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Can The Islamic State Be Defeated? – Analysis


Forces loyal to the Assad government in Syria captured Palmyra over the Easter weekend after almost a month-long offensive. This was preceded by smaller victories in northern Syria and Iraq, demonstrating a clear deterioration in the Islamic State’s strategic situation brought about by continual loss of territory. Even though the capture of Palmyra is a significant victory, the loyalist forces fighting with overwhelming firepower, air support and numerical superiority, suffered considerable casualties against a determined Islamic State (IS) fighting a defensive battle. The recapture of Palmyra demonstrates that the IS can be beaten at the operational level, but the question remains whether or not they can be defeated at the strategic level wherein it will cease to be an effective jihadist entity.


The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that turned out to be an oppressive occupation leading to a destructive civil war that left unaccounted numbers of Iraqi civilians dead created a sectarian backlash. The despotic Shia government that finally came to power created entrenched Sunni grievances that became the core of the rebellion which coalesced as the IS. The IS was quick to take advantage of the Sunni feeling of marginalisation to consolidate their position as the defenders of the Sunni faith. This feeling of disenfranchisement was such that the IS was welcomed by Sunnis as ‘liberators’. With hindsight it is clear the 2003 invasion of Iraq was needless and that it led to the creation of IS through the initial iteration of al Qaeda in Iraq.

In trying to smoothen the detrimental effects of the Iraq invasion on the region, the Western media created a perception that Islam was the root of all evil. In turn Islamophobia became central to a number of foreign policy initiatives, especially in the Western world, that set the Middle-East ablaze. The strategy of military defeat of insurgencies or jihadist movements leading to stability is a myth unless it is simultaneously accompanied by visible and tangible efforts to rebuild the society that is broken. By its very character, war is chaotic and violent and therefore military intervention must be a considered approach, with the clear understanding that military victory does not automatically transform to stability and peace. In fact, the opposite may be true, victory creates desperate and mostly violent options for, and reactions from the defeated.

The current wave of Islamic terrorism is a symptom of political and economic dysfunction in the greater Middle-East that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US-led coalition had naively believed that the Middle-East would become functional after the perceived state sponsors of terrorism had been violently removed. In the pursuit of this objective, the US made mistake after mistake: the Iraqi armed forces were disbanded, which crated the backbone of indigenous resistance groups; the interim administration adopted sectarianism to fight the rising tide of Sunni resistance; and it thrust the concept of democracy on a state that did not have even one institution of sufficient robustness to support such a transition. Faced with the massive cost, both financial and human, in containing Iraq, the US slowly withdrew, becoming passively reactive to the region. This created a vacuum that was very rapidly filled by the IS, an evolved offshoot of the al Qaeda.

While it has carried out limited strikes against IS in Syria, the US has provided only minimal support for the Syrian rebels. In the highly confused civil war in Syria, a major part of the conflict has been between Iran and Shiite groups fighting the Sunni opposition supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey along with a few Sunni Gulf states. The IS has benefitted from this internal squabble as well as from the single minded concentration of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia in orchestrating the removal of Bashar al Assad and his government from power.

The Islamic State

The IS can be considered the most advanced edition of a global jihadi movement that is the culmination of more than 30 years of recalibration through experience. It is unique in its reach, scale and scope of operations. The primary reason for the IS gaining such a strong foothold is the fact that there is an on-going crisis within the Islamic civilisation that has not been addressed and which is taking the Islamic world into an as yet uncontrolled downward spiral. The current situation has been a long time in the making. Throughout the 20th century, a majority of the Muslim world had lived under autocratic rule under secular dictators. However, all the autocrats failed to deliver the demands of the people and early in the 21st century were unceremoniously removed in either the so-called Arab Spring or in external interventions conducted within the ambit of responsibility to protect, like in the case of Muhamad Gadhafi in Libya.

While the removal of autocratic rulers was a welcome change, the anticipated political transition to representative governments did not take place. For historical reasons democracy, is not a concept that is easily fostered on traditional Islamic societies. The governments that replaced the dictators uniformly failed to provide competent governance, stability and security, which led to growing and unchecked violence. The lack of stability is also one of the reasons that sectarian fundamentalism thrives in the Middle-East—it provides a semblance of security and promises the return to Islam’s glorious days of the past, through a return to a fundamentalist interpretation of the faith. The counter to this trend is to evolve participatory governance based on secularism and tolerance, which will be the first step towards diminishing the prospects of the exported of violent terrorism continuing from the region.

The current dysfunctionality of the Middle-East, which is the underlying cause of global extremism and terrorism, can be traced back to the abolition in 1924 of the Ottoman Empire, which was until then the soul of political Islam. The current disconnect between the rulers and the ruled in the Arab and Muslim world creates a sense of alienation in the population, especially the educated and either un- or under-employed youth. The millennial generation—the gen X and Y youth—dream of a revival of the glory of the Ottomans, because they want to belong to an entity that is an ideal blend of power, religion and modernity. This crisis of civilisation in the broader Islamic world has to be addressed as a precursor to defeating the IS.

The IS is the product of anarchy because of the inability of the current governments to provide security and stability to the people. When totalitarian governments like Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq is overthrown without a sufficiently effective replacement, the governance vacuum tends to get filled by marginal entities that could be grotesque in its appearance and character. They also tend to be equally extreme and oppressive as the regime that is being replaced. The failure of the state in Iraq following the 2003 invasion and in Syria as a result of the civil war that started as a rebellion in 2011, provided the impetus for the IS to assume its current shape and flourish. IS today enforces bureaucratic authority over the territories that it controls, runs schools, manages waste removal and metes out swift and brutal justice to the population under its jurisdiction. When combined with extreme religious repression, it is no wonder that the areas that it controls have lapsed into forced ‘peace’ and stability.

There are two fundamental source for IS’s power. First, a radical jihadi ideology, more virulent than any other that have so far been expounded, which appeals directly to the discontented and mal-adjusted Muslim youth suffering from an exaggerated sense of disenfranchisement. Second, a perception of it being victorious, bolstered by the rapid spread in the media of the drama that accompanies any victory. In fact IS needs the demonstrated and broadcast victories to lure more recruits to its ranks. The other side of the coin is that although the IS has demonstrated that they are better organised than the jihadists that preceded them, the fact is that it not a great military power. They continue to hold ground mainly because of the breakdown of society and the inherent instability brought about by the collapse of law and order in Iraq and Syria.

An unanswered question that continues to loom is whether the IS should be treated as ‘state’ or whether it should continue to be dealt with as an insurgent/terrorist organisation. The answer to the question is crucial to formulating the strategy to ensure that the entity is defeated.

Should the IS be Considered a State?

There is a reluctance in the Western nations to even consider the status of the IS as anything but an insurgency in the Middle-East and an organisation that carries out terrorist acts in the rest of the world. The mention of IS is almost always prefixed with the term ‘so-called’, a clear indication of the difficulty being faced in labelling the group. However, the IS currently functions more as a state rather than as an insurgency although the military actions being carried out against it is following the pattern of a counter-insurgency (COIN) operation. COIN strategy that is currently being followed will only create a prolonged degradation of the IS and is unlikely to bring about its destruction. If it is considered a state, the application of force will dramatically change and the desired results could be more easily achieved.

Some of the fundamental attributes of a state are: control of clearly demarcated territories; collection of taxes in those areas; dispensation of justice, which would mean the existence of enforceable laws; the availability of officials to enforce these attributes; a military force to protect the sovereignty of the territorial holdings as well as other policies; financial control through an enforced budget; and regularly paid governmental employees to keep the wheels of governance in motion. The IS has all these attributes and has even produced a written ‘principles of governance’ as a guide. It is critical to understand this reality in order to create a viable strategy to defeat the entity. Since it functions as a state, even if it is a failing state, it will also embody all the vulnerabilities of a state that can be identified and targeted.

