What Happens When the Islamic State isn’t Defeated?

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Since overrunning swathes of Iraq from its strongholds in Syria earlier this summer, it has been made relatively clear how American defense and counter-terrorism officials feel about the Islamic State (a.k.a. IS, ISIS, ISIL). In a word: spooked. The Islamic State is not only well organized but it is incredibly well financed and is now well equipped with American-made weaponry. This daunting trinity came to fruition against an Iraqi Army ill-prepared to face such a foe and has carved out a territory rivaling the size of nearby Jordan. Secretary of State John Kerry among others recently noted that the existence of the Islamic State is “unacceptable” while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the group “a threat to the civilized world.”

But if we’ve learned anything over the past decade (let alone the past six months), it would be that the US doesn’t always get its way in foreign affairs. What would happen if the Islamic State was able to cement its hold on the current territory now known as Iraq and Syria and became what it is already calling itself: a state?

To answer, let’s break this hypothetical down on three levels: globally; as in the effects on the international system and global politics, regionally; meaning the effect on international relations in the proverbial “neighborhood” and locally; what this would mean for the citizens of the newly formed Islamic State.


Globally: Since the US is still, as international relations scholars like to say, the sole global hegemon, this bit is really focused on what the US could do about an Islamic State in the Middle East and how we in the West would feel about it. For one, there would certainly be sanctions in place against the economy of this state but these would very close to – if not entirely – useless. The IS has already established a “hybrid form of funding”, building upon local resources (oil) while still tapping into wealthy donors from the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and indeed around the world. These sources of cash will continue to be near impossible to halt, especially as the group cements its place in the region.

Militarily speaking, the US would support its allies in the region (more on that below) while continuing airstrikes and attempting to pin down the movement of IS forces. While this strategy has proved partially successful in Yemen and Somalia, it has utterly failed in Pakistan and turned local sentiment firmly against the US, something that could just as easily occur in the IS. One strategy that could yield success is the insertion of Western (namely British and American) Special Forces to proverbially cut off the head of the snake. That said, a splintering of IS members would create an entirely new set of problems.

The longer the IS remains in control of territory the more standing it will have as a governing authority, thus increasing the flow of radicalized Muslims and legitimizing itself the true Caliphate. The likelihood of IS being recognized anytime in the near future as a state is near zero, but de jure statehood is never more effective than de facto power.


Regionally: The force behind much of the conflict in both Iraq and Syria is the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia/Gulf States that has been simmering in its current form for over thirty years. While the Saudi King has recently warned of the threat IS poses, his rhetoric must be taken with a grain of salt. The Kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, can be considered the root of IS’s ideology and perhaps more directly, aforementioned Saudi and other Arabian donors have been funneling money to radical Sunni groups in the Syria Civil War to counter Iranian proxies in the Assad government and Hezbollah.

The confusion of relations is such that, at the moment, the US finds itself at least nominally on the side of both Iran and the al-Assad regime in Syria, a notion that would seem absurd six months ago. Indeed recent American airstrikes against IS forces supported Iranian backed Shiite militias. Whether IS as a common enemy would push Iran and the US to even further cooperation (read: nuclear accord) would be impossible to predict but would be a fascinating byproduct of ongoing chaos.

There’s also the Kurdish conundrum. The Kurds, who have suddenly been given the title of “America’s Closest Ally”, are now better positioned for statehood than ever before. Deservedly so. They have been able to halt IS forces on several fronts and should be getting increased military aid from Western governments soon. Kurdish controlled areas have thrived economically since the American invasion of Iraq and with a referendum on independence (something the Kurdish people have fought for, for over a century) soon, Kurdistan seems well within their grasp. A Kurdish state (aka Kurdistan) would ring the death knell of Sykes-Picot, the Anglo-French agreement that partitioned the Ottoman Empire and created the current border of the Middle East, and which everyone in the region (including IS) seems determined to abolish.


Locally: The idea that many Sunnis in western Iraq support IS and could very well continue to do so, is a tough pill to swallow for the US. After the US was able to defeat IS’s forebear Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008, primarily thanks to the allegiance of Sunni tribes in the area, the Iranian and (until recently) US-supported administration of now-former Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has severely inflamed sectarian tensions. IS has taken advantage of this by using the Sunni identity combined with the severe sense of justice encoded in Sharia law to combat the corruption and incompetence of the Iraqi government and could be very well-liked.

Returning quickly to the whole “cutting off the head of the snake” strategy, if successful, the ensuing power vacuum would need to be filled (quickly) by Kurdish and non-sectarian Iraqi troops. The latter have never truly been proven to exist. The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, must be able to convince both Sunnis and Kurds that an Iraqi state, on some level, is worth saving. “Iraq” is a concept many, perhaps even in Washington, are beginning to admit is a bridge too far.

Currently, only ViceNews has been to the land now called the Islamic State. If their worthwhile five-part documentary is any evidence, IS authorities are instituting (brutal) law and order and establishing themselves as the governing force. This rule of law does not include the minorities in the area including the Yezidis, whose tragic story gripped media attention for over a week and who clearly have been victims of the Islamic State. But in the cold light of history, the formation of nearly every state has led to the expulsion and often murder of some of the land’s former inhabitants. The IS has perpetuated this practice in spades.


IS is brutal and violent as shown by the beheading of two American journalists and scores of crucifixions of locals. The reality, however, is that IS will probably be around for the foreseeable future. There are no actors in their immediate vicinity that pose an existential threat to it and the only two outside forces with the ability to change the situation, the US and Iran, don’t seem to be willing or able to mount any concerted opposition themselves. When we look back five, ten, twenty years from now, at this messy moment in international politics, where there are fires to put out all over the world, will we see the Islamic State as a simple flash in the pan, or will it be a new player in the Great Game. I’m willing to bet the latter and we should probably start planning for it.

This article was originally published on The Volterra.

Image courtesy of Abode of Chaos

Rowan Kane

About Rowan Kane

Rowan Kane has degrees in International Relations from the University of St Andrews (UK) and Leiden University (The Netherlands). He is a freelance writer and journalist based in Bali, Indonesia. This article was originally posted on his weekly blog, Semawang Stories.

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