CURATED BY Zack Beauchamp
2014-10-01 14:29:56 -0400
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Reading the news of ISIS's conquests in Iraq and Syria, and even its recent foray into Lebanon, you might get the sense that ISIS is unstoppable. That it'll sweep Iraq, and really, truly, establish an extremist Islamic state in Iraq and eastern Syria.
This isn't true. ISIS is smarter and more effective than it used to be, and it's too strong to collapse on its own, but it's still quite vulnerable. The Iraqi government, with Kurdish and American help, really could make major inroads against ISIS.
In June, when ISIS was sweeping Iraq, there were panicked predictions that Baghdad was about to fall to ISIS's advance. It didn't. ISIS didn't even try to take the city, likely because it knew it couldn't dislodge the huge concentrations of Iraqi troops there — or hold a majority-Shia city that would never accept it.
Iraqi demographics place a natural limit on ISIS's advance. Even high-end estimates of ISIS's strength — 50,000 troops — make it much smaller than the Iraqi army or Kurdish peshmerga. It'd be impossible for ISIS to take and hold majority Shia areas, where they'd be totally unable to build popular support. The Islamic State's borders in Iraq are limited to northern and western, Arab-majority, Sunni-majority Iraq.
That's a damning problem for ISIS. All of the major oil wells, which provide 95 percent of Iraq's GDP, are in southern Iraq or Kurdish-held territory in the northeast. ISIS can't advance on the Shia south, and a joint US-Kurdish campaign is reversing its gains in Kurdistan. ISIS has huge financial reserves for a militant group — maybe up to $1 billion dollars. But that's a relatively small amount for a government, and any attempt to actually govern northwestern Iraq in the long run would lead to economic disaster.
"It'd be a permanent downward economic spiral — like Gaza, basically," Kirk Sowell, a risk analyst and Iraq expert, says. An ISIS mini-state is just not sustainable.
When you pair the inevitable economic crisis in ISIS-held Iraq with ISIS's brutal legal system, it seems like Sunnis will eventually tire of the group. That discontent may not be enough on its own to end the group's rule, especially if it still believes the Iraqi central government would be worse for them. But it creates an opening for Iraqi Prime Minister-delegate Haider al-Abadi to reach out to disaffected Sunnis. He might be able to make allies among Sunni tribal militias.
Meanwhile, ISIS may alienate some its core Iraqi allies: militias who support a Saddam-style Sunni dictatorship. They're generally secular and no fans of ISIS's vision of Islamic law, and are only allied with it to fight the government. If ISIS's Sunni allies turn against it, and the government does a better job making its rule look attractive, ISIS may lose the Sunni population — and most of its gains in northern Iraq. Again, that's not inevitable, and will require some tough political changes in Baghdad, but the point is that ISIS is far from invincible.
ISIS's hold in Syria, though, would be much, much harder to dislodge. It's hard to imagine either Assad or moderate anti-Assad rebels mounting an effective military campaign against ISIS in the near term. But rolling back ISIS in Iraq, and containing it to Syria, would be a major victory, though an incomplete one as it would leave ISIS with a chunk of Syria. Still, this would limit the group's reach in the Middle East and blunt its global appeal. And when Syria's civil war finally does end, whenever that happens, eliminating ISIS will be the winning side's first priority.
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