How terror fits into ISIS’s plan

Christoph Reuter writes: What calculations have now led IS to perpetrate attacks in the West? For one, it plays into IS hands for Europeans to ratchet up their skepticism of Muslim refugees. For another, IS has positioned itself in the enormous battlefields surrounding its core territories in a way that it would make it difficult for others to launch a ground offensive against the jihadists. Such an offensive would also require a large number of troops. From Western comments, particularly those of the US, Islamic State strategists know that a ground offensive involving Western troops is extremely unlikely.

Should an offensive be launched anyway, though, IS believes that the attack could, paradoxically, help the group on the long term. Ground troops could likely only be deployed with Russia’s approval, and Moscow supports Assad. And if the West were to change course and suddenly intervene in Syria on Assad’s side, all rebels in the country would immediately become enemies of the West. Were that to happen, Islamic State could pose as the last protectors of Sunnis in the region and expand its influence.

The old saying, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no longer applies in Syria and Iraq. In both combat zones, US efforts have been hampered thus far. In northern Syria, America’s Kurdish ally is unfortunately the enemy of another Washington ally, the Turks. In Iraq, Islamic State’s Shiite enemy is also America’s enemy. Shiite militias, under the military leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, are heavily engaged in the battle against IS, but with their ferocity, they are also pushing more supporters into Islamic State arms.

Taken together, the Sunni-Shiite conflict combined with the Turkish bombardment of Kurdish positions has reduced pressure on IS. To be sure, Islamic State has been forced to accept some losses in recent days: It lost the small northern Iraq city of Sinjar not long ago following a 15 month fight with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. In two places, the Kurds have managed to block the most important road connecting the two IS “metropolises” of Raqqa and Mosul. US fighter bombers have likewise destroyed 116 tanker trucks used by Islamic State to transport its oil. In Iraq, IS has slowly been losing territory ever since it launched a lightning strike to take over the provincial capital of Ramadi, just west of Baghdad, in mid-May. In Syria, meanwhile, IS expansion has largely been halted since the end of the summer.

Yet it is still a long way from exhibiting the convulsions of a collapsing empire. The constant muttering about the end times and apocalyptic battles may serve as good Islamic State PR — with respect to both its followers and to the rest of the world. But if destruction was the only goal being pursued by IS, it wouldn’t try to establish a state, it wouldn’t be careful to avoid damaging grain silos when taking them over, and it wouldn’t pursue scrupulous realpolitik, even with its own enemies.

IS strategists look several moves into the future. To defeat the terror group, the West must do the same. It must bring together pro-regime Syrians with the rebels, a project that will not succeed so long as Assad remains in power and which is made all the more difficult by Russia’s intervention. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite factions divided by fear and hate must be brought together again — though the West can only help, it is the Iraqis themselves that must achieve this. In short, the West — together with Russia, Iran and the Arab Gulf states — must create the conditions that could make a ground offensive against the jihadists possible in the first place. [Continue reading…]

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