ISIS can’t help itself, but dealing with it is only the first step

When ISIS and Al-Qaeda Central agreed to disagree a couple of months ago, it was about who gets to call the shots in the global jihad network. You get a lot of western media talking about how ISIS was “too extreme” for AQC, and it’s true that excessive violence against fellow Muslims was one of the complaints that AQC had about ISIS, and earlier about its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the real issue wasn’t the extreme violence so much as it was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s unwillingness to tamp down the violence when ordered (a fine distinction but an important one), along with his unwillingness to get out of Syria when ordered and, well, his unwillingness to just kind of follow orders, period. Baghdadi’s refusal to do as commanded couldn’t be tolerated because it cuts to the heart of an inconvenient truth: Al-Qaeda Central just doesn’t matter all that much anymore in the big jihadi scheme of things. When guys who are supposedly commanding subordinate regional affiliates can repeatedly tell the home office to kiss their sweaty, sandy ass without suffering any real consequence for it, everybody quickly realizes that the home office is powerless. So AQC disavowed itself of ISIS as punishment, and every new (alleged, anyway) ISIS conquest shows just how crippling a “punishment” it’s been.

Another one of those orders that Baghdadi got and ignored from AQC had to do with the fact that the “Islamic state” in ISIS’s name means the Islamic state, the recreation of the caliphate that seems to be the endgame for all of these nutters. AQC never much cared for that kind of talk, for a few reasons. For one thing it’s confusing, what with all these regional Salafi-jihadi movements all going on all over the place, if they all start essentially declaring themselves the long, um, I want to say awaited (?), caliphate, then maybe one day you look up and there’s like a dozen little caliphates running around, bumping into walls and just kind of cheapening the whole idea of  “caliphate.” For another thing, if ISIS is the caliphate then that kind of makes Baghdadi the caliph, right? Which is kind of a bold claim and one that has obvious potential to alienate one’s peers and (theoretical) organizational superiors. I mean, if the manager of the Long John Silver’s down the street from me suddenly declared himself to be the Long John Silver, you can see how his regional manager might be a little put off by that, no?

Another problem that ISIS’s tactics raise is in relating to other groups who might be ideal allies, even if only temporarily, against a bigger threat. The caliphate kind of demands allegiance or bust, so your ability to work collaboratively with the militia in the next town over, to, say, topple a hated government, might be pretty impaired by your grandiose demands. Baghdadi obviously has a problem playing nice with people who don’t accept his authority, but as Al-Qaeda has transitioned from single global terrorist organization to worldwide branding for disaffected groups of all kinds throughout the Islamic world, its affiliates have frequently elected to work with like-minded groups in pursuit of a shared immediate goal. This is why Jabhat al-Nusrah, the actual AQ affiliate in Syria, can often be found fighting with other militias that are not AQ affiliates, and why it seems like most of the fighting they do is actually against ISIS rather than against Assad’s government. Nusrah is willing to delay the inter-rebellion civil war for control of Syria until after Assad is gone. ISIS seems to want to have it right now, even though that fight obviously weakens the overall rebellion.

In Iraq, though, ISIS’s capture of Mosul and its rapid advance through the rest of the Sunni north seemed to come with a change in tactics. They’ve been apparently collaborating with the “Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah” (JRTN), or the “Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order,” a group mostly made up of former Baathists from the disbanded Saddam-era Iraqi Army and led by Saddam’s former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. This collaboration serves both parties pretty well; ISIS has a lot of committed, passionate fighters who have cut their teeth in Syria, while the JRTN has veteran Iraqi soldiers and commanders who know the country and have considerably more practical military experience than either ISIS or the new Coke Iraqi army facing them. If ISIS is working with these guys, then they’re a formidable challenge to dislodge. But, you know, old habits die hard:

Reports about the June 21 clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and fighters from the Naqshbandi Order organization, led by former Iraqi Vice President Izzat al-Duri, have surprised no one.

In fact, a battle among the armed factions fighting the Iraqi army in Sunni cities and towns was expected to break out as soon as things relatively settled down and the gunmen’s influence in Iraq’s Sunni areas was established.

Although news reports indicate that the latest battles in the neighborhoods of al-Riyadh, al-Rashad and Hawija (all in Kirkuk province) happened because those areas refused to pledge allegiance to ISIS, well-informed sources told Al-Monitor that the conflict arose because ISIS sought to kill a number of tribal leaders who have deep connections in the region, most prominently the al-Asi family, which leads the al-Obaida tribe in Hawija.

Oh, I’d imagine it was a little from column A and a little from column B , but whatever. The clashes killed 17 between both groups (link is in Arabic), and police in the area are claiming that the Naqshbandi Army and a couple smaller Sunni groups have “declared war” (!) on ISIS.

The point is that there’s a fundamental cleavage between ISIS and its current allies in the wider Sunni resurgence, which is that most of those folks really don’t want a restoration of the caliphate. Douri certainly doesn’t; he wants Saddam’s old job, dictator of Iraq, and there’s not going to be a separate “Iraq” if ISIS has its way. So these groups can’t coexist for very long, and ISIS’s history in Syria, its apparent inability to just go along to get along in the short run, suggests that their falling out will come sooner rather than later. This is a good thing, because really it’s the internal coalition splintering that’s going to dislodge ISIS more surely than any military action by the Iraqi government, or Iran, or the US. But even if that happens, it won’t be the end of the problem facing Iraq. ISIS has simply capitalized on the discontent and rebelliousness that was already present in the Arab Sunni community and channeled it into these dramatic military gains. Take ISIS away and the underlying conditions that made this all possible are still going to be there, and they must have a political, not military, solution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.