Seven unlikely events in the fight against Islamic State, and their likely outcomes

November 17, 2014

Shi'ite fighters, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), take part in field training in the desert in the province of Najaf

It’s easy to get depressed about the Middle East these days. The bloodshed continues unabated in Syria. Islamic State advances across Iraq, sacking towns and slaughtering innocents. Millions are refugees. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems well ensconced in Damascus, on track to outlasting President Barack Obama in office.

But what also makes Middle Eastern politics so perplexing — or infuriating, depending on your perspective — is that events can change on a dime. Or dinar, if you prefer.

Despite what’s in the movies, intelligence agencies don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict the future. Intelligence is more an art than a science. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted in September, “The fact is you all know intelligence doesn’t come wrapped in a package with a bow. It’s a mosaic of many pictures of many factors.”

When assessing events on the ground — particularly in dynamic situations like Iraq and Syria — it is devilishly difficult to determine if and when a game-changing event will occur. “Unforeseeable” game-changers are, well, “unforeseeable.” Part of the intelligence challenge is trying to prepare for all possible scenarios and making assessments about what the future might hold.

A rocket launched by Islamic State forces flies over Kobani

We’ve identified five black swans — high-impact but low-probability events that could alter the course of the conflict. Will any of them occur? Nobody knows. But if any does happen, all bets are off as to the next chapter in Iraq and Syria.

So here they are, from unlikely to occur to even less likely to occur:

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed or dies:  All men are mortal, and the world is a dangerous place. Abu Bakr has a list of enemies a mile long who would love to see him depart the scene. Would his death change the course of the war?

Less than one might initially think. Top terrorists — and the people surrounding them — generally have succession plans. For example, the United States and Iraq have killed the last three leaders of Islamic State’s earlier iterations over the years, yet the organization was able to regenerate its leadership quickly.

If Abu Bakr is bumped off, Islamic State still has a consultative council that will be able to install a new leader without too much effort. And the war and Islamic State will grind on.

Islamic State destroys a vital piece of infrastructure: An imminent Islamic State takeover of Mosul Dam — which, if destroyed, could send a 65-foot wave of water into Mosul as well as submerge much of Baghdad, according to the Wall Street Journal — was the catalyst that brought the United States into the current conflict.

The United States has also been striking Islamic State positions around Haditha Dam. The militants have been similarly unsuccessful in taking over the massive Baiji oil refinery. But what if Islamic State was able to seize it and blow it up?

With massive destruction comes massive chaos. Thousands would lose their lives, and the economic destruction in the wave’s wake would be immense.

Yet it’s doubtful that Islamic State would do this. Since Baghdad is the crown jewel, it’s better to take it rather than raze it. The jihadist group is also well aware that oil refineries like Baiji are tremendous sources of revenue, so it would not be in their interest to destroy it. Though you never know.

Islamic State captures or kills numerous U.S. troops: American Special Operations Forces are highly skilled and thoroughly prepared for their missions, but even in the most carefully planned operations failures occur and unanticipated problems can arise. If a Special Operations Forces raid were to go wrong, or there’s a betrayal by an “ally,” the American public would undoubtedly support the president if he decided on some type of action in response.

It’s not unreasonable to think this country might even demand action. We saw how Islamic State’s brutality on Sinjar Mountain and its beheading of two journalists mobilized American public opinion to support lethal action in Iraq and Syria.

A major terrorist attack in Europe or the United States is traced to Islamic State or al Qaedas Syrian wing:  A mass-casualty terrorist attack in Europe or the United States would undoubtedly alter public opinion and U.S. policy, prompting deeper involvement in Syria or Iraq. A strike on a transportation hub, government building or tourist location in the United States or Europe could be viewed as a direct act of war, dramatically escalating support for expanded actions in Iraq and Syria. It would even lower the war-weary political reluctance to sharply increasing airstrikes against the militants as well as putting U.S. or NATO “boots on the ground”– at least for a while.

A big attack in Europe or North America might even cause that country to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pact — calling on member nations to act in collective self-defense. This means that an ever-reluctant Turkey, which has the second-largest land force in NATO after the United States, might have to commit troops to Syria and Iraq to fulfill its treaty obligations.

Baghdad falls to Islamic State or theres a dramatic increase in violence within the city: For the past few months, we’ve heard analysts and policymakers talk about the possibility that Islamic State might take Baghdad. While the group probably doesn’t have the wherewithal to sack the city, the possibility that it could would be catastrophic.