The fundamental vulnerability of a state is the necessity of the government to have legitimacy. In effect, all insurgencies are aimed, in one way or the other, at undermining the legitimacy of the ruling government. IS claims legitimacy as the successor of the long-defunct Caliphate, and can be targeted by not permitting it to create clearly demarcated geographic borders that is also sanctified by religious homogeneity. In the current situation, the IS needs to be targeted as a state if the desired results are to be achieved.

The low oil prices and deliberate targeting of its oil production facilities have had a visible impact on the financial status of the IS. The focus now will have to shift from military degradation, which has already been achieved, to ensuring the loss of the claimed Caliphate status. In these circumstances the centres of gravity would be the tools of governance—economy and resources, infrastructure, communications—that should be targeted to make the situation unviable for the IS to continue to perform as an entity. The primary aim should be to degrade the ability to carry out ‘governmental’ functions through disrupting economic activities, transportation facilities and propaganda machinery. Propaganda has been one of the greatest assets of the IS so far and by targeting the infrastructure that provide it the ability to communicate its primary tool of extolling its virtues can be eliminated.

The narrative needs to be changed to ensure that the message is of the IS unravelling rather than of continuing victories. Perception management assumes a crucial role in this offensive.

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this section, ‘Should the IS be considered a state?’ would seem to be straightforward—yes, it should be targeted as state if it is to fully defeated.

The Ground Realities in the War against the IS

The war against the IS is actually being played out to different tunes, according to the individual proclivities of the participant. Therefore, at the moment it is an incoherent mess with different aims—the ouster of the Assad regime, attempts to keep Russia out of the equation, rolling back the Iranian influence, and to carry out massive bombing attacks on IS held areas. None of these aims are compatible with each other.

While the removal of Bashar al Assad and his government is definitely a long-term possibility, perhaps even a necessity, the reality is that the current regime is critical for the stability of the interim government and the subsequent transfer of power. Assad will eventually have to go, but not at the whim and fancy of Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia. The fact remains that removing the current government before a viable alternative can be put in place will lead to a chaotic state and Syria as an entity, even in a diminished state, will cease to exist after that.

Russia has, of its own volition, stopped its military campaign—a good sign. However, Syria is only 500 miles from the Russian border and considering the fact that it has domestic Islamic fundamentalist threats, Russia will be involved in all diplomatic and other initiatives being put in place to ensure that the ceasefire does not get violated. Russia will want to minimise the chances of its own Muslim population being radicalised by any increase in fundamentalist activities in Syria. It is certain that it will not hesitate to initiate military action again if it feels the need to do so to protect its interests; any premature removal of Assad would be such a condition. It is irrational to think that after its military action Russia will stay on the sidelines and witness further deterioration in the situation in Syria.

The instinctive reaction of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies is to undermine Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria. However, the most tenacious and effective military force opposing the IS on the ground are the Iranian backed Shiite militia, the Hezbollah and Assad’s forces, mostly operating jointly. Any dilution of this combine will benefit the IS directly. The IS is a fundamentalist Sunni movement and harbours great hatred for the Shiites. The other Sunni nations, led by Saudi Arabia, share the same antipathy and are now in an unenviable situation where both the IS and the Shiite coalition are both unacceptable. However, the reality is that Iran’s contribution to halting the progress of the IS conquest must be recognised and acknowledged.

Increasing the Western air attacks will over a period of time become counter-productive because it will reinforce the IS narrative of this war being a new crusade by Christian entities into Muslim lands, following the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The gullible population will easily be swayed by this allegation and could increase the local support to IS. In these conditions, even if the IS were to be ‘crushed’ a new iteration with the same or similar narrative will emerge to take its place. The reality is that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey helped create the IS by bankrolling disparate groups of extremists, which subsequently coalesced into the IS. Even when the absolute barbarity of the IS was exposed, these nations remained ambivalent about opposing it, continuing to consider the increasing influence of Iran as greater of the two evils. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have only provided token military support to the Western coalition that they had joined in the beginning. Their contribution have all but dried up, UAE flew its last sortie in March 2015 and Jordan in August 2015. The inherent Sunni solidarity that these nations feel with the IS undermines their commitment and promises that were made to an anti-IS campaign. However, the legitimacy of a victory—if there will be one—depends on visible regional contribution. A purely Western victory will only create further fissures in the firmament. This is the stark reality.

