The United States has a tradition of misinterpreting the Middle East. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 with misplaced certainty, misconstrued assumptions and poor foresight. After the Arab revolts began in 2011, Washington misdiagnosed the problems and opportunities, and overestimated its influence to steer outcomes in its favor. Now, as the United States prepares to escalate military action against the Islamic State, misinterpretation is leading to another tragic foreign policy mistake.
In his prime-time address Wednesday, President Obama said that U.S. airstrikes targeting militants in Iraq over the past month “have protected American personnel and facilities, killed [Islamic State] fighters, destroyed weapons, and given space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim key territory. These strikes have also helped save the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children.”
A more accurate assessment would be that U.S. military intervention has tremendous propaganda value for the Islamic State, helping it to rally other jihadists to its cause, possibly even Salafists who have so far rejected its legitimacy. Moreover, to the extent that the group poses any threat to the United States, that threat is magnified by a visible U.S. military role. Obama’s restraint in the use of military power in recent years has helped keep the Islamic State’s focus regional — on its efforts to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East rather than on launching attacks against the United States. It’s only with the U.S. military’s return to Iraq and the prospect of U.S. intervention in Syria that the group’s focus has begun to shift.
The barbaric beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were intended as retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. Instead, Washington has interpreted those events, along with the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, to Islamic State militants in June, and the siege of Yazidis in northern Iraq last month, as evidence that the group poses a threat of terrifying proportions to U.S. interests.
It has become the consensus view in Washington that the militants are poised to bulldoze through America’s Middle East allies, destabilize global oil supplies and attack the U.S. homeland. The Islamic State represents “a clear and present danger” to the United States, wrote Gen. John Allen, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, one that affects “the region and potentially the world as we know it.” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the group as having “an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel characterized it as “an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else.” According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 90 percent of Americans view the Islamic State as a serious threat to vital U.S. interests.
But Americans are misreading the recent Islamic State successes, which speak less to the group’s invincibility and inevitability than they do to external factors beyond its control. Despite its territorial gains and mastery of propaganda, the Islamic State’s fundamentals are weak, and it does not have a sustainable endgame. In short, we’re giving it too much credit.
Consider the fall of Mosul, which catapulted the impression that the group is a formidable force able to engage on multiple fronts simultaneously and overpower a U.S.-trained army that dwarfs its size. In reality, it was able to gain such vast territory because it faced an impotent opponent and had the help of the broader Sunni insurgency. The Iraqi army, lacking professionalism and insufficiently motivated to fight and die for Sunni-dominated Mosul, self-destructed and deserted. The militants can be credited with fearlessness and offensive mobility, but they can hardly be said to have defeated the Iraqi army in combat. At the time, Islamic State militants represented less than 10 percent of the overall Sunni insurgency. Many other Sunni groups helped to hold territory and fight off Iraq’s Shiite government and Iranian-backed militia forces.
The Islamic State’s capture of Sinjar in the northern province of Nineveh further added to perceptions of its dominance and helped precipitate Washington’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Iraq. But that episode was also misinterpreted. Kurdish forces were not only taken by surprise, but since they had only recently filled the vacuum in Sinjar left by Iraq’s fleeing army, they were stretched too thin and poorly equipped to sustain a battle outside their home territory. Lacking ammunition and other supplies, they conceded the territorial outpost and retreated within their borders in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This hardly means the Islamic State is in a position to topple the next city in its sights. Rather, the borders of its territory have, more or less, reached their outer potential. It’s no coincidence that the militants’ gains have been limited to areas populated by disenfranchised Sunnis eager for protection from Shiite forces. It would require far greater power to hold territory populated by a sect that didn’t support their presence. The group’s rapid growth has occurred in its most compatible regions — as a species proliferates within its natural habitat. It is thriving in the midst of sectarian cleavages, established insurgencies, and weak or nonexistent state institutions. Hence, its support in Iraq and Syria is not the rule, it is the exception. The combination of these conditions does not exist in much of the greater Middle East.
Despite being in its infancy as a declared caliphate, the Islamic State’s extreme ideology, spirit of subjugation and acts of barbarism prevent it from becoming a political venue for the masses. It has foolhardily managed to instill fear in everyone, thus limiting its opportunities for alliances and making itself vulnerable to popular backlash. For example, between late last year and early this year, its militants lost territory in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib because of grass-roots resistance and insurgent competition.
The key for a group like the Islamic State to survive and flourish is a deep connection with local populations. The Islamic State’s core fighters are certainly devoted and willing to die for the cause, but its potential support across the region ranges from limited to nonexistent. This is one of the differences between superficial weeds such as the Islamic State and deeply rooted forests such as Lebanese Hezbollah.
The irony is that the Islamic State’s greatest achievement — the capture of Mosul — may also be its greatest liability. Indeed, the sudden collapse of the Iraqi army catapulted the group far beyond its capacity to absorb and sustain its gains. Its meteoric rise in Iraq helped it consolidate the insurgent landscape in Syria but also made the group too visible a threat for regional powers. And while the seizure of U.S.-made weapons and modern equipment has increased the group’s capabilities and prestige, it has also made it more vulnerable to conventional adversaries.
For some time, regional power politics made Middle Eastern states reluctant to confront the Islamic State directly. Turkey appreciated that the influx of jihadists into Syria helped counterbalance Kurdish guerrilla forces there while undermining the Syrian regime’s quest to reconquer lost territory. Syria and Iran recognized that the militants diminished the threat to Bashar al-Assad by radicalizing the opposition and making the West more hesitant to support it. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab gulf states understood that the Islamic State served to counter Iran’s Shiite proxies in the region. And even for Israel, there was little incentive to confront a group that served to perpetuate the Sunni-Shiite divide.
After the capture of Mosul, the calculus began to change. All the regional powers are now in consensus that the Islamic State must be contained. The group is completely isolated, encircled by enemies.
Its advance southward toward Baghdad compelled Iran and Syria to throw their military support behind Iraq’s government; it also led to the mass recruitment and remobilization of Shiite militias as a sectarian counterweight. Meanwhile, the group’s march northward toward Irbil led to a pan-Kurdish response, mobilizing Kurdish guerrilla fighters from Turkey, Syria and Iran to support the defense of Iraqi Kurds and Yazidis.
On the Islamic State’s western frontier, Jordan’s border is impenetrable to militant invasion. And even should the group find a way to conduct a terrorist attack inside the Hashemite Kingdom, the population (and the region’s Sunni Arab states) would rally to support the Jordanian monarchy, while its highly capable intelligence directorate and armed forces would go on the offensive against the perpetrators. The fear that the militants somehow threaten the stability of Israel’s eastern front is far removed from reality.
After Mosul, the Islamic State has also been more prone to resistance from within. As its acquisition of new territory has slowed, much of the group’s focus has shifted toward consolidating power inside territory already acquired. Hence, before the United States intervened with airstrikes last month, the insurgency in Iraq had already begun fragmenting over power, prestige and resources.
This doesn’t suggest that the Islamic State poses no problem nor that the United States should ignore it. However, any strategy that involves U.S. airstrikes to contain the group is like searching for a beehive to swat, then assuming that the threat of being stung is somehow mitigated.
While some military action is necessary to defeat the Islamic State, that effort should be driven by regional actors, not a Western power. The United States is far better positioned to assume an active diplomatic role, facilitating consensus and cooperation among local and regional players. If the common threat could compel these actors toward local collaboration, national compromise and regional rapprochement, there may emerge an opportunity to bring them together to finally settle the civil wars plaguing the Middle East.
Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.