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The Islamic State, or Daesh, once again showed its ability to surprise observers by its swift capturing of the Iraqi provincial capital of Anbar, Ramadi. But should it have been a surprise? Arguably, no. Should we be surprised by further moves by Daesh to continue to extend the reach of their self-proclaimed Caliphate? The answer, again, has to be no.
Why is this the case? Firstly, as has been well-documented, the very DNA of Daesh is built upon consolidating its hold on territory already under its dominion, and to expand the Caliphate in an ever-growing initiative that would, at its end, be global in scope. The leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is clearly some way off achieving this final aim but, for now, he has plenty of opportunities to continue his strategy of expansionism in the chaotic world that is the present-day Middle East.
Before looking at what Daesh may do next, the lessons from Ramadi need to once again be reviewed as, it seems, they are worryingly little different to those that were learned following the fall of Mosul last year. Firstly, Daesh military forces – incomparable though they are to Western military forces – win on Middle Eastern battlefields because they are facing fractured, demoralised, poorly-led forces that are, by and large, already beaten before the feared black banners of Daesh appear. This was certainly the case in Mosul, and now seems to be the case in Ramadi too.
Where military forces have been able to make a stand against Daesh fighters – in Kobane, on the Kurdistan region of Iraq’s border, and also at times on various Syrian fronts against the regime forces of Bashar al-Assad, the defenders have benefited from wide-ranging air-attacks but have still taken grievously-high levels of casualties inflicted upon them by a foe that, in the case of Tikrit at least, were limited in number. As the Shi’a militia that are assembling in Habbaniyya, outside Ramadi, will probably find out – the recapturing of Ramadi will come at very great cost to their ranks.
A further lesson to learn is that Daesh operates with considerable ease in the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Salahadin and Diyala in part. Why this should be the case should be relatively easy to figure out. The alternative is the return of the Iraqi government, which would also include the presence of a range of Shi’a militias that operate independently of the government’s already bifurcated chain of command. But this is simply not as attractive a proposition to the largely Sunni and Arab populations of these provinces when compared to the institutions of Daesh.
Yes, they are brutal and, no, you would certainly not want to be subject to their judicial system; but at least as a Sunni you would perhaps believe that you would have a chance of existing and surviving, and perhaps even prospering, under their rule. Compare this with being liberated by the Shia paramilitary group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, or the Shia militias that comprise of the Hashd al-Shaabi, and it is little wonder that Daesh not only moves freely, but then holds effectively, territories it captures and occupies. Until there is an option available that is not seen as Shi’a or Iranian-dominated by those people who simply want to survive in these territories, then there will remain ample enough popular support – active or passive – to facilitate Daesh successes. But, to be clear, there are no other forces available in this theatre, to do this job effectively, at the present moment.
A third lesson is that Daesh has actually succeeded in removing what it, along with many Western observers, erroneously refers to as the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria. While the Sykes-Picot agreement was never actually implemented, the effects of which thus cannot be rescinded, the emotive point Abu Bakr makes in such arguments is powerful enough, even if historically illiterate. What he is referring to is the Western-imposed state system, replete with its straight borders and its containing of modern, European-modelled, states. Western analysts may mock the hubris of Abu Bakr, of challenging the international state system, but it is his removal of the border across the Jazeera, straddling Iraq and Syria, that allows his forces to switch fronts with alacrity, fighting on the Aleppo or Palmyra fronts, and then within days pushing on Ramadi.
Analogies such as Daesh being like air in a balloon – squeeze them here, they pop out the other side – may have a degree of accuracy, but we should also appreciate that the Daesh commanders are not so simply reactive. They seemingly have the knack to move fast, decisively, and operate according to a plan that keeps their many opponents dumbfounded – whether they are Iraq, Iranian, American/allied, Shi’a, Kurdish, or Syrian.
