ISIS and The Illusion of Power

Image by Abode of Chaos

Image by Abode of Chaos

It can be difficult to stay optimistic about peace while an atmosphere of gloom permeates the contemporary Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria. It is nearly impossible to watch the news without being inundated by provocative visuals of ISIS’s atavistic executions of U.S. journalists and perplexed by ISIS’s seemingly uncanny ability to recruit Westerners.

Nevertheless, ISIS has paradoxically but effectively managed to harness the power of modern technology while using antiquated acts of barbarity and terrorism to provoke emotional thinking. That is, after all, exactly the point of terrorism: to project false strength and prompt irrational miscalculations based on emotion.

ISIS is selling fear; the media has been doing much of their marketing, and it is working. A recent CBS poll showed that 65% of Americans view ISIS as a threat, and 57% were in favor of sending U.S. ground troops to combat them. This is a significant increase from back in September when only 39% supported possible intervention.

Recognizing the manipulative quality and intent of the social media influence of ISIS is vital. All citizens must understand the context in which ISIS is attempting to influence them. It is in the face of terrorism when it is more important than ever to prevent emotion from triumphing over reason. There is a telling dichotomy regarding ISIS’s actual power and their propaganda-induced illusion of power. The truth is that – especially in Iraq – ISIS is losing.

ISIS is certainly not on the brink of defeat, and they still hold some significant territories, but they have been losing these territories at an escalated pace as the opposition ranged against them grows exponentially. The tide has turned against them, and their inability to gain state allies makes a reversal of fortunes highly unlikely. The U.S. is also planning a major operation that could hugely curtail ISIS’s influence.

The U.S. has recently announced plans to assist Iraqi troops in seizing the city of Mosul from ISIS in April or May – possibly later. The importance of this operation cannot be overstated; a successful campaign could play a pivotal role in the battle against ISIS. Vox’s world correspondent Zack Beauchamp recently explained the significance of Mosul:

Mosul is a center of Sunni life in the country. Over one million people are thought to live there, making it potentially a sixth of the total population under ISIS control. It’s also at a critical location in northern Iraq, providing ISIS a base from which to threaten both Iraqi Kurds to the north and other Iraqi cities, such as Tikrit, Samarra, and even Baghdad south along the Tigris River.

Taking back Mosul, then, would remove ISIS from its core base in northern Iraq, making it very hard for it to hold territory further south. It would no longer be able to fundraise by running extortion rackets in the populous city. Without Mosul, ISIS likely could not accomplish its core objective of building a real state on Iraqi land.

So, what we have here is an opportunity for the Shia Iraqi government to not only deliver a crushing blow to ISIS, but to also assuage sectarian tensions with Mosul’s Sunni population by alleviating the conditions that previously made them susceptible to ISIS recruitment.

This operation elicits profound comparisons – though not synonymous – with Operation Enduring Freedom back in 2001 when the U.S. assisted Afghans in seizing back Mazar-i-Shariff from the Taliban.

I recently sat down with scholar of Islamic History and author Brian Glynn Williams to get his thoughts on the situation. Williams, who has received unparalleled access to General Dostum, said, “It is a very valid comparison.” “It is much better to follow the Afghan model instead of launching Operation Iraqi Freedom 2.” He went on to emphasize how some people have “short memories” when it comes to the Iraq invasion, especially regarding “the full-blown civil war in 2006 that proved how disastrous things had become.” While Williams would not go as far as saying ISIS is losing, he did confidently assert that “they are definitely not winning.”

Like Mosul in Iraq, Mazar-i-Shariff had strategic significance in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s loss of Mazar-i-Shariff precipitated a series of losses that eventually forced them to flee the country.

There are some important differences between ISIS and the Taliban, however, that are worth mentioning. The Taliban was able to retreat to the FATA areas on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which allowed them to regroup and establish a revolt years later. The Taliban is essentially a nationalist Pashtun group whose goals do not extend beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan. ISIS is a transnational jihadist group with global aspirations that requires an ideology which appeals to a much larger audience. ISIS views the concept of nationalism as anathema to their goals, and has shaped their ideological appeal within an apocalyptic, cosmic framework.

ISIS’s apocalyptic aspirations and fierce commitment to the establishment of a caliphate may ultimately result in its downfall. “To be the caliph, one must meet conditions outlined in Sunni law,” Graeme Wood explains in his cogent, thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic. Wood explains how it is the duty of the caliph to “expand the caliphate.” ISIS’s ideological outreach and appeal requires them not only to hold territory, but to continue gaining territory. Simply put, ISIS cannot retreat and regroup the same way the Taliban did without it being hugely detrimental to their image – which is paramount for their necessary recruitment.

ISIS in Iraq would likely retreat to Syria. Syria, of course, is a different story than Iraq: the seemingly never-ending civil war complicates matters. Still, ISIS has failed to make any kind of significant gains since U.S. airstrikes began there in September. ISIS can no longer launch large offensives without becoming an easy target for coalition airstrikes. Momentum was key to their success, and they no longer have momentum.

ISIS is essentially fighting a losing battle behind an illusion of power. They are pursuing completely irrational, impossible goals and their resources are insufficient. Overall, their business model is unsustainable, since their allies are nonexistent and their opposition is growing. Although ISIS’s rise was unprecedented, their success will be transient. It may take time, but ISIS’s defeat is inevitable. It has already begun.

Robert Souza

About Robert Souza

Robert recently received his master's degree in International Relations from Suffolk University in Boston. At Suffolk he was a member of the Political Science Association and the Students for Justice in Palestine Association. He can be reached at rts2012@gmail.com

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