Gareth Stansfield writes: ISIS have exposed a great strategic illusion/miscalculation by Western powers. This is to say that the West is clinging to a traditional, statist response to a cross-border terrorist/insurgent threat from a non-state actor. This is actually a choice of the West not to recognise the expanding threat not because ‘we’ cannot see it, but because political leaders are scared to acknowledge it – scared by the still-fresh memories of the public backlash following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and scared by the prospect of engaging in the no-win world of Middle East politics. But the situation now is different to then. ISIS is a terrorist organisation (and a spectacularly effective one) and remains border-less. But it has also acquired a substantial chunk of territory (a development which is convincing – insofar as it substantiates the idea of the caliphate – to impressionable recruits). So we have supremely violent, ideologically rampant terrorism fused with a new, border-less version of something like a modern state. This is a new development and one that seems to be studiously, and perilously, ignored.
It is not possible to defeat ISIS by attacking their forward-placed troops on the Great Zab river as they look east towards Erbil: the ‘state’ itself would have to be targeted at its points of concentration – Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa, Hassekeh – if the challenge of ISIS is to be met. If one were to be privy to ISIS strategy meetings around Ibrahim al-Baghdadi and his policy team in Raqqa, (and, unlike everyone else, they have articulated their vision, they do seem to have a strategy, and they certainly have policies) one would probably see a plan that sees ISIS grow in the Middle East through a combination of pushing the message of their success and thus seeing recruitment grow and neighbouring states undermined. It would be combined with an aggressive policy of territorial expansion, with Lebanon and Jordan both being prime targets. Indeed, the black flag of ISIS has already been raised in these countries.
ISIS therefore do not play by the rules of the game that still underpin much of the West’s responses to such challenges. They are making a new rule book – one that combines the most modern approaches of strategic planning, media messaging, psychological warfare, and counter-insurgency (consider how they have shut down opposition among their close partners/potential threats and implemented their own version of identifying those who could be ‘reconciled’, and those who are ‘irreconcilables’ – a technique perfected by the US in Iraq in 2007-8), with the most brutal, inhuman techniques of control imaginable. Their methods then see the organisation grow either because some followers are genuinely impressed by what is seem to be a strong organisation for once being able to stand up for them, or because some are simply too fearful of the consequences of not being in the biggest and nastiest gang around.
As their plan has unfolded, ISIS have brought two thresholds forward – one is their own advance and the reformation of realities on the ground on the Middle East; the second is the reaction of Western populations and the pressure they could bring to bear on their governments to take actions to roll back ISIS.
The question to ask now is simply which threshold will be passed first? Will ISIS succeed and strengthen the so-called Caliphate so it can no longer be dismissed as the fantasy of a self-proclaimed leader on a remarkably lucky streak, or will the international community recognise the threat of ISIS as being an actor with real agency and with aspirations that are absolutely antagonistic not only to Western interests, but to allies in the Middle East, and stop them? Neither prospect is palatable, but then neither, it seems, is muddling through and banally hoping for the best.