The Royal Australian Air Force and Special Air Service are involved in a US-led coalition that is seeking to ‘disrupt and degrade’, in US President Obama’s words, the Islamic State (IS). Australia’s commitment is fairly minimal. The air force is bombing targets in Iraq and the SAS—not yet deployed—will train and assist Iraqi forces, but not actually fight. While this blogger isn’t particularly opposed to military interventions that either advance or defend the national interest, I would argue that this particular intervention does neither, beyond alliance maintenance. As such, I think it is a waste of time, money and, possibly, lives.
Before I get to the wisdom of the Australian commitment, I will discuss the threat posed by IS and the reason for American intervention.
What is IS?
IS used to be known as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and, before that, as Islamic State in Iraq (before it joined the Syrian civil war). It was al-qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (and, later, Syria), but ideological and personal differences between the ISIL and al-qaeda leadership saw the former ejected from the latter.
In June this year, ISIL announced the formation of a new Islamic caliphate in areas under its control, which span the Iraq–Syria border. It shortened its name to Islamic State, in part because the border between Syria and Iraq (and even the name Syria) is a colonial imposition.
Why won’t it last?
Notwithstanding its military successes and slick media presence (the reason, in part, so many people know about it, despite it being only one of over 1500 militias active in Syria), IS does not pose the long-term threat that media suggest; its (lack of) longevity is tied to its recruitment methods and fighting ability, and its lack of constituency.
Most IS fighters are not from the areas that IS controls. Indeed, many IS fighters are from other countries, including Australia. However, Australian and other international jihadis have fought with plenty of different groups in Syria; they flock to who they think is winning. Moreover, IS is able to pay its fighters because of all the gold and money it obtained when it overran Iraqi banks earlier this year. Jihadi doctrine aside, being able to pay one’s fighters is an important recruiting agent among Syrian-based militias. If and when Islamic State starts to lose (or lose the ability to pay its fighters), its fighters will desert.
Although IS has scored some impressive military victories, including against the Iraqi army, it remains that most of the people it fights are poorly disciplined, poorly trained and poorly armed. The Iraqi army fits two of these categories. If IS were to come up against a well-trained army, it would not win. That is why it is having trouble overcoming Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq), as these forces are highly disciplined and motivated.
Most importantly, IS lacks constituency. It has imposed its rule on its subjects, and kills or enslaves anyone who outwardly disagrees with it, or who is not a Sunni Arab. And while it is attempting to win hearts and minds among Sunni Arabs in the short term (such as by supplying law and order, reconstruction of infrastructure, education (according to its strict Islamist interpretation) and social services, IS offers nothing in the long term. Crushing restrictions on the way of life lead to economic and social ruin. If IS manages to hold its territory for a couple of years, it will turn it into Afghanistan under the Taliban. IS’s constituents will eventually get sick of IS control, and will either rise against it, or back a party that looks like it could defeat it.
Indeed, one of the reasons IS has short-term support (from Sunni Arabs) in areas under its control is because people in these situations tend to back the winners. You’re not going to back a losing militia (even if you’d like it to win) if, because you backed that party, you will be killed, or have your land taken from you. IS will have surface-level support from locals for as long as it is winning. As soon as a different group with the will and capability to defeat IS comes against it—whether it be a secular Syrian militia, a foreign army or another Islamist militia—popular support (and fighters) will leave IS. This lack of natural constituency (and the fact that its severe form of ruling will breed resentment) is the biggest weakness of IS, which is why it will not last.
Why is the US intervening?
IS is not on the cusp of over-running the Iraqi capital or winning the Syrian civil war. And it had scored impressive military victories in both countries long before the US decision to intervene. Moreover, the US knows degrading and destroying IS will not end the Syrian civil war; if and when IS is defeated, other jihadi groups will fill the vacuum. Indeed, it’s not even about IS victories in Iraq—IS’s successes in Iraq is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is a very badly-managed central government that alienated many Iraqis. Getting rid of IS will not solve Iraq’s problems.
So, what prompted the US decision? There are two reasons. The first, and the one that actually sparked the intervention, is because IS starting chopping off American heads.
The second relates to the bigger picture. The members of the Status Quo Bloc have been extraordinarily upset with US Middle East policy over the last couple of years, because of softening policies in regards to the Resistance Bloc and hardening policies in regards to the Status Quo Bloc. (A proper examination would take an entire post, not one paragraph, but quick examples are the perceived ignoring of the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, attempts at reconciliation with Iran since that time, turning away from Egypt’s Mubarak during the January 2011 revolution and the harsh response to the counter-revolution that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power, and its dropping of red lines in regards to the Syrian Government’s actions in that country’s civil war.) I would note that the Status Quo Bloc consists of the US’s friends in the Middle East, who look to Washington to guarantee their security, and have been increasingly concerned about the future. Read this post to understand the Middle East’s big picture.
And while the members of the Status Quo Bloc still rate Iran’s march toward nuclear capability as their biggest threat, they have been frightened by IS successes due to the popularity of Islamism throughout much of the Sunni Middle East. If IS kept on growing, it could destabilise Jordan, and it might earn the loyalty of more and more Arabs, thus potentially threatening some of the Status Quo monarchies/dictatorships with internal Islamist rumblings. (As in support for hamas, popularity for the group tends to be higher among those people that don’t have to live under its yoke.)
By taking action against IS, and by strong-arming the Arab states into officially and (in some cases actually) taking part of this coalition, the US is shoring up its support among the members of the Status Quo Bloc. The US is saying, ‘we are still the guarantor Middle East security, and you Arab states still need us.’ The Status Quo states have been pleading with the US to deal with IS, and now the US has listened to them.
Should Australia be participating?
But why is Australia participating? IS does not threaten Australia. Yes, Australian jihadis fighting with IS might return to Australia, further radicalised and up-skilled. But if IS wasn’t there, Australian jihadis could (and do) join other groups. It is in Australia’s interests to maintain our alliance with the US, and this is why Australia is involved. That said, I believe Australia could have gotten out of this war. Unlike a Labor government, which may feel it would have to prove its loyalty to the alliance with the US, a Liberal government does not have to. It could have been argued relatively easily that we’ve done our time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now it’s time to consolidate the budget, etc. Moreover, unlike other US interventions—such as 2003—the US is not struggling for credibility this time. In 2003, not many Western countries wanted to be part of the US invasion of Iraq, and it was important to the US that Australia was involved. That is not the case this time. Australia could have sent over a few dozen advisers and left it at that, but sending over warplanes is a rather large budgetary commitment. I believe that in weighing up the pros and cons of Australia’s involvement, the cons easily outweigh the pros.