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What to do with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

By David Harding - posted Monday, 7 July 2014

The world is watching as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) consolidates its acquisition of Iraqi and Syrian territory. At the same time Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and the US all debate each other's support for either the al Assad regime or the Syrian rebels. However, rather than putting 'boots on the ground' it may be prudent for the United Nations Security Council to consider the adoption of a 'cordon and confinement' strategy to the overall situation.

ISIS and other Salifit groups, such as al Shabaab in Somalia, effectiveness relies on three core pillars. The first pillar is their organisational structure, which is made up of their allegiance sworn franchises, allies, networks of individuals, and what has become known as lone wolf operatives. The second pillar is that the ISIS is a culturally Arab group which is founded on tribal and family affiliations and networks, where leadership is based on kinship, honour and allegiance. The third pillar is their fundamentalist view of Islam. For the Salifit the concept of State and religion being separate is unknown, and the Salifit do not want this separation to occur.

To counter each of these three pillars, a United Nations led strategy of 'cordon and confinement' would work best in the long-term. For instance, at present ISIS has reached its natural limit in terms of traditional tribal allegiance land. Ultimately, the provinces of western and central Iraq along with southern Syria are interconnected by tribal affiliations and networks. ISIS has not conquered new land, but has merely gained control of affiliated tribal lands. The only area not successfully acquired is north western Baghdad.


However, any invading force that wishes to 'put boots on the ground' would need to conquer those traditional lands and then try to control them. This would be, as the last ten years has shown, very difficult, if not impossible. An additional complication would be that if the invading force was non-Sunni Islamic, there would be the risk that the Muslim world would see the invasion as a new crusade. The ramifications of which would be extreme.

To this end, the United Nations Security Council could support the Iraqi al Maliki government to maintain control of Baghdad, but should go no further. In addition, Russia, China or the US could support the al Assad government of Syria in its attempt to regain control of the coastal regions of northern Syria, especially the port towns. Also, support could be given to the Kurds in Kurdistan and the Turkish government in an attempt to contain ISIS and prevent the group's expansion into the northeast of present ISIS positions. To the west, the Saudi and Jordanian governments could be persuaded to restrict the traditional movement of people and contraband over the traditional black market trade routes. With these cordons in place ISIS would be confined to its current position.

For ISIS to be successful, it will need to maintain its three core pillars of networked tribal allegiances. Therefore, the purpose of a UN backed confinement strategy would be to focus on the weaknesses within the ISIS three pillars system. By confining ISIS to its current land acquisition would mean that ISIS would need to maintain its allegiances and affiliations with the local tribal and other terrorist leaders. In the past however, ISIS's fore runner al Qaeda in Iraq, had great difficulty maintaining tribal allegiance due to its extreme worldview.

Ultimately, the severity of al Qaeda in Iraq's Salifit worldview alienated the local tribal leaders of the al Anbar province and insurgent groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq. This alienation led to a switching of allegiance away from the insurgent group and the dramatic lessening of its operational tempo. Should tribal allegiance shift, the current gains made by ISIS could implode. If history is not to repeat itself, ISIS will need to compromise its own version of inherently vicious fundamentalism.

However, softening the ISIS worldview would compromise the third pillar that the group rests on, its fundamentalist view of Islam. If ISIS wishes to not implode as al Qaeda in Iraq did in 2007, it would be required to keep the often very self-interested local tribal Sheiks economically comfortable. This would require that the group, with whatever governing structure is put in place, to communicate with its neighbours, and indeed trade with countries outside its region. Such communication is abhorrent to the current ISIS worldview and would likely bring internal conflict should this type of exchange occur.

If confined, ISIS would be in the unenviable position of either compromising its worldview, or having the local tribal leaders rise up against it, as happened in 2007. Either option is of benefit to the countries within the Middle East, and the five core members of the UN Security Council, which have all had recent troubles in dealing with aggressive Salifits.

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About the Author

David Harding is a director of Anshin Consultants, a threat management consultancy, and holds a Masters degree, and has lectured, written, and blogged about international risk, threat and security management.

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