Why defeating Islamic State group will be a long and tough battle

Terror group has over 20,000 fighters and it controls 5-6 million people in large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq.

ht view Updated: Feb 16, 2015 23:28 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times
Islamic State,Egyptian Christians,Coptic Christians

The beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya by affiliates of the Islamic State (IS)--the highest number of gruesome executions by the terror group in a single day--is yet another reminder of the scale of its ambition.

Fighters linked to the IS, which aims to, in British journalist Jason Burke's words, "terrorise, mobilise and polarise", are clearly unafraid of opening many fronts even as the West tries to mobilise resources and opinion behind the fight against the group. The IS, which recently came under pressure after international coalition airstrikes against its positions in Syria and Iraq, is now seeking to widen the fight and destabilise the region further, which serves its purposes well.

Terrorists driven by millenarian ideas often seek to precipitate conflicts with ideological foes to alter geopolitical landscapes in their favour. The choice of Egyptian Christians is quite telling in that it is meant to exacerbate religious fault lines in Egyptian society and force its military elite into making mistakes.

The executions appear a ploy to undercut the latter's authority while it is already weathering criticism over its brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The IS wants to transform the political order in West Asia and it uses dramatic violence to polarise societies and provoke state reprisals, which then subsequently attract more supporters to its cause.

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What next in the battle against IS? The grim answer is that there are no easy shortcuts to neutralising this threat as US Secretary of State John Kerry and other western leaders point out.

This has largely to do with the fact that insurgencies take a long time to overcome--and these are early stages yet; analysts are yet to fully comprehend the nature of threat that IS poses.

The IS appears a far more formidable foe than the Afghan Taliban, which held out against US-led foreign troops for well over a decade. It has over 20,000 fighters--around the same figure for the Taliban after 2001--and it controls 5-6 million people in large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq.

There are about 15,000 fighters from 80 countries operating in both the war-torn countries, though this figure includes those fighting for the Al-Nusrah Front which is focused on ousting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The IS is also extremely well equipped to continue the insurgency. According to the UN's al Qaeda Sanctions Committee, the group maintains its financial viability through sales of oil from refineries in areas in its control, alongside income from kidnapping, extortion and donations. It manages to make up to $1.6 million a day by selling oil to smuggling networks.

The IS taxes businesses as regular states do and garnered between $35 million and $45 million through kidnap payments in a 12-month period during 2013-14.

Led in part by former Sunni Baathist commanders from the Saddam Hussein era, and having looted huge cache of weapons in Syria and Iraq, the IS is capable of conventional and information warfare alongside suicide attacks and beheadings.

The West is pushing a three-pronged strategy of military strikes, challenging terrorist narratives within the countries that supply fighters, and pushing for reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq through more inclusive policy-making.

The US is also reportedly exploring an understanding with President Assad so that it can focus on IS first, although this approach is not endorsed by its European partners. All these measures are promising on paper, but they are not expected to see results in the near future.

The West is also struggling to mobilise political support for more firepower against IS, owing to the war fatigue following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has sought Congressional authorisation for the limited use of force against IS or its associated persons or forces, limiting operations to three years but barred the use of troops in offensive ground operations. Britain too is debating the level of its commitment to fighting IS. A parliamentary defence committee expressed surprise that the "UK is not doing more" in view of the threat it faces and urged the government to consider deploying more drones and special forces (to train the Iraqi Army). But it too did not favour deployment of British troops.

The IS will meanwhile continue to capture headlines while the West marshals its resources. Last week, the UN took modest but useful steps to counter the threat. Through a resolution drafted by Russia, which is wary of Chechen militants fighting for IS, the UN Security Council "banned all trade in antiquities from war-torn Syria, threatened sanctions on anyone buying oil from Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front militants and urged states to stop kidnap ransom payments".

The resolution expressed concern that vehicles and platforms, including aircraft, cars, trucks and oil tankers, could be used to transfer natural resources, precious metals like gold and silver, grain, livestock and machinery from IS-controlled areas to be sold in international markets. This is effectively an oblique censure of Turkey, which western policymakers feel is not doing as much as it can to choke IS' infrastructure.

Short of a major policy change to commit troops, the West's strategy to counter IS hinges on such useful technocratic measures which can yield results over time, if effective monitoring instruments are in place.

The fight against IS will depend on resources that the world community is able to assemble while it handles other challenges. Foreign governments are attempting to counter IS knowing that it is neither easy to deploy troops nor define their objectives. They will be alert to the limits of airstrikes and the erratic progress of Iraqi and Kurdish units against IS. They may even live with a stalemate but will come under sustained pressure from public opinion as IS continues its high profile killings, as it will undoubtedly do. There's no doubt that this will be a long battle. As Jason Burke pointed out recently, "it took a decade before al-Qaeda was marginalised and it may take as long before the wave of energy ISIS has sent coursing through the Islamic extremist movement is reversed".

First Published: Feb 16, 2015 14:44 IST