Turkey is playing an individual game in this imbroglio—purely concerned with undermining the Kurdish influence and increasing power in Northern Syria, while carrying out a COIN operations against their own Kurds. Weakening or defeating the IS is still not visible on its agenda. The Kurds are capable fighters and were the first ones to beat the IS on the battlefield. They are intent on furthering their own agenda and although not permitted to be part of the peace negotiations, they have declared an autonomous state. The Kurds have no loyalty to either Iraq or Syria as nations, but are pursuing their age-old goal of creating a Greater Kurdistan which also includes southern Turkey. This has increased the tension between the Kurds and Turkey. Western assistance to the Kurds in their fight against the IS can only be considered a tactical move, because there is unlikely to be Western support for the creation of an independent Kurdistan carved out of territories from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. However, the IS has indirectly and inadvertently laid the groundwork for a Kurdish state by facilitating the smoothening the traditional Kurdish factionalism by forcing them to face a common and ferocious adversary. Kurdish advances towards autonomy has been the result of the chaos created by the IS in Iraq and Syria.

Taking back the areas that have been captured by the IS will require troops on the ground, as has been demonstrated in the recent liberation of Palmyra. These troops will have to be local armies, which brings about the question of whether they have the capability to do so or not. The Western nations have already borne a very high human and materiel cost in the campaigns in the Middle-East in the past two decades and is now unable and unwilling to accept any more attrition. The refusal to have troops on the ground in the anti-IS campaign is a manifestation of Western reluctance to absorb any more of the cost involved and not a lack of understanding that recapture of territory means bots-on-the-ground. An air campaign can achieve degradation only to a certain point.

If further degradation is required purely through air attacks, there will have to be greater destruction, which may be construed as being indiscriminate. The strategy of coercion works only up to a point, thereafter escalation is required for further escalation. In the air campaign against the IS the Western forces have reached this point. The reality is that there is now a critical necessity for the local armies to take the initiative, a situation that is highly unlikely to happen.

The questions that emerge are: what does defeat of the IS mean? What happens in the Middle-East after a military defeat has been achieved? There are two factors to be cognisant of, if and when a military defeat of the IS takes place. One is that it will sustain the IS resolve to retaliate through acts of terrorism in the West, like the Paris and Brussels attacks. However, these acts of terror will primarily be to galvanise the faithful and less for the actual act of terrorising the population. Second is that a battlefield victory in a faraway place is unlikely to terminate domestic acts of terrorist violence in the Western countries. Policy makers will have to be aware of these two factors. The reality is that the military campaign against the IS is only one part of what will be a long and brutal war.

A critical factor is that IS is focused on the narrative of an idea, which can only be countered by the spread of another idea or concept. Currently no such idea is being propagated and the regional governments also do not offer any viable alternatives in governance, being equally autocratic and ruthless. For the moment at least, it seems that the defeat of the IS is a distant and secondary priority for the Middle-Eastern partner nations in the Western coalition. In any calculation regarding the future of the Middle-East and the IS, these essential realities have to be taken into account.

Possible Strategies and the Future

The Middle-East region has now become a collection of autocratic or dysfunctional states. Stability is a thing of the past, and even notionally stable nations like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are being subject to terrorist attacks. The smaller Gulf States have their own challenges and are not up to contributing in any meaningful manner to the stability of the greater region. The fundamental issues that destabilise the region are: non-participatory governance, the lack of transparency in state dealings, sectarianism that has created visible fault lines in societies, perceptibly corrupt authoritarianism, and a lack of safety and security for the populace. The activities of the IS in creating a state of anarchy in Iraq and Syria and the Saudi Arabia led war in Yemen have exacerbated the situation. Even a cursory analysis would arrive at the conclusion that the region needs the superimposition of a new political order to make it stable. However, this would first require the IS to be eradicated from the region as a reckonable force.