Ramadi’s Strategic Value to Daesh
Why does Daesh want Ramadi? First, it is very much in their sphere of influence. Already, most of Anbar province is controlled by them, so why not push on what should be a relatively easy target? Second, Ramadi provides a necessary victory in Iraq, at a time when the loss of Tikrit to Iraqi/militia forces can not be adequately explained away. Third, Ramadi once again raises the spectre of a threat posed towards Baghdad. With Fallujah still very much under the control of Daesh, there is now a heightened possibility of reinforcing their presence in this area, which has the effect of further opening up the ability to link up with Sunni towns around Baghdad, and of stretching even further the already depleted and weakened ranks of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
Few in the government of Iraq could now realistically countenance the retaking of Mosul – the seat of Daesh – while Abu bakr's fighters now occupy such positions of strategic significance adjacent to Baghdad. By taking Ramadi, Daesh have secured Mosul, for now at least.
Now operating in Samarra (where there is another Daesh push happening), Baiji (where Daesh has again nearly recaptured), and across the Kurdistan Region’s border, from Sinjar to Khanaqin, Daesh is pulling and pushing their opponents out of shape, creating opportunities for them to exploit with their rapid and ferocious multi-dimensional attacks that have been used to such strong effect in recent years. Even now, the opponents of Daesh seemingly have no answer when confronted with one of their highly-manned, fast-moving assaults. Being able to amass in Ramadi, or Fallujah, then, yes, Baghdad would be threatened.
But, even then, it is almost impossible to imagine Shi’a-dominated Baghdad falling to Abu Bakr’s forces. Yet we should keep in mind that, for Daesh, the fight is as much an ‘end’ in itself as it the ‘means’ to achieve it. What Daesh needs to ensure in its consolidation and then expansion is the further polarisation of sectarianism in the region.
Only when the Shi’a militia are pushed to be as unrelentingly brutal as the Daesh fighters, or are perceived to be such, and Daesh feels that it has socially-generated legitimacy rather than authority derived from coercion and fear, can Abu Bakr and his lieutenants feel content that their project has real longevity. It will not be underpinned merely by revolutionary hyperbole and held together by fear of the consequences of dissent. And nothing will further this decline into heightened sectarianism than the defence of Baghdad by the Shi’a militia – apart from, of course, the destruction of the Shi’as holy shrines in Najaf, Kerbala, and also Samarra to a lesser extent (where Daesh is again threatening).
Daesh’s Next Move
But what will Daesh do next? They will have to organise the defence of Ramadi, certainly, as they will likely face an onslaught of unrelenting proportions from the Shi’a militiamen that will be sent against them. However, they will continue to surprise with their maneuvering, as they have done since the feinted attacks across Iraq in the spring of 2014 culminated in the fall of Mosul in June.
They could, very easily, reopen their fronts against the Kurds in Syria – perhaps keen to exploit the still real fear in the Turkish government about the strengthening of what are seen to be PKK-linked Kurdish fighters and organisations in the three cantons of Jazeera, Kobane, and Afrin. Certainly, from the perspective of Daesh, any attempt to join Qamishli, in Jazeera, with Kobane would need to be prevented, or else they lose their important border crossings with Turkey.
They could also move, with relative ease, in Syria; or they could continue to press the Kurds hard around Kirkuk and Mosul – pressure the Kurds would find hard to contend with. Or perhaps they may even move beyond their regular stomping ground of Iraq and Syria and attempt to destabilise Jordan or Lebanon further – with both countries being dangerously exposed to Daesh influences. Or, of course, they could push on Baghdad and stoke the sectarian conflict with their Shi’a arch-rivals as far as they can – with potential disastrous consequences.
It is difficult for an outsider to say, but the lessons we should take from Daesh are clear: that without an alternative for those who live in the realm of Daesh to support, that can actually protect them when they do stand up, then it should be expected that the legitimacy and therefore strength of the Caliphate will continue to grow.
The Iraqi government – politically and militarily – have no answer to Daesh that results in an end-game of Iraqi unity, unless that unity is achieved through the domination of the state and country by Shi’a militias. The Kurds can (just about) defend themselves, and no more. Daesh, far from being reactive, is actually very proactive and we should not be surprised to see further advances, even if coming from a position of perceived significant weakness.
Professor Gareth Stansfield is Director of RUSI's Middle East programme