Potential Russia and US coalition will not defeat ISIS

Written 18 December 2015

Although I still think it is unlikely, I may have been wrong about my latest prediction that a coalition between the West and Russia will fail to formalize. My analysis concluded there are too many competing interests for such a coalition to be made, and ISIS will strengthen in the meantime. So it seems as if an anti-ISIS coalition will eventually succeed in defeating the group. This, however, seems quite unlikely.

ISIS has found support for many reasons, but chief among them is their presentation of an alternative to the repressive Shia-led governments of Syria and Iraq. It would be inconceivable to say that most of the population within their domain is fully on their side, but ISIS is not targeting Sunnis like the governments of Nuri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, ISIS is actively fighting the governments of Iraq and Syria while the rest of the world largely stand idly by. ISIS is a defender of Sunni interests, in the eyes of many of their subjects, and is a much better alternative to any other force.

The problem with the United States acceding to Russian demands in its efforts to defeat ISIS is that in such a coalition, the US would in effect (although not in practice) ally itself with the Shia governments in the region. Conspiracy theories that the US, along with Russia, Israel, and the Shia are plotting the destruction of Sunni Muslims (an untrue theory) would run amok in the Sunni world. In such a case, ISIS will win a huge propaganda victory and the narrative that Osama bin Laden promoted for over two decades would seem ever more true. Tens of thousands of Sunnis throughout the Muslim world will declare allegiance to ISIS and either begin attacks in their homelands or flock to join the group in Iraq and Syria.

Part of ISIS’s strategy is to create nodes of conflict throughout the Islamic world both to gain territory for their own state, but also as an investment for the future. If ISIS loses its core terrain (which seems increasingly unlikely), then the group could move its operations to Libya or Afghanistan, where they already hold ground. Furthermore, this strategy also gives a major headache to those seeking to defeat the group as it would stretch their resources between several Muslim countries, a strategy originally devised by al-Qaeda. All the while, ISIS would be seen more and more as a legitimate force as a coalition of global non-Sunni forces join to defeat the group.

Furthermore, a core part of ISIS’s strategy is its eschatology. In its propaganda, ISIS makes frequent references to the Islamic end days, where a coalition of 80 nations join to defeat “true Muslims” before they are ultimately defeated at the Battle of Dabiq (a town which they control) and the Mahdi comes. Creating a coalition with Russia will only further engender the eschatological beliefs of those who are prone to ISIS propaganda and strengthen the group’s propaganda message. With this in mind, it should be obvious that those who have pledged allegiance to ISIS will willingly die by the thousands, but that will only strengthen them.

Therefore, the attempt to create an agreement with Russia to defeat ISIS will prove to be a major mistake. There are very few good options available, but this is by far the worst. Not only are we strengthening ISIS, but we are also strengthening Putin’s hand as he tries to take a sliver of the Middle East’s oil and threaten Saudi Arabia — with whom they are waging an energy war. Bearing in mind that I am only an armchair strategist, the only strategy which would work is a drive by Sunni forces to take ISIS territory. However, with Russia in the region, and the West reluctant to help its Sunni allies, I can only foresee ISIS growing and becoming more formidable (God forbid).