Why Isis won't actually be the huge threat of 2016

If Isis cannot keep order, if it cannot delegate power when it moves on, then its authority may wane

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The Independent Online

Viewed from a Western perspective, 2015 was defined by the predations of Isis. The year opened with killings in Paris, and it drew to a close with attacks on youth and pleasure in the same city. In between, Western tourists, many of them British, were gunned down in Tunisia; in Syria, what remained of the classical city Palmyra was ravaged; and a Russian tourist flight crashed in Sinai, believed to have been brought down by a bomb.

Each new atrocity prompted a fresh amplification of alarmist rhetoric. After the Tunisia attacks in June, David Cameron described the fight against Isis as the “struggle of our generation”, stating the terrorist group presented an “existential threat” to the West. When MPs voted to extend anti-Isis air strikes to Syria earlier this month, their speeches were peppered with references to fascism. Before the Russians sent their air force into action in Syria, President Putin called for a broad international alliance, such as the one that had defeated Hitler.

There was the inevitable fear of a fifth column, too. As many as 2,000 young Britons had become warriors or brides for the Isis cause, we were told – even though the number of jihadis remains proportionally tiny. The war had to be waged here as well – with travel bans, withdrawn passports, deterrent prison sentences, and millions more pounds for enhanced surveillance.

So we enter 2016 with the barbarians of our day at the gates, even within our city walls. But are they really? And what might it mean for UK and Western policy generally if they weren’t?

Take another look at the evidence. In the dying days of this year, Iraq’s apology for an army has managed to send Isis packing from the city of Ramadi (with Western air support, admittedly). The city was considered safe enough for the country’s Prime Minister to visit. Other Isis strongholds will probably be harder to spring. The biggest trophy would be Mosul, as it was when Isis overran it with such apparent ease 18 months ago. But that is to rush ahead.

The significance of one victory should not be exaggerated; it would be reckless to argue that the tide has turned, that the great sweep of Isis across the Middle East has been forced into reverse. Isis had held Ramadi only since May. But what has happened should give pause to all those who have peddled the idea of Isis as an all-conquering force – that “existential threat” – that must be fought with all our might.

How come Isis – or Islamic State, or Isil, or Daesh – has Western governments in such thrall? Some reasons were sound. There was the impressive speed of its advance over the past two years. There was the strength of its ideas. And there was the ruthless genius of its propaganda, which used modern technology to shock Western opinion by means of gruesome videos of beheadings. There was its offer, too – which appealed to some young Westerners – of a cause that demanded sacrifice, in return, perhaps, for an eternal reward.

Such a picture, however, ignores its weaknesses. The ideology behind Isis is medieval, even pre-medieval. Many of its ways are barbaric. Developed countries are happy to have left them behind; many others are fighting to do the same. Ancient and modern can only be combined so far. Is it realistic to believe – still less fear – that Isis will endure?

And how cohesive is Isis anyway? How wide its actual reach? Isis did not, in fact, claim the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January – a Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliate demanded the “honours” here. Does Isis have a command structure that is capable of directly ordering such atrocities as the Paris attacks? And what of the supposed groups subordinate to its authority in Libya, Tunisia, even Kenya? Perhaps the dreaded “Isis”, like al-Qaeda before it, is more of a label that extremist groups adopt to be feared in the timorous West?

Its fanatical ideology may not, importantly, even be its chief source of appeal. Isis prospered in Iraq, largely as a result of Western failures. The US and UK left widespread disorder after they toppled Saddam Hussein; Isis moved in offering security, albeit of a primitive kind. The US and UK dispossessed the once-dominant Sunnis; Isis offered them a way back. Similarly in Syria and elsewhere, the appeal of Isis, such as it is, reflects a quest for order and revenge quite as much as a religious idea.

Which suggests where the limits of Isis’s power might lie. If it cannot keep order, if it cannot delegate power when it moves on, then its authority may wane. Military force is not necessarily the key to its defeat, just as it was not the only key to its victory. When Mosul changed hands in 2014, it was reported to be largely by consent.  

However, even if Isis is past its peak, the West is not out of the woods; nor indeed is Russia. So much of a bogeyman has Isis become, that it is now almost an indispensable component of foreign policy. It has given a host of outsiders a pretext for intervention in the Middle East – the real purpose of which is less to defeat this detestable, and still morphing, movement than to keep a stake in the unresolved power-play in the Middle East.

The fixation on Isis has directly damaging consequences: it blinds Western governments to regional shifts that could be even more problematic, such as the 30-year Sunni revolt. At home, it allows the UK and France to blame others for their patchy success in integrating a generation of Muslims. 

Here are the barbarians we would have to invent if they did not exist. Isis is not the first monster enemy to be harnessed to the cause of flailing governments, but its defeat in Ramadi should encourage it to be seen with a new sense of proportion.