How can ISIL be defeated?

It is the nature of political coalitions that they bring people together on the basis of those points where they find agreement, and therefore there can be considerable divergence in the overall standpoints represented. In so far as the Stop the War Coalition seeks to bring together those who oppose British military involvement in the Syrian civil war, then it is potentially resonates with the majority of the British population. Nevertheless, I feel that Stop the War fails to articulate a credible alternative argument, because it does not acknowledge that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) does need to be defeated. The recently published six arguments from John Rees are particularly weak in this regard.

My position is that British military involvement would be wrong and counterproductive in the fight against ISIL, and would not only increase the terrorist risk to the British people, but also the risk to British interests internationally.

Nevertheless, I believe that ISIL does need to be isolated, contained and defeated; and that it is legitimate for the left in Britain to support and indeed advocate those measures necessary for the defeat of ISIL.

Much of the discussion about the question unfortunately does not seek to understand the nature of ISIL, which is certainly a terrorist organisation and inspiration of terror, but is more fundamentally a warlord polity, and while it is characteristic of warlordism for them to assume the functions of a proto-state, the ideological element of ISIL has made them rapidly self-aware of this function, and they actually present themselves as a state. This gives it its unique character.

Dr Rim Turkmani’s paper published in July 2015, “ISIL, JAN (Jabhat Al Nusra) and the War Economy in Syria” is very interesting, based as it is on field data and interviews with involved actors.

The most important thing Syrians lost because of the conflict is simply their state, which is exactly what ISIL is attempting to provide by reversing the process of state collapse. The key to its success is that it plans and acts like a state. When it dominates an area and considers it part of the Islamic State it acts as the one sole actor in charge. It ensures that it has complete monopoly over the use of force in the area, and it has developed a comprehensive model for running a proto-state; a model that includes governance and the provision of public services, for example, judiciary system, policing, education, an army, an ideology and indeed intelligence. It offers a surprisingly effective and adaptive governance model. Its reputation for governance is one of its key recruiting tools for both civilians and fighters.

Areas dominated by the war economy environment are very vulnerable to ISIL expansion and JAN infiltration. The extremely high levels of unemployment, together with very high prices and the absence of other sources of income, has left men of fighting age, who typically have to provide for their families, in a very exposed position and vulnerable to recruitment by extreme organisations. ISIL pays the highest combatant salaries in Syria starting from USD 400 per month. It is followed by JAN which pays around USD 100 per month whilst most other armed groups struggle to match even JAN’s salaries. The salary system for fighters in ISIL reflects the fact that most of its high and mid-level leadership is composed of valued Arab and foreign fighters, who are much better paid, ideologically driven and strongly believing in the proto-state. The bulk of its fighting force is composed of Syrian men who are paid less, not believers in the ‘state’ but had very little choice.

The indispensable precondition of warlordism is the absence of a state, and its two indispensable components are control of territory and a war economy.

Turkmani describes a war economy as a state of affairs “which destroyed the local legitimate economy so that many people had no other source of income except through joining an armed group, and in which access to resources depends on violence”

The independent inter-govermental body, the The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), published a report in February 2015 on the “Financing of the Terrorist Organisation Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)

This describes ISIL as being a non-traditional terrorist organisation, the report

identifies ISIL’s primary sources of revenue which are mainly derived from illicit proceeds from its occupation of territory. These sources include bank looting and extortion, control of oil fields and refineries and robbery of economic assets. Other sources include the donors who abuse Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs), Kidnapping for Ransom (KFR) and cash smuggling (areas where FATF has conducted in-depth research), to new and emerging typologies which have not yet been addressed by the FATF, such as the extortion of goods and cash transiting territory where ISIL operates and grass-root funding strategies.

Anyone seeking to understand warlordism needs to read Antonio Giustozzi’s magisterial book “Empires of Mud” which provides detailed case studies of the warlord polities of Ismail Khan, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan.

Giustozzi discusses two aspects which are useful to understand, one of which is the degree to which the collapse of state authority can “orphan” military commanders and units, who seek a new role. While the perception of ISIL in Britain has been coloured by the stereotypes of foreign born fanatics like “Jihadi John”, a considerable component of ISIL comes from former Ba’athist army officers from Iraq, as reported in the British press last year.

Hassan Hassan, a Dubai-based analyst and co-author of the book Isis: Inside the Army of Terror . “A lot of people think of the Islamic State as a terrorist group, and it’s not useful,” Hassan said. “It is a terrorist group, but it is more than that. It is a homegrown Iraqi insurgency, and it is organic to Iraq.”
The de-Baathification law promulgated by Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American ruler in 2003, has long been identified as one of the contributors to the original insurgency. At a stroke, 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions — and also allowed to keep their guns.

Another useful concept from Giustozzi is that of military charisma within warlordism.

The drive to perpetual warfare is partly created by the parasitic consumption of the substantive, real, economy by the war economy of plunder, and indeed the FATF report referenced above refers to the relative inefficiency of economic activity in ISIL controlled areas creating a drive towards constant expansion to plunder new resources, especially as they estimate that ISIL needs to spend US$ 10 million per month.

But perpetual warfare also creates the “charisma” of leadership, and underpins the patronage of the warlords.

The charisma of ISIL for those attuned to its hateful message, has been created both by military success, but also by its effective and shocking use of news management and the deliberate feeding of the thirst for atrocity by the 24 hour news channels. While it may seem distasteful to use such a marketing term, ISIL has been adept at becoming the brand leader of Jihadi terrorism.

By 31st December 2014 the higher prestige of ISIL compared to other Jihadi terror groups had led to an estimated 19000 foreign fighters joining them, Many of these fighters have brought funds with them, for example taking out substantial cash loans before they travel to Syria. Foreign donor support can also be significant, for example, attracted by ISIL’s success foreign organizations, like Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group or the Egypt-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), have raised funds and channeled these illicitly through the banking system.

The high profile, and the financial sophistication of ISIL, even includes crowdfunding strategies using social media, for example through its propaganda arm called the Al-Itisam Establishment for Media Production and the Al Hayat Media Center. The FATF reports notes “The development of a Twitter campaign like #AlleyesonISIS and a mobile android phone application free for public download are signs of ISIL’s growing technological savvy”

The overall picture that emerges is that ISIL is like a barbarous and murderous Ponzi scheme, that needs to perpetually move and expand to survive. Its funding sources are diverse: from smuggling oil, phosphates and other minerals; from illicit tariffs charged on goods in transit through areas they control, from bank looting, extortion and human trafficking; from plundering ancient artifacts, from kidnap and ransom; from foreign sponsors; and even from crowdsourcing.

An additional aspect of complexity is that the civil war contests territory within the Iraqi and Syrian states, that previously had integrated economies, administration and infrastructure. For example, in both Iraq and Syria bank branches exist of national banking institutions within ISIL controlled territories, and in Iraq, the state continues to pay salaries for government officials within areas controlled by ISIL, that are subject to a 50% levy from the Jihadis. All sides in the Syrian civil war engage in barter and trade, due to the necessity to maintain food supplies, water and fuel. In Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army and ISIL collaborate over the limited objective of maintaining flour mills and bakeries even though they are engaged in combat with each other on the same front; similarly despite brutal war between ISIL and the Syrian government, credible sources suggest that there is trade in crude and refined petroleum due to mutual necessity.

Turkmani argues that this trade and the way this allows the reproduction of normal life for the civilian population underpins a key economic front in the war.

ISIL offers a surprisingly effective and adaptive governance model. Its reputation for governance is one of its key recruiting tools for both civilians and fighters.

ISIL seems to give priority to the control of strategic resources in all of its military moves inside Syria. This includes controlling oil resources, power plants, water resources and all that is needed to provide bread including silos, mills and bakeries. This has meant that other Syrian actors become dependent on ISIL especially for the provision of oil. The lack of any legitimate sources of much-needed diesel and other types of fuel in the countryside of Idleb and Aleppo has given ISIL the opportunity to sell crude oil to these areas, to make them dependent on it. The Syrian government is also dependent on ISIL’s control of strategic resources. It is reported to be buying oil from ISIL, it paid it transit fees for allowing wheat trucks from Hasaka to cross its areas and it struck deals with it to ensure the provision of water to government-controlled areas in return for providing electricity for ISIL controlled areas.

In particular, Turkmani argues that the other rebel groups opposed to the Assad government have failed to develop governance infrastructure, and therefore struggle to hold territory contested by ISIL. As Turkmani says “Any contested area in Syria is a potential region for ISIL expansion. Ending the conflict requires serious commitment to an inclusive political solution that is supported by regional and international consensus. Very strong emphasis also needs to be put on restoring governance in opposition-controlled areas, especially those most vulnerable to further ISIL expansion.”

This is an important point, because it is these ineffective rebel groups, vulnerable to ISIL expansion, that David Cameron and the UK government are relying upon to provide the ground troops to take and hold territory from ISIL.

In actual fact, if we understand that ISIL is effectively a warlord polity, the support for which is contingent and often mercenary, and fed by the reality that fighting for ISIL is often the only paid employment in areas devastated by a war economy, then ISIL’s military strength may be fragile, in that it gathers support and momentum when winning, but will lose support and may suffer rapid degradation should it start to lose and a credible alternative force capture and hold the territory it currently controls. Indeed, ISIL itself recognizes the lack of full committment from some of its troops by the different levels of Bay’ah, the oath of allegiance given to ISIL by new recruits, so that many recruits only agree to fight for ISIL under specific, limited conditions.

A strategy to defeat ISIL requires that it is defeated militarily, that it is displaced from the territory that it currently occupies by a credible military force that can bring with it effective governance and civil administration, and that the war economy upon which warlordism feeds is replaced by the restoration of a substantive productive and commercial economy. The experience of Afghanistan shows that in certain circumstances warlordism can be overcome without even fighting, if a political process exists.

Outside the fantasy of Western liberals, there is only one force in Syria that can play that role. It is the Syrian government, supported by its Russian and Iranian allies. That is not a value judgement on the virtue of the Syrian government, it is simply a fact on the ground.

Certainly a political process is indispensible, that offers an end to the war, and a conflict resolution model that allows combatants to cease fighting. It is necessary to understand that many who have taken up arms, even for ISIL, are conscripts or mercenaries. However, Western preconditions are an obstacle to any solution if they require concessions from the Syrian state that it cannot realistically meet.

There is certainly a terrible prospect of the British government committing RAF air support for the anti-Assad rebels, in Syrian territory, and if those rebels do advance into ISIL controlled areas, which could even be rapid if component parts of ISIL defect with the turning tide, then those rebels may find the same ground that they just captured with RAF support being contested by Syrian government forces. Will the RAF continue to support them?

I therefore do not believe that there is any sensible case for British military involvement in the Syrian civil war. We would only make things worse.

However, Britain could have an important role. The British government could use diplomatic pressure to seek sanctions against those states and corporations that are funding, trading with and arming ISIL. This would include Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf states. As John Ross observes, if the UK were serious in defeating ISIL, then measures like the following, would be advocated:

1. Turkey should be told it must close within 24 hours the main supply route across its border to ISIS at Jarablus and at other border crossings. If it does not a UN Security Council Resolution will be adopted imposing financial sanctions on Turkey, as with Iran and North Korea, and the UN Security Council will authorise coalition bombing for 5km inside the Syrian border with Turkey to cut supply routes to ISIS from Turkey.

2. Saudi Arabia should be told it must cease all transfers of money to ISIS. If proof is found of any further such transfers a UN Security Council Resolution will be adopted imposing financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia as with Iran and North Korea.

London’s key role in the world’s financial system means that Britain is well placed to assist in the furthering of the international cooperation necessary to prevent, for example, insurance companies paying out for ransom demands (which is the case in UK law, but not internationally), and furthering the capacity for international banking institutions to prevent money laundering. Britain could seek to ensure that corporations are not involved in the oil and mineral smuggling and the trade in antiquities. The FATF report discusses the difficulty that many states have in practically enforcing prohibitions on money transfers to terrorist groups, this is an area where Britain could assist, and could do so more credibly as a non-combatant nation

Such measures would be more effective than a few raids by RAF planes, but they would require a fundamental shift in outlook, whereby Britain sought to strengthen the rule of law, rather than involve itself in possibly illegal wars; it would mean respecting national sovereignty rather the participating in the destruction of states, as we did with Iraq and Libya. It would mean recognizing that nations that do not benefit from the democracy that we enjoy in Britain will not achieve our model of liberalism simply by being bombed.

19 comments on “How can ISIL be defeated?

  1. Mike Phipps on said:

    Not sure the Syrian government is that keen to get rid of ISIS as long as the latter’s existence keeps western attention focused on bombing it rather than other Syrian targets. And who will get rid of ISIS from Iraq? The Iraqi state is proving pretty inept at this, even with western backing.

  2. Mike Phipps:
    Not sure the Syrian government is that keen to get rid of ISIS as long as the latter’s existence keeps western attention focused on bombing it rather than other Syrian targets. And who will get rid of ISIS from Iraq? The Iraqi state is proving pretty inept at this, even with western backing.

    Really? Do you think the West really has the stomach for bombing Syrian government targets and the consequences of war between NATO and Russia. It would be bold.

    With regard to Iraq, it is an interesting benchmark that the Assad government has found it easier to sustain military support for itself than the Iraqi government has. This seems to contradict the illusion that Assad is a house of cards.

  3. George Hallam on said:

    London’s key role in the world’s financial system means that Britain is well placed to assist in the furthering of the international cooperation necessary to prevent, for example, insurance companies paying out for ransom demands (which is the case in UK law, but not internationally), and furthering the capacity for international banking institutions to prevent money laundering.

    Excellent point. This offers a practical, and far more effective, alternative to British military action.

    Unfortunately, there seems to be little appetite in the political establishment for this line action.

  4. jock mctrousers on said:

    Andy Newman,

    Beautiful, Andy! Really impressive bit of digging. It would be nice to think that some of our MPs might read that. Fat chance.

    Andy Newman: Do you think the West really has the stomach for bombing Syrian government targets and the consequences of war between NATO and Russia.

    Unfortunately it looks like important players are chomping at the bit for just that. Cognitive dissonance? They’ve mistaken Planet Earth for a video game?

  5. Mike Phipps on said:

    Andy Newman,

    My point was that it suits the Assad regimne to have the problem of ISIS because it deflects western attention from attacking the Assad regime itself. It was only two years ago that Cameron wanted to attack Assad, not ISIS. You don’t really answer the point about Iraq – who’s going to get rid of ISIS there? It won’t be Assad and it probably won’t be the Iraqi state.

  6. Mike Phipps:
    Andy Newman,

    My point was that it suits the Assad regimne to have the problem of ISIS because it deflects western attention from attacking the Assad regime itself. It was only two years ago that Cameron wanted to attack Assad, not ISIS.You don’t really answer the point about Iraq – who’s going to get rid of ISIS there? It won’t be Assad and it probably won’t be the Iraqi state.

    Yes, Cameron did want to bomb Assad , and regime change (or probably more accurately destruction of the state) is still a probable aim, but with regard to UK military action against Assad, that is not an immediate likelihood.

    With regard to Iraq, there probably needs to be a political process that broadens the social base of the government first, but yes, there is no credible alternative to the Iraqi government being at the centre of the coalition against ISIL

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  8. John Grimshaw on said:

    Andy Newman,

    But Syrian Kurdish officials have said they are ready to work with anyone fighting ISIL, and anyone who works for a united, secular and democratic Syria.
    Ahhh!

  9. #15 Or it might (hopefully) be an implicit response to suggestions from right wing elements (specifically Ted Cruz) in the USA that nuclear weapons should be used.

  10. sussexlabourleft on said:

    #17,#18, Therefore it underlines the correct position of the majority – of Corbyn and Labour Shadow Cabinet, Parliamentary Labour Party, NEC and Labour Party members and supporters who still oppose bombing Syria now. The potential use of nuclear weapons in this conflict and reporting of it is in the public domain. The nuclear weapons could be used and the war could escalate.

    It is one more reason to support the national demonstration in London this Saturday 12th December 2015, called by the Stop the War coalition, to express opposition to the imperialist drive to war in the Middle East.

    http://stopwar.org.uk/index.php/events/stop-the-war-events-national/don-t-bomb-syria-protest-action-page

    The Labour Party does not have a shadow Foreign Secretary who can reflect the majority views of the party on the Syria issue. Who will speak for the Labour Party at this demonstration?
    Let’s hope that Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavillion) and the Green Party members can support the demonstration too.

    Sussexlabourleft