Strategies to Defeat the IS

IS has thrived on selling the idea of creating a caliphate that will bring back the glory of the Ottomans, promising disenchanted and disenfranchised Islamic youth a return to past greatness. Therefore, any strategy that could work will have to be aimed at targeting this narrative. The core of the IS is built around a sense of invincibility, achieved through concerted propaganda and the use of social media. The ideology, backed by religious extremism is spreading both in the physical and cyber space. This is the centre of gravity of the IS. The need of the hour is to prove the claims of the leadership to be based on falsehoods and harking back to the Middle Ages with no connection to the reality of the 21st century. This is easier said than done in a constituency that has virulently rejected any modern and secular ideas. Unravelling the IS narrative will require the propagation of a counter-idea that creates a model that is modern and powerful with a clearly articulated understanding of Islam and demonstrated respect for the religion. This will be a difficult task. However, the fact remains that only an idea can counter another.

Along with military actions undertaken to diminish the IS’s fighting capabilities, a series of serious economic steps will have to be put in place to assuage the currently deprived state of the nations that IS has targeted. At the same time strictly imposed financial sanctions on the IS itself will gradually cripple its ability to function effectively. The people’s concerns regarding safety and security will have to be addressed on priority through creating a governing body that does not make visible mistakes that most such experiments seem to have made in the region. Essentially, all trappings that permit IS to claim legitimacy as a caliphate through associating with the defunct Ottoman Empire must be directly targeted and degraded. Perception management is critical under these circumstances. These are long term strategic initiatives that will need sufficient time to bear results.

In the short and military terms, the Western forces have to consciously avoid occupying territory. At some stage in the war, boots-on-the-ground would become necessary, to wear down the last resistance through sheer attrition.

The need for the employment of ground troops to take back territory, with the attendant risk of increased casualties, is the only drawback of air campaigns. However, the ground forces must be local forces if another wave of insurgency is not to erupt. Both Iraq and Syria are societally broken nations with almost no infrastructure left to re-establish stability. They require concerted nation-building efforts to bring the societies back to some semblance of normalcy. However, these activities can only be undertaken after a military ‘victory’ has been achieved. The manifest difficulty here is the manner in which victory is to be defined before nation-building activities can be initiated.

The current international coalition battling the IS is a group of Western nations with token representation from Arab countries and Turkey. A coalition is only as viable as the weakest constituent and therefore must have countries of consequence fully involved as members. Currently this is not the case and the coalition operations have been cleverly portrayed by the IS as a Western attack on Islam and its territories. Further, coalitions need to be patient in achieving the desired objectives because by their very nature, their effectiveness is slow to be established.

In contrast, the focused campaign that Russia launched was much more effective than the long-drawn coalition operations. A coalition defeat of the IS will require the lead to be passed to a regional nation with the Western nations gradually taking on a support role. The ‘victory’ can be sealed only with such an approach, it has to be seen as won by Muslim states denying the call to Caliphate. Symbolism matters as much as military victory on the ground. Unfortunately there does not seem to be either the appetite or the capacity in any regional nation to be the leader. There are other vexed reasons, mainly the sectarian divide, which precludes any one nation being accepted as the lead. Even if the coalition degrades the IS to a position close to non-existence, the lack of acceptance of a common goal will permit it to spring back to life.

Considering that there is no likelihood of a consensus on the way forward in the region, even after a military defeat of the IS has been crafted, the only way forward would be the creation of a new political order. A new order can only be created after the current turmoil has settled and there is assurance of keeping any vestige of the IS out of the equation. The current cultural confusion in the Islamic world has to be squarely addressed. The concept of harking back to a Caliphate of the 7th century—the age of the Prophet and of grandiose religious faith—will only continue to generate new claimants to the throne, even as the old ones are removed or destroyed. Islam as a religion has to understand that there are no magic wands that can be waved to recreate its glorious past and no magic spell to ensure its triumphs. It has to live in the 21st century. Only a new order will ensure this transition.

If such a transition is not achieved, the region and the religion is bound to remain within the vicious cycle of one group after virulent group coming to the fore and being destroyed while they, on their part, also destroy the Middle-East.

Crystal Gazing – Into the Future

There are contradictory opinions regarding the current state of the IS and what the future would hold. One is that the entity is becoming stronger, an opinion taking its cue from the effortless ease with which it was able to carry out recent terrorist attacks in Europe and Iraq. It is also pertinent to note that IS has been carefully cultivating the franchises that claim to owe allegiance to it in other areas such as South Asia and Africa. The second opinion is that the IS is in its death throes because of the air campaign that has targeted its manpower, finances, supply capabilities and reduced its territorial holdings. The reality would be somewhere between the two extremes, although it is possible that The IS is currently on a downward spiral.

There is no doubt that the IS territory has been shrinking in the past few months; it is about 30 percent less than the holdings of 2014. However, whether this is a temporary setback or not is yet to be determined. It is certain that IS will attempt to expand further into the region, as well as into Asia and Africa and the so-called satellite provinces, through its affiliates in order to offset the loss of territory. It will also endeavour through all means to hold on to its core around Raqqa. The IS will increase its terrorist attacks on soft targets to divert attention from its current defeats and wait for an opportunity to recoup and counter-attack. These attacks will be undertaken as a demonstration of its pervasive nature, even when it is being militarily defeated in the Middle-East. It is possible that it will increase its demonstrated brutality, if that is at all possible, that has kept the Arab countries off the battlefield. IS realises that legitimacy in victory will only be achieved when the regional nations take the lead in the battlefield.

As the IS territory shrinks in the Middle-East, there is the risk of a power vacuum emerging that will inevitably lead to tensions between the various groups fighting the IS and the Syrian Government. More important are the three rivalries being played out the Middle-East that could give the IS an opportunity to recoup and come back into the fray. One, the sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia the two ‘giants’ of the region; two, the geo-political rivalry between US and Russia coming to a head in the region; and three, the Turkish bull-headedness against Kurds of all denominations and their opposition to the Syrian Kurds creating a contiguous zone from Afrin to Kobani. The unfortunate situation is that the IS is only a second priority for all the participants in the confused conflict. The presence of foreign forces will always leave an aftertaste of coercion, however subtle the intervention. Therefore, it is critical for the regional nations to take charge. The reality of course is that such a situation will remain a pipe dream.

The partial ceasefire in Syria could be seen as the first step in isolating the IS, although this has to be followed by a long political and governance campaign to ensure that it remains segregated. The isolation has to be enforced through military campaigns, which is the only reasonable way forward in the current circumstances. The pitfall here is the violation of the ceasefire by other entities to further their own ambitions such as the removal of the Assad regime. Providing an effective and viable government in the shattered nations is critical to ensure that the IS does not take root again after being defeated. The ability to provide basic amenities and ensure the safety and security of the citizens is the first step to defeating IS. If the basic civic infrastructure that IS now provides cannot be assured and gradually bettered, the military defeat of the IS will only create further resentment against the ‘liberating’ forces, irrespective of whether they are Western or regional. Even so, provision of stable governance is the best of a no-options situation.

