CURATED BY Zack Beauchamp
2014-10-01 14:29:56 -0400
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You occasionally hear, especially from supporters of the Obama administration's cautious policy, that ISIS will eventually destroy itself. ISIS's view of Islamic law is so harsh that no population would want to live under it for long, so a Sunni revolt against ISIS is inevitable. And ISIS will overreach: its desire to expand to new territory exceeds its actual military power, meaning that a devastating counterattack is inevitable.
This is certainly possible. But ISIS is not headed in that direction yet. That's because ISIS is both smarter and stronger than many people give it credit for.
ISIS learned from the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, its predecessor group. Though ISIS still insists on imposing its extremist interpretation of Islamic law in the territory it controls, it also sets up institutions that look a lot like a proto-government. They've installed health care clinics, run public forums where ISIS operatives socialize with adults, held activities for children, policed neighborhoods, and collected taxes.
The point of this, Washington Institute fellow Aaron Zelin wrote in September 2013, is to "lay the groundwork for a future Islamic state by gradually socializing Syrians to the concept." According to Zelin, "ISIS has shown that it wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that its predecessors made in Iraq." Since occupying Mosul in June, Iraq's second-largest city, ISIS's behavior has been similar (though not identical).
ISIS, then, is balancing its ideological desire to be brutal against its strategic imperative to maintain the support of local populations. It's still as evil as it always was — just smarter about it.
To make matters worse, ISIS has never been stronger in military terms. The incorporation of former officers with Saddam-era Iraq, plus years of fighting in Syria, has made ISIS more tactically astute than most of its battlefield opponents. In June, it captured enormous amounts of advanced American weaponry dropped by the retreating Iraqi army. And its ranks have swelled in the wake of all of its victories: one estimate, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed that ISIS recruited 6,000 fighters in July 2014 alone. That's obviously a ballpark estimate, but it almost certainly reflects real growth inside ISIS.
The bottom line: ISIS does not appear at all bound to simply fall apart on its own. To defeat the group, Iraqis and Syrians would need to do something done to separate ISIS from its base of support in Iraq and Syria. And ISIS needs to be broken on the battlefield, if only to stop the recruiting drive created by its aura of invincibility.
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