A Kurdish refugee child cries as he and others wait inside a fenced refugee camp to pay their last respects to a Kurdish fighter killed during the battle for Kobani against Islamic State, in Suruc

An Islamic State capture of Baghdad (and presumably the U.S. embassy) would require escalated U.S. involvement — unless Washington just decided to abandon the capital to the terrorist group. It would also probably mean that Iraq runs the risk of collapsing into a horrific level of sectarian bloodletting.

Even if the capital didn’t completely “fall,” a significant escalation in attacks could put U.S. personnel and the embassy compound at risk. A takeover of Baghdad International Airport could have similar ramifications.

Let’s flip a coin and be optimistic, however! Here are a few positive game-changers that would improve the dynamics on the ground in Iraq.

Iraqi Sunni tribes and Baghdad agree on an acceptable political solution: U.S. policymakers have long talked about a political solution to the conflict. Obama said on CBS’ 60 Minutes, “What we also have to do is we have to come up with political solutions in Iraq and Syria.”

This “political solution” would mean that the Sunnis would not feel marginalized in their own country. If Baghdad makes a solid agreement to give more power to Sunni power brokers — perhaps in a federalized system, a real integration of the military and security forces and a share of the oil proceeds — what then?

The war in Sunni-stan, between the tribes and Islamic State, would then begin. It is likely it would be incredibly violent. But at least Islamic State would be fighting yet another enemy on its home turf.

Islamic State implodes: Terrorist groups and insurgencies sometimes plant the seeds of their own destruction by using brutal tactics that alienate their base and splinter the organization’s leadership. If Islamic State were to self-destruct, it’s possible that the group’s factions could vie for power in a fight that distracts them from fighting the Iraqis, Kurds and everyone else.

If this happens, the United States and other countries might be able to sit back and watch. It would be terrible carnage — where everyone involved has a great deal of blood on their hands.

That said, this would have to be a fairly dramatic implosion to seriously alter the situation on the ground. Low-level rifts and fissures are not unlikely and could simply result in new branches of the group. But ‘fitna’ or infighting among Islamic State’s top leadership could be a great way for the problem to deal with itself.

Chances are none of these black swans will come to pass. But if any did, it might prove to be only the latest spasm in a chaotic region.


PHOTO (TOP): Shi’ite fighters, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against Islamic State militants, take part in field training in the desert in the province of Najaf, Sept. 16, 2014.

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A rocket believed launched by Islamic State forces flies from the east to the west side of the Syrian town of Kobani during fighting on Nov. 6, 2014 REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

PHOTO (INSERT 2): A Kurdish refugee child cries as he and others wait inside a fenced refugee camp to pay last respects to a Kurdish fighter killed during the battle for Kobani against Islamic State, in the border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province Nov. 7, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis


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The only thing I’m depressed about is that these animals on both sides aren’t killing each other fast enough. Noff said.

Posted by GotTime | Report as abusive

I somewhat agree with GotTime. Particularly with regards to not being depressed. Politicians use fear to help control us. These lame dolts in the middle east are not a real threat, but they are the best our fearless leaders could get to try and impress us with the way they protect us. It’s simply a scam for control here. Hey republicans where is that ebola out break we knew that Obama was bungling. Maybe Reuters can tell us where that is. This seems like a real story. When these politicians and there minions in the press use these fear tactics isn’t it incumbent upon them to revisit the supposed existential threat and tell us how they prevented our ultimate destruction? Just how did the republicans prevent the ebola outbreak, and how many terrorist deaths happened under Obama that they would have prevented. The terrorists and ebola are coming to get us and destroy us. Thank God for the republicans.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

An excellent example of parallel analysis. On other sites there is far too much stress on playing to the crowd rather than in-depth on-the-ground, “réal politique” analysis. Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability both external and internal is papered over, but a succession battle there could be a game-changer. Similarly the mobilisation of radical Sunnites in Turkey could prove devastating to existing strategies. A mutual tolerance understanding with Iran would also change the strategic balance in the Middle East as would additional Russian support, notwithstanding “domestic” (US/UK/French oïl-companies’… interests.

There is in general a tendency to pander to the latest “human rights scandal” and limit or modify strategy accordingly. An in-depth assessment of alternative medium-term strategies is critical but will require strong nerves on the domestic front.

Posted by captainbwana | Report as abusive