Life is harsh under Islamic State. But what’s the alternative?

February 9, 2015
Man walks down a street filled with abandoned vehicles and debris from damaged buildings in the northern Syrian town of Kobani

A man walks down a street in the northern Syrian town of Kobani, January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The quality of life is in free fall throughout the Iraqi and Syrian regions that Islamic State controls, according to a recent Washington Post article. Power blackouts are frequent and hospitals barely function. Basic foodstuffs have disappeared from stores and drinkable water is drying up. Society is strikingly unequal: Elite fighters enjoy the spoils of war while regular folks scramble for survival. Brutal punishments for petty crimes are common. Severe punishments, including beheadings, are not uncommon.

Life under what Islamic State calls the new caliphate is difficult and harsh.  Don’t expect, however, that the people subject to this cruel regime will throw off its failing leadership. Washington and the West should also not assume this pseudo-state will crumble on its own.

In fact, the regime will probably survive by muddling through its current setbacks and retain control of much of the territory it captured in Iraq and Syria. Though Kurdish troops were able to retake Kobani after a fierce three-month battle and with strong U.S.-led air support, no current force or coalition seems capable of completely driving Islamic State off the map.

Members of the Kurdish security forces inspect the site of bomb attack in Kirkuk

Members of the Kurdish security forces inspect the site of bomb attack in Kirkuk January 30, 2015. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

For it is not just a matter of retaking land controlled by Islamic State. An alternate form of government must be established. Achieving that goal will be a challenge because many Iraqis and Syrians regard Islamic State’s control as an improvement. Some non-jihadist Syrians insist they find Islamic State’s rule preferable to that of the Assad regime.

Without an overwhelming ground force to push the militants from their urban strongholds and help create an efficient political structure, recreating a new Iraq or Syria would be a tall order. So the first step would have to be deployment of a ground force capable of expelling Islamic State.

History shows this can happen. Other nonstate actors, some even more brutal than Islamic State, have conquered a country only to ultimately lose power.

Consider the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. This group murdered roughly 1.7 million Cambodians, or 23 percent of the population, between 1975 and 1979, as it brutally imposed a radical Communist agrarian ideology across the nation. Had it not been for Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in late 1978, the Khmer Rouge might have stayed in power far longer.

In Iraq, at least, there is a possibility for both coercive force and an alternative form of government, whether through the recently elected new Baghdad government, the Kurds or the Sunni tribes themselves. Though none alone is strong enough to reconquer territory from Islamic State, any one of them could begin to tackle the challenge head-on, with help provided by their “friends” — the Americans and the Iranians.

Members of the Iraqi security forces take part in training, as they prepare to fight against militants of the Islamic State, at a training camp on the outskirts of Mosul

Members of the Iraqi security forces prepare to fight against Islamic State militants, at a training camp on the outskirts of Mosul, January 10, 2015. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

There is also a possibility that these Iraqi factions could set aside their differences to forge a grand bargain composed of the tribes, the Kurds and Baghdad. This could help counter the explicitly sectarian efforts of Iraq’s former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. The factions could form a semi-united front against Islamic State.

Negotiating a generous deal with non-Islamic State belligerents in Iraq, including various Sunni tribes, could also pay dividends by helping to hold the Iraqi political state together, even if it would mean significantly less power or oil revenue for Baghdad.

Cutting an earlier deal with the Kurdish Regional Government over oil revenues has already kept the Kurds from permanently severing ties to Baghdad.

Compare this to the Syrian theater. While some Syrian Kurdish groups have created small, self-governing political enclaves dominated by ethnic Kurds, the post-Islamic State political structure of the rest of the country remains a giant question mark. The Free Syrian Army is unable to take over and administer the Syrian equivalent of a Dairy Queen (yes, there are Dairy Queens in the Middle East), much less major urban centers like Deir ez-Zor or Raqqa.

Other rebel fighting forces are also less than trustworthy, given their fundamentalist ideological predilections or relationships with nefarious organizations such as, well, al Qaeda. It’s also safe to assume the West wouldn’t want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to retake these areas.

Therefore, how should the “Grand Coalition of the Somewhat Willing” achieve the goals of degrading and destroying Islamic State while simultaneously assisting these territories in creating another form of government? Ramping up efforts to train and equip ground forces in both Iraq and Syria remains a good start.

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter takes his position during the battle with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Mosul

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter keeps watch during a battle with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Mosul, January 21, 2015.REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

But managing the Syrian conundrum will be trickier, though there are some alternative groups, including tribal communities, ready to take over in Islamic State territory. Recall that Raqqa, Islamic State’s “capital,” fell from Damascus’ control in early 2013. But it fell not to Islamic State but to a coalition of rebel groups, including al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra and another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham.

But it really fell because local Sunni tribal leaders switched allegiance from Assad to the rebels, which allowed the city to change hands quickly. Islamic State came somewhat later, brutally wresting control from all these groups.

This means, however, that there might just remain some political power in the Syrian tribal leaders, if they can be bought off — or coerced — into turning against Islamic State. But that would require a great deal of granular knowledge of the intricacies of Syrian tribal politics and individuals, a knowledge that Washington may not have.

More broadly, as much as Americans or the West want to directly help, it’s best if the locals forge such a political effort on their own. After all, the United States is not viewed by most locals as a liberator, though not all feel this way. The Kurds, for example, feel differently about the 2003 invasion.

This same advice applies to the Iranians, who have inserted hundreds of “advisers” and taken real casualties in the anti-Islamic State fight.

To return to the Khmer Rouge example, the Vietnamese army was originally greeted as liberators. But the Cambodians eventually turned on their neighbors as foreign occupiers. Until the Vietnamese left Cambodia in 1989, Hanoi faced a grinding, murderous insurgency that killed some 30,000 of its troops.

Whether the world has the stamina to see this new Middle Eastern conflict to the end, both militarily and then in the long postwar rebuilding period, remains to be seen. But if the West is serious about actually reversing Islamic State advances, it has to be ready to assist in the long, slow effort of building a new political structure that empowers locals and is strong enough to resist the fanatics who wish to undermine it.

That tough, day-after-tomorrow conversation in Washington and elsewhere has not yet begun.

9 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“Life is harsh under Islamic State. But what’s the alternative?”

Death apparently. Arm the Kurds.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

There is no fixing lands where the people are members of a religious cult. It matters not who leads as they will always be religious fanatics and cruel besides. We make the mistake of believing that this is not what the people want. We may find a few people who don’t like the cruel religious leaders but they are a real minority. If the majority of the people really wanted change there would be change. We see much regime change in the middle east but the leaders end up still being religious fanatics. As often as the regime changes happen, it seems implausible that if the majority of people wanted reasonable governance there wouldn’t at least be a few stable and benevolent governments that would arise. We are intellectual dishonest when we don’t admit that religious people like pain and feel guilt for those things that could be considered joys in life. And, worse than that, they want us all to join them in suffering through the self inflicted pain. You see, in a rational world devoid of cruel leaders, things get pretty boring for the pain and adrenalin junkies. I suppose if we were to admit these things about the people of the middle east then we might have to admit them about ourselves too. So, onward we go with pain and destruction so that we don’t offend the people who believe in imaginary beings in the sky.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

A well thought out and logical article. It has provoked perhaps the only post by brotherkenny4 I can agree with.

Most people won’t “fight” for a perfect world. They only fight to reduce the misery in their personal loves to a level they deem “acceptable” and sustainable.

So dreams always lost to a “least-worse” alternative. Humanity DOES have a very “dark side” that is in all of us, including the so-called “civilized”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Global Terrorism will remain forever both concentrated and scattered throughout this planet. Among other factors, the human need “to belong” will always exist. i.e: Gangs

The US can’t even conquer that within.

[The number of homicides in Chicago usually hovers between 300 and 400 a year. Most of the victims are shot, although beatings and stabbings contribute to the figure. As of Nov. 9, there have been 347 murders in the city this year, down from 364 at the same point last year. There have been 1,792 shooting incidents, up from 1,642 at the same time last year. The Chicago Police Department points to the drop in murders as a victory, but that number conceals the hundreds of additional people whose lives are irrevocably damaged by gun violence. Some of those wounded by bullets live by the gun themselves and brazenly wear their scars with pride.]

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2014/chica go-homicides/ortiz_photos.html

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

The alternative is what has been occurring for thousands of years: Those oppressed with store up their anger and weapons and one day kill the leaders and followers of the oppressor, Deusch.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

In general, this is a fairly gullible and docile group of people (what remains of the Muslim world). The smart muslims already left the muslim world. Think about all the smart muslims you know. You probably know them in America or Europe.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Most people overlook the fact that Sunni Arab Muslims in the Middle East have not had a victorious army since Lawrence of Arabia in WW1, 100 years ago. Their borders were drawn by Britain and France. They lost to Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. Saddam Hussein built the biggest Sunni-led armed forces, marched them into Iran, lost to Iran’s Shia militias, and lost in 1991 and 2003. Afghans and Pakistanis were the main force against the Soviets. Civil war between Iraq’s Shia regime and Sunni rebels gave Islamic State the chance to lead fanatical fighters to victories that appeared swift and decisive. They gave some pride to Sunni Arabs despite Islamic State’s brutality. This has led Sunni Arabs from other lands to join Islamic State because Sunni Arabs want to win a war after 100 years.

Posted by carlmartel | Report as abusive

The alternative for the locals is to kill the clergy that preach the ideas behind the Islamic State. If they send their kids to pro-jihad schools and go to such clergy. They asked for what they got.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Abandon Islam. It’s bunk.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive