By Middle East Briefing
Comparing the reality in the Middle East to some official statements in Washington that ISIL has lost momentum and is retreating, one should conclude that either what is happening in Libya, Iraq and Syria, not to mention Yemen, Jordan and Lebanon, is not really happening, or that Washington’s statements are utter nonsense.
The problem is that such nonsense, if we exclude the possibility that reality is not reality, is dangerous. It creates a false sense that there is progress in fighting the terrorist organization. Spreading such an illusionary impression slows down any critical assessment of what is currently being done to stop the butchers of ISIL and it also delays reaching a concept on how best this group could be crushed.
The same effect occurs when the international community and the regional powers give the impression that they are “doing something” to fight the group—like proclaiming the international coalition to defeat ISIL. The truth is that this “coalition” is neither international nor is it defeating ISIL; it is not even slowing its expansion. In reality, doing nothing may, in fact, be better than doing very little. At least doing nothing is more truthful as it has the same content as doing little.
In the “Arabian Nights,” it is said that whoever lets the Genie out of the bottle should know beforehand how to put it back. Here, we are faced with another irony from a history determined to tweak our noses from time to time. The tool is expanding out of control to threaten swallowing those who made it and the intended mission as well.
Is ISIL expanding? Reality says that it is. Is it gaining momentum? Reality says that is so. Anyone who believes that the worst case scenario is that the Middle East will rot wherever it is, does not understand that we are not back in the conditions of the last century. The world has become too compact and much smaller. ISIL’s ambition is to create an imperial and global Islamic empire. This empire of fear will get the concept of the modern nation state and the separation of religion and governance, particularly in the West, to crumble under the weight of the expected religious reaction in all the other countries in the world. We are already seeing the beginning of the formation of this coming storm in many countries in Europe. How is it tolerable, then, to see Western officials counting it in dollars and cents? Why do we still see those “prudent” elected officials talk about the benefits of the non-engagement policies?
Let us just take a look at reality as it is to see whether ISIL is “losing ground” or gaining it.
The Tripoli based “government” ordered the military units of Brigade 166 which was defending the coastal city of Siret(Surt), the second largest Libyan city, to withdraw. ISIL then took the city without fighting. The reason behind Tripoli’s orders is still not clear. It may have been due to a lack of arms and fire power, and it may be a political maneuver to gain support from the international and regional powers.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has the upper hand in Tripoli, previously played the card of enhancing more radical groups to emphasize its “moderate” image as an alternative. This game has been played systematically in Egypt throughout the 1980’s and 90’s. It helped the MB to gain more international recognition as a “non-violent” organization while it was simply assisting more violent groups to emphasize the intended difference. Yet, this difference exists only in tactics. Both trends aim at achieving exactly the same thing-the rule of Sharia as they understand it and the implementation of an Islamic system the way the understand it.
However, the probable cause of withdrawing the military units from Siret is the lack of weapons, soldiers and ammunition. Yet, the rejection of the Tobruk Parliament to send a delegation to Europe for peace talks may have contributed to Tripoli’s orders to pull the troops out of Siret. The fall of Siretis seen as a way to deliver the desired shock to get the world to arm Tripoli.
Earlier this year ISIL sent a group of its fighters from Syria to Libya by sea. The organization established ties with human traffickers working in the Mediterranean. ISIL plans to send groups of organizers to Europe disguised as refugees. The Libyan branch of ISIL is estimated now to be around 3,000 fighters, an increase of seven-fold over the parallel estimations of a year ago.
ISIL is preparing now to storm the oil city of Ras Lanof. However, the imminent target of ISIL seems to be Al Jafrawhich has a large air base. The town of Houn will fall first. The obvious strategy of the Libyan branch of ISIL is to control the oil rich region of Libya, usually called “the Oil Crescent”.An increased flow of recruits was witnessed upon the fall of Siret. Some prominent members of the security machine in the area have already joined ISIL.
Units of ISIL have been waging a relentless terror campaign in Benghazi in the last couple of months. In the last month alone, ISIL killed 50 government soldiers in suicide attacks. The terrorist organization is pushing west as well, and it has targeted the coastal city of Misurata.
While the fall of Ramadi should have been a “national” shock to all Iraqis, it was exploited quickly to pave the road for the Shia militias to enter the central province of Anbar. Shia militias in Anbar almost automatically mean an increase in the number of Sunnis joining ISIL. While on the surface it looks as though the militias of the Popular Mobilization are trying to extinguish the fire, the real effect is adding fuel to its flames. The massacres against Sunnis committed by the Shia militias in Diyala, Tikrit, Boutaema and other places are well documented.
Official Baghdad is far from innocent in this picture as well. The National Mobilization, a Sunni force formed with the Turks in Nineveh province, already stands without any arms whatsoever. Nineveh Provincial Council spokesman Salah Al Ubaidy said last week that the number of trained Sunni volunteers had reached 12 thousand. “They are standing in lines without arms or ammunition. Baghdad promised to provide arms to us. But so far we got nothing at all,” he added. Athil Al Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh and the author of the National Mobilization project, was informed recently by Baghdad that he has been fired from his position. Nujaifiinsisted that the liberation of Mosul cannot be attained without forming a Sunni force to free the Sunni town from ISIL.
The Spokesman of the Kurdish DPK branch in the region, Muhiey Aldin Mizouri, said that the National Mobilization should be given the proper support it needs. “They represent the Sunnis,” he said. “But Baghdad refuses to arm them because it wants to give the job of liberating Mosul to the Shias. It would not work. Mosul inhabitants will resist the Shia Popular Mobilization.”
Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi is only paying lip service to the international leaders about giving “all components of the Iraqi people the right to defend themselves.” While the US is moving to use its base in Anbar to enhance the training and equipping of the Iraqi forces, the plan has little chance of working. The issue in question is Baghdad, which will be commanding these troops at the end of the day. If Baghdad is suffering sectarian myopia, there will be no success against ISIL. In fact, the situation will get much worse with reports about the Popular Mobilization getting ready to attack Fallujah. The head of Badr Brigades, Hadi Al Emary, said that his forces, which are actually led by IRGC’s QassemSullimani, will soon attack “the head of the snake” in Fallujah.
ISIL is expanding fast in the stretch of territory between Aleppo and the Turkish borders. It controls a good part of the North East and recently captured the city of Palmyra. As recent as last week, ISIL captured more villages north of Aleppo. We detailed in the previous issue of MEB the dynamics of ISIL’s expansion in the North of Syria. What should be added, however, is the unseen slow flow of ISIL fighters to areas in the southeast part of the belt around Damascus. This flow is coupled with an intensification of contacts with smaller opposition groups around Dara in apparent attempts to recruit them “en masse.” Upon receiving this information, the Jordanian armed forces were instructed to declare an alert on the borders with Syria last week.
Can the expansion of ISIL be measured in geographical terms? No, it should not. While geographical expansion is one of the criteria of measuring the power of the organization, the pattern established in this case is different. What usually occurs in the metabolism of this organizations control of territories is that it recruits members from there in a very rapid rate. Once it controls an area, it then starts recruiting the indigenous population. That is usually facilitated by the previous preparation which led to ISIL’s capturing of that area in the first place.
The expansion of ISIL should not therefore be measured by its “borders” at any given moment. The maps outlining areas under ISIL control only give a general idea about where the organization is in control. But in the sense of “existence,” it actually exists in many areas that it does not control.
In many cases, ISIL occupies an area, recruits a considerable number from its inhabitants, then it may decide—or it is forced—to pull out of it. The question then will appear in the deceptive form of: How many square miles have the US air raids, for example, cleared from ISIL?
It is a question based on faulty premises. ISIL’s weight should be measured in its actual military strength, its financial capabilities, its economic resources, its internal organizational structure, the efficiency of its propaganda and its ability to expand, even if this ability is not manifested at any given moment.
Taking incremental steps to fight the organization will not work. Such an approach represents an utter misunderstanding of what is at stake. Adding 450 trainers to the US forces in Iraq is one example of pouring water on the sand. What is needed is an international-regional coordinated plan to solve the problems of governance in Libya, Syria and Iraq coupled with an international fund to fight the organization once the reasons for its existence and expansion are addressed.
The problem of ISIL is above all a political problem. The military dimension of it comes second. The failure of the Obama administration in dealing with ISIL stems from neglecting the direct reasons that brought it into existence, not from the fact that the US does not send “boots on the ground.” After all, there were boots on the ground, lots of them, when the enemy was Al Qaeda in Iraq. The boots left. Al Qaeda came back with an even more brutal face and a different name. The US did not leave a politically stable system that gave all Iraqis a stake in their country. Neither did it move fast enough to force Assad to negotiate by helping the then moderate opposition. These political issues, which are exploited and complicated by regional powers, should be the starting point of any effort to confront ISIL. It does not take dollars and cents and it does not necessarily require “boots on the ground”. Yet, the Administration is still tied up in its long meditation to find a strategy. And when it finds one, it is sending 450 more soldiers to Iraq. This is why doing nothing is sometimes more truthful and honest than trying to thinly cover an unforgivable incompetence.