The obituaries being penned for the Islamic State (ISIS) will have to be shelved for the time being. With the capture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian town of Palmyra from the respective governments of both countries in the last several days, ISIS has reminded the world that its strengths remain on a par with the weaknesses of its opponents. By all accounts, ISIS has fallen from last year’s peak. In Syria it faced possible marginalisation as a Sunni alliance of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar designed to overthrow the Shia-backed Bashar al-Assad regime came together — but kept ISIS out of its ranks. Yet it clearly remains a potent military player in the region, one that has learnt to survive between the fractured political rivalries of the region.
ISIS’ recipe for survival has been less about suicide bombings and its brutality than the inability of the major regional powers to coalesce against this terrorist group masquerading as a theological state. Other than Iran and its allies in Baghdad and Damascus, no other major country is prepared to treat ISIS as its primary threat. Sunni Gulf states have looked the other way when ISIS was advancing against their Shia rivals Iraq and Iran. Turkey and Qatar saw ISIS as an instrument to keep Kurdish separatists in check or overthrow the Assad regime. Even Assad’s regime tolerated ISIS when they began attacking rival rebel Syrian groups. The United States tried desperately to not be involved at all. Not only have its airstrikes against ISIS been desultory, it declined to carry out the superpower’s traditional role of using diplomatic clout to pull together an alliance against a strategic threat. The new Sunni alliance is noteworthy because it keeps out the US.
The alliance indicates that ISIS is now beginning to be seen as something more than just another consequence of the collapse of West Asia’s state structure and the region’s struggle between Sunni and Shia powers. Another factor is the lack of sensible domestic politics in Iraq, whose Shia leaders continue to treat their Sunni citizens as a foreign population. The one positive trend — of regional powers no longer using ISIS as an instrument against its rival — out of the three requirements needed to end the ISIS threat is better than nothing. But it is insufficient to bring an end to this strange recrudescence of violent mediaevalism in the 21st century.