Why the United States Cannot Defeat ISIS

The Middle East has changed in the past few years and very dramatically. The Arab Spring has not only revealed the myth of American support for plurality and democracy in the Middle East, but moreover, it has leveraged its seemingly unshakeable alliances with some dictatorships in the region to block transitions to democracy in Arab Spring countries such as Egypt. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, considered to be the Americans’ friends and partners in the region, have plotted against the Egyptian move towards democracy and disrupted it; they helped and supported the military institution to hold power again in the country. Morsi, the first elected Egyptian president, has never been welcomed in the White House, where autocrats from the Middle East visit so frequently. Therefore, the Arab-Sunnis can no longer believe the words of the United States nor trust its promises.

The distrust between the United States and Sunnis, particularly in Iraq, cannot be easily repaired. It is true that the US has found few Sunni tribal or Islamic figures in Iraq to ally with in order to battle ISIS which does not compare to the situation in 2006 and 2007, when Al-Sahawat Councils rescued the US from Al-Qaeda-fuelled nightmare. In return, the United States left them to face their terrible destiny from an Iranian-backed Iraqi government. Mr. Tarek al-Hashimi, the Iraqi former vice president who was a key figure in forming Al-Sahawat Councils, was convicted of terrorism by an Iraqi court that was accused of corruption, and eventually he fled the country after a threat from al-Maliki, the Iraqi former prime minister. Al-Hashimi appealed for Obama’s help and support during his ordeal and was furious with Obama’s silence and negligence. He escaped to Turkey as a refugee.

The Sunnis in Iraq felt a great pain after the United States turned a blind eye to the violent sectarian violence of the Iraqi Shia militias, who received unlimited support from Iran.

Sunnis have been displaced, tortured, and persecuted under the new government in Iraq following Saddam Hussein, where democracy and freedom were supposed to prevail. The United States may seem to have a good relationship with the Sunnis, but this relationship is limited to the Sunnis’ oppressive rulers, and has no popular support. On the contrary, the United States has a good relationship with some Shia militias, such as Bader, who have a popular dimension.

That was the fertile ground on which ISIS was able to initially establish itself and grow. It was established as a jihadist movement to fight the American occupation and the Shia domination in Iraq after 2003. However, its leadership in 2010 thought to organize and embody their activities under the name of a state rather than a mere movement, because nascent movements may dissolve or be co-opted by other movements. Moreover, they believe that Jihad is the way to establish the Islamic State (caliphate); they wanted their movement to found and lay the foundation for a state.

It has to be acknowledged that ISIS now is a state or form of a state, but with flexible borders; moreover, it is outside the realm of the international community and was born as a brutal and rebellious entity. However, it does have a proper functioning administration system for resources and expenditures, public services and justice, media and communications, defence or offense, and war and peace. Perpetual peace does not exist in their ideology or in their strategy. ISIS is no longer a radical movement or a terrorist organisation; it is now a political ideological entity that controls land and governs people, and does enjoy wide public acceptance, mainly in the Sunni parts of Iraq. Moreover, ISIS now has strong branches and agencies in six countries, so decapitating its head in Iraq and Syria does not prevent any of its branches from spouting a new head.

ISIS as a state or a proto-state is based on ambition and the idea of revenge. The ambition is the Islamic caliphate, and it seeks revenge because of the long wars against Muslims. While the caliphate is the ambition for millions of Muslims around the world, the violence against Muslims in some parts of the world does affect and harm all of them. ISIS presents itself as the state for all Muslims in which they will never be humiliated or suffer. It does promise to end the Muslim suffering around the world, and to liberate their occupied lands.

The military capability of ISIS is very much limited and it still cannot defend its skies from the airstrikes launched by the Assad regime or by the international coalition. However, ISIS possesses one of the most effective field weapons: suicide bombers. Its fighters who came from all over the world are passionate and motivated. They claim to have joined ISIS because of their allegiance to Allah and Islam and not for trade or wealth. They love martyrdom more than life, and have migrated along with their families from all over the world to join ISIS. The airstrikes can cause much damage to ISIS, but without a ground battle, the goal of destroying it cannot be achieved.

Understanding this dilemma pushed the United States to change its longstanding formal policy towards Iran. This is what explains the United States’ enthusiasm for reaching a deal with Iran in Iraq after settling the nuclear issue. The American plan to train Syrian troops to fight ISIS will not succeed, and the US knows that, because those fighters lack the ideology needed for such a big task. The United States wants to invest in the Shia-Sunni conflict in its war against ISIS, and to have a formal arrangement with Iran in order to involve them directly against ISIS, while supporting the Kurds who are driven by an overwhelming nationalism to fight ISIS. Iran now has almost 30,000 soldiers in Iraq battling the Islamic State, in addition to hundreds of experts from the Revolutionary Guard. However, such a flagrant deal with Iran will affect the United States’ relationship with its remaining Sunni allies inside and outside of Iraq, who oppose the Iranian involvement in the country.

The leadership of ISIS enjoys a great amount of loyalty from significant tribal leaders in Iraq and Syria; the oilfields that have been seized by ISIS have played a pivotal role in this relationship; ISIS has given the tribes a share of oilfield revenue. In general, the oil revenues secure them a good resource base to cover commitments towards public services and the war budget. However, the most important factor in shaping a strong ISIS is the consistent and consolidated leadership model, making penetration or defection very unlikely. The inner core is strongly cohesive; it is markedly different from Saddam Hussein’s regime.

While the United States cannot defeat ISIS, the possibility of negotiation is equally unlikely. There is no common ground to share, and there are no grounds for understanding or dialogue. Meanwhile, the United States cannot ignore ISIS and its growing danger in the region. This is one of the greatest dilemmas for the United States in this century.