The capacity of the IS to mount any strategic attack has been reduced to a negligible level, although its ‘defeat’ is still a long way away. Even with further dilution of its capabilities IS as an entity will continue to be a significant threat to regional stability through perpetuating insurgency and terrorist acts, at least for the immediate future. Even after the IS is severely damaged, constant pressure will have to be applied to ensure that no operational space is allowed for it to regroup. A rejuvenated IS will inevitably be stronger and more damaging. Currently there are reports of internal challenges to its homogeneity through increasing instances of mutiny, revolt and defections. These along with continuing military reverses would make the IS shift its operational focus to the conduct of guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks, rather than the brazen open column attacks that it has so far practised. The fundamental fact remains that it will be impossible to eradicate the IS completely as long as the ideology survives and continues to attract adherents, even in small trickles.

Another aspect that bears watching is the spread of IS through its name being invoked in far-flung regions. While paying lip service to being part of IS, the actions of these disparate groups revolve around contests for power in their own countries and regions. It is seen that these groups almost always align with the most powerful jihadi group of the radical Sunni world as a matter of convenience. Declaration of such allegiance must not be confused with the actual spread of IS, although the gradual acceptance of fundamentalist ideology cannot be ruled out. Even so, expansion of the Western—read US—military action into other parts of the world is not the answer since it will only lead to the further geographic expansion of an endless war.

With its on-going defeat in Iraq and Syria, there is a possibility of the IS entering Turkey in a more concerted manner. It definitely has the motivation to do so, having earlier declared in its magazine ‘Dabiq’ that Turkey was a prime target. By attacking foreigners and minorities in Turkey it could lure even less radical elements to fight under its flag. Turkey currently is becoming increasingly divided between secular and religious groups and between Turks and Kurds. Interference by the IS will invariably exacerbate these existing fault lines, increase the already widespread violence and escalate the situation into a civil war. This could be the death knell for Turkey as the world has known it since the Ataturk reign.


Even considering a hypothetical defeat of the IS, the immediate aftermath for the region and its neighbourhood post-IS must be considered. First, since the IS has drawn a large cohort of international jihadists, they can be expected to scatter across the globe and in turn an increase in ‘lone-wolf’ activities can be expected. Second, the regional nations are even now in disagreement regarding the post-IS regional alignment. In a broader strategic analysis, it would seem that the best option is to keep the IS bottled up in a small enclave, rather than create a situation where the fighters would spread across the region in an unfocused and unmonitored leaderless manner that is bound to create further anarchy.

A full defeat of the IS will leave Iraq and Syria as broken states and societies. It will be impossible to put them together as viable and cohesive nation-states again. If a redrawing of the borders is being considered, in the same manner as the earlier Sykes-Picot agreement, it will become imperative to provide the Kurds with a Greater Kurdistan as their own homeland. In these circumstances, it is highly likely that Turkey will go to war against the creation of such a state. The only solution may be to create multiple states that have greater ethno-religious cohesion, even if they are small in size. The on-going Sunni-Shia divide in the region will not permit peace to take hold if religious and ethnic divisions and demands are not addressed. Any sectarian action will prove to be a bonanza for the IS to rebound. However, the redrawing of borders may also require the dismantling of some of the existing regimes in the region, which will obviously not be welcomed. Further chaos can be expected. It will also require a peace enforcement force to be in in theatre for a long time, most probably running into the decades rather than years. The success of the solution will depend almost totally on the West’s will and ability to create and maintain such a force and their continued commitment to stability.

The IS can be contained and dislodged; its territorial hold squeezed and destroyed; and the popular support weaned away. Eliminating its physical presence will definitely have positive short-term effects. But critical to long-term victory is the ability of the region and the Western coalition to follow up the military victory with comprehensive and successful integration and reconstruction efforts. If this is not achieved IS Mark II will emerge in a more virulent and destructive form. A studied and incremental approach to enforce political, economic and societal stability after a conclusive military victory would bear the best results.

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Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

One thought on “Can The Islamic State Be Defeated? – Analysis

  • April 12, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    The only effective action against Jihadists was done by Russia, the Syrian Army, Iranian and Shiite militias and the Kurds. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar should be seen as pro-ISIS and American air action has been feeble.

    The writer didn’t mention who is going to take the war to Raqqa. The “Coalition” has hardly made an impact.


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