indeed is why Mateen, the lone wolf, is so important to ISIS. ISIS spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has asked ISIS sympathisers to stay where they are. “The smallest action you do in the heart of [your] land is better and more enduring to us than what you would do if you were with us.”
Is this a switch in tactics? We do not know yet.
What we do know is that ISIS is more resilient, better organized, far more brutal and sadistic than Al Qaeda is. Neither has it been dependent on one leader as Al Qaeda was with Omar bin Laden. (Its inspirer, the brutal Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in 2006.)
Moreover, since 9/11 intelligence services in the US and Europe have worked hard to track down planted terrorists with a great deal of success. Yes, there have been horrendous bombings in London, Madrid, Paris and Brussels as well as the Boston marathon, San Berdino and now Orlando but compared with the other statistics like deaths from falling off ladders or the deaths caused by American right wing fanatics they have been small.
President Barack Obama and his European colleagues have decided not to put boots on the ground to defeat ISIS, as President George W. Bush did, counterproductively, in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda. (Al Qaeda was bolstered by this invasion as was ISIS in Iraq, following the US invasion.) Air power has been deployed by the US, the UK, France and Russia against ISIS but it only has a modest impact. They are letting Iraq and the Kurds do the hard fighting on the ground.
Besides the mayhem wrought in Iraq, ISIS, somewhat paradoxically, has turned its guns on the Syrian regime, even as it cooperates with it. Syria for sometime was a logistics hub for ISIS as President Bashad al-Assad sought to make life more difficult for the American occupiers of Iraq. Syrian links with ISIS continue. ISIS has even sold it oil. The Machiavellian Syrian leadership believes, despite the threat to themselves by facilitating some ISIS activities, they are slowly but surely persuading the West that Syria is facing Islamic terrorism and thus Syria should be supported.
Another confusing fact is that ISIS is Sunni (albeit Sunnis that have terrified ordinary Sunnis living in Iraq). This has pushed the Shi’ite leadership in both Syria (for all its Machiavellianism) and Iran to be bitterly opposed to it. In this war against ISIS Syria (the Alawi leadership in Damascus is an offshoot of Shi’ism) and Iran (Shi’ite) are de facto allies of the US. All this maneuvering has confused many of ISIS’s supporters. It’s not helped by the fact that many of its activists and fighters are theologically illiterate.
Despite its setbacks this year ISIS is still quite strong. When in 2014 it took Mosul it captured massive amounts of equipment, including US Abrams tanks. On the other hand its troop levels compare poorly with the combined number of moderate Syrian opposition forces plus Iraq, and it continues to alienate those it conquers. Its savage punishments including sanctioned rape do not win friends, even though it builds clinics and schools.
ISIS is alienating Muslims all over the world even as it attracts some support from the young in parts of the Third World. Its attacks on Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have not helped its reputation.
One can say that at the moment ISIS is “contained” and that the US and its allies know that it can’t be defeated except at a price they are not prepared to pay. Instability in the Middle East will continue as far ahead as one can see. So will lone wolves.
Copyright: Jonathan Power