Three reasons the West is failing to halt Islamic State
The execution of a Croatian hostage and the massive truck bomb in Baghdad this week have been claimed by IS
The aftermath of a truck bomb explosion, claimed by Islamic State, in Baghdad’s northern Shiite district of Sadr City on August 13th, 2015. Photograph: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the fact the so-called Islamic State has resulted in a new wave of global radicalisation and has also precipitated population displacement on a scale unseen since the second World War, the West has proved unable to develop a coherent strategy to counter this threat. Recent months have shown that IS poses an existential threat to all countries and peoples in the Middle East and that it also has the ability to “inspire” terror attacks in the West. This week, Sinai Province, a IS affiliate operating in Egypt, posted photographs purporting to show the remains of Croatian hostage Tomislav Salopek, whom they had executed. This is the first killing of a European by an IS-related group in Egypt and it demonstrates the capacity of the IS movement to promote such actions outside its hinterland in Syria and Iraq. A massive truck bomb in Baghdad’s Sadr City yesterday was also claimed by IS. However, the western response to IS has remained unfocused.
Indeed, there is considerable international debate about actually referring to this phenomenon as “Islamic State”, due the validity implied in that term. The different nations ranged against it refer to IS by different names (Isis, Isil, Daesh etc) and this is suggestive of a wider lack of consensus regarding how to counter this threat. As veteran strategist Edward Luttwak commented recently , “You cannot defeat an enemy if you are afraid to name it.”
Erosion of credibilityAfghanistan
First, from a western perspective, no nation or international organisation has taken overall responsibility to organise a collective campaign against IS.
Various western nations are contributing to the campaign, as are Iran and Turkey, but there is no unified, focused strategy. Indeed, given the various actors involved in the region, it would be difficult to formulate a strategy acceptable to all. This means the various troops and air assets fighting IS are not operating under unified command and control. As their efforts are not co-ordinated, the campaign is not being effectively managed.
Counterinsurgency on land
Shia militias are engaged against IS on the ground but they are not equipped or trained to operate a long-term counterinsurgency strategy. Such a complex and long-term strategy is contingent on a successful land campaign. It requires the establishment of operational security and then further political, social and economic programmes.
While containing IS is proving difficult, the implementation of a long-term counterinsurgency strategy against them is, at this time, impossible. It is worth remembering that such a strategy has already been employed in Iraq.
Third, the pace of the western response has further facilitated the growth of IS. The lack of international consensus, and the resulting lack of a coherent strategy, has affected the speed of the military response. This has been of huge advantage to IS. Recent history has shown how “insurgent” groups make good use of time they are allowed to change and develop their operations. The West is allowing IS the time and space to adapt to the current military response and, therefore, survive. The very fact IS survives and continues to expand serves to attract new adherents.
Solving any of these issues seems to be a distant aspiration. The “world powers” most involved, the US and Russia, are continuing to contest each other on the Bashar al-Assad issue, reflecting their own interests in the region. While European governments seem generally agreed IS must be opposed, they are concentrating on domestic security issues rather than furthering a unified and effective international response.
Local actors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are active in their own interests while Turkey and Iran are heavily engaged with the IS problem. Indeed both Turkey and Iran have been accused of attempting a “stealth takeover” of Syria and Iraq respectively. What is certain is IS is enjoying the benefits of international disunity and the time it allows them. Until these factors change, it is likely IS will continue to survive and grow.
Dr David Murphy lectures in military history and strategic studies at Maynooth University