The Continuation of War

Note: an edited version of this commentary by CF director, Alastair Crooke, was published on 26 March 2015 in the Huffington Post – see here).

As recent attention has been focussed on the battle to oust ISIS from Tikrit in Iraq, with commentators wondering whether ISIS defeat there betokens the beginning of the end for the Islamic State, much less noticed has been the ISIS expansion into North Africa, the Sahel and West Africa.  The recent merger of ISIS with Boko Haram in Nigeria is but the most prominent exemplar of this extension of their influence. (Its other immediate area of expansion however is in Yemen, where ISIS has been eating away at the primacy of al-Qae’da amongst Sunni radical forces there.)

In fact, ISIS is not exactly withering in Iraq (or Syria). It still controls most of the areas it seized last year in Iraq and Syria – although Shi’i militia, together with the Iraqi army (both backed by Iran), and other elements – Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds, Zaïdis, Christians and others) - have managed to push back the forces of ISIS in areas bordering Iran, as well as is in the eastern and southern approaches to Baghdad.  In short, ISIS is but little diminished – despite some 2,500 air strikes undertaken by US and (some token) coalition aircraft.

ISIS also continues to enjoy facilitation of movement, safe haven, and other more tangible forms of support from Turkey – and as knowledgeable Iranians aver, ISIS exhibits no visible shortage of funding (as yet). ISIS also still has a base of popular support - both in the region and beyond – as the recent departure of nine doctors from Britain, Canada and the US to join ISIS underlines. The US National Counter-Terrorism Center last month estimated that several thousand other Europeans have done the same in recent months. In short, its mystique and attraction for young Muslims has not waned, in spite of its very violent methodology.

But still, undeniably, in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has lost some of its ‘shine’ acquired by seeming to be an unstoppable, somehow divinely guided, mission. Iran and its allies have, to an extent, landed a psychological blow, as did the battle in Kobane, simply by bringing this seemingly irresistible momentum to a halt – and thus throwing into question its perception of invincibility, and how much it can claim to be operating at the divine plane.

The Boko Haram alliance therefore, is ISIS' response to the containment pressures inflicted upon it.  But it represents something much more than a mere PR ploy: across muslim North Africa, there is a constituency amongst the impoverished, sometimes dispossessed, rural population, who are deeply aggrieved by the diminished status and the withering of their societal values, which has befallen them.  They see themselves as victims, and see their old values contemptuously dismissed by this ‘new’ world.  And they consequently hate the cosmopolitan, intellectual urban élites with their westernised, affluent, city culture, whom they hold to be authors of their eroded way of life. 

Radio stations emanating mainly from the Gulf, broadcasting non-stop, simplistic, hardline messaging (in a similar vein to the thinking of ISIS) is feeding their sense of anger and stoking the desire for revenge.  This is a very potent constituency for ISIS (and Boko Haram).

By joining with Boko Haram, ISIS expands: the ‘idea’ moves forward. It moves, furthermore, into northeastern Nigeria, and other parts of the African Sahel, Yemen, Libya and the Horn of Africa, which already have established presences of radical Sunni movements and constituencies to support them, and where an environment of chaos allows them to flourish.

For Boko Haram, the ISIS allegiance confers legitimacy. It credibly joins it to the global Umma (the community of Muslim believers), and thus takes the former from being an essentially a purely Nigerian entity, into a trans-national force; a part of the forces of the Caliphate, which like ISIS, respects no frontiers.  As Emile Nakhleh (a former senior CIA regional scholar) has noted, it enables Boko Haram “to discard the established, colonially drawn boundaries between Nigeria and its immediate neighbors — Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. If it succeeds in doing that, it would be able to connect with North African countries beyond the Sahara, especially Libya and Algeria. By erasing these perceived illegitimate boundaries, IS and Boko Haram could convincingly claim that these African territories are now “provinces” of the Islamic Caliphate with allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” 

How substantive in terms of achieving its aims the merger with Boko Haram will prove to be, is of course contingent on ISIS’ ability to survive the present pressures on it, and to show it can act as a magnet, drawing in further adherents. In this context, Tikrit has become something of an augury and symbol of ISIS’ prospective fate. The suggestion in much of the commentaries, is that the Iranian-directed offensive in Tikrit has stalled. Indeed one can detect a certain pleasurable rubbing of hands at the very prospect of an Iranian set back: “If this leads to the Iranians forced to concede defeat, that would be a satisfactory outcome,” one US defence official commented to The Daily Beast.  (An ISIS victory, then, is “satisfactory" to the US?)

In fact, the city of Tikrit, Sadam Hussein’s home town, is surrounded.  What is stalling its fall is a dispute between the Iraqi army and Iranian military advisers. It is an issue of tactics. ISIS has rigged the town with explosive bobby-traps, mines, trip-wires, and left behind snipers and suicide volunteers.  To clear Tikrit of such obstacles is a laborious process.  The Iraqi army wants to do it the American way: call in air support, and bomb the ISIS forces.  The Iranian side argues that this will just produce another Falluja, and leave Tikrit’s Sunni inhabitants seething with resentment at their destroyed city.  The Iranians propose – based on four years learning from the experience of Syria’s fight against jihadi forces – to mount a siege; to wait, to be patient, and then clear Tikrit, street by street; but this will more costly in terms of their own casualties – though undoubtedly will help save ordinary Tikriti lives.  As of now, it seems the easier way has been chosen by the Iraqi government.

Tikrit, and the Iranian involvement in the war on ISIS (now with US air support, ostensibly provided to Iraqi forces) is directly linked to the Saudi-led coalition attacks on the Houthis (Ansar Allah) in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s leadership was already in a state of great alarm at Iran’s growing  influence occasioned by its boots-on-the-ground approach to fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria when the Houthi forces unexpectedly overran Aden in South Yemen, to which ousted President Hadi (supported by the GCC) had just fled, and named as his ‘temporary seat of power’.  Jon Alterman has noted that “there is a growing consensus [in the Kingdom and amongst its allies] that this [the Houthi takeover] is the finger of Iran and it needs to be put down decisively”.  If Tikrit was the precursor, then the fall of Aden was the trigger:  "The Saudi default position on Yemen", Simon Henderson of WINEP writes, "can be best described as paranoia”.  And thus we have a new Middle Eastern war – one which will complicate the region greatly.

On the one hand, the GCC are muttering about withdrawing from the coalition fighting ISIS (owing to Iran’s prominence), and Saudi Arabia may be expected, Henderson speculates, to deploy "the full Saudi diplomatic toolbox—money, arms supplies and perhaps even a blind eye to actions that would be described anywhere else as terrorism—to block Tehran. On Friday, suicide bombings at Houthi mosques in San’a killed 152 people; responsibility was claimed by San’a Province, a Sunni group loyal to Islamic State but previously virtually unknown”.  In short, yet again inflamed radical Sunni jihadi groups will become the policy tool of choice in the region.  In reality, it is about the only tool which Hadi and his patrons have available. This will constitute a major reverse to Washington’s hope to contain and degrade groups such as al-Qae’da and ISIS.