By George Friedman
Ever since the end of British and French imperial power in the Arab world, there have been three fixed assumptions. The first was that Arab military forces were competent enough to fight indigenous forces, including those immediately contiguous to the Arab world, but could not defeat a Western style military, including the Israelis. The second assumption was that the primary purpose of Arab militaries was political. Their role was to protect the regime, or to become the regime, but they were not expected to wage conventional wars. The third assumption was that the primary method used by Arab forces in relation to external forces was terrorism, from hijacking aircraft to kidnapping targets and to direct attacks on targets, as happened in Paris. These attacks might be carried out by non-state actors or indirectly by governments supporting the non-state actors, but such attacks were the only means of inflicting violence on major powers.
The importance of Islamic State (IS) is that it challenges these assumptions, especially in the more conventional military operations conducted in Syria and Iraq, as well as the terror attacks being carried out under IS’ direct control. IS is an Arab force consisting of Sunni fighters that have taken and held territory on a broad scale, ranging from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to deep into central Syria. The group now controls up to 50 percent of Syria and 30 percent of Iraq. It makes and enforces laws, it collects taxes, it delivers social services and it maintains an army. In other words, the territory it holds, while it owns it, constitutes a new nation-state superimposed on a map drawn by the English and French almost a century ago.
The emergence of a new state in the Middle East is startling, but this is precisely what it intended: an Islamic State. It was created through military force and, therefore, the most important thing to consider in judging the future of the region is whether IS’ military force is more capable fundamentally than the Arab military forces we have seen in the past. This is not an easy task. One of the striking things about IS is how little we know. Direct information on numbers of effective fighters, types and amounts of weapons, command structure and communications is extraordinarily scarce. Estimates of the number of fighters it has range from 20,000 to several hundred thousand. It simply isn’t known. I would think, given the areas they now have to defend and region they control, that a number in excess of 100,000 is needed. Even a number this high, however, is not as impressive as the fact that there is no consensus as to how large their force is. This information might be known to U.S. and other intelligence services, but given their tendency to be surprised by IS and its difficulty in shutting down the command structure, my guess is that their own knowledge may be superior but still surprisingly limited. Therefore, there is a sophistication in IS’ counter-intelligence capabilities and what the Russians call Maskirova (Masquerade operations).
IS’ most striking capability is its ability to surprise states, carry out strategic attacks and seize and hold critical targets. For example, what might be considered one of its most important strategic moves was its seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city after Baghdad and Basra. On June 4 2014, IS forces attacked Mosul and fully occupied it within four days of fighting, apparently without intelligence warning to the defenders. The Iraqi forces defending Mosul collapsed and in spite of the threat Mosul poses to the Kurds, their forces have not been able to drive IS from the city. This was not the only surprise attack. The attack on Ramadi, a strategic point on the road linking Iraq to Syria, fell in May 2015 and by all appearances surprised American and Iraqi intelligence. Furthermore, in May 2015 the city of Palmyra in central Syria fell to IS, in a more prolonged battle. None of these cities have been retaken yet. That means that IS has conducted successful military operations from Mosul to Palmyra, a distance of over 300 miles.
The second most impressive fact about IS is that it has been defeated a number of times in serious battles, the latest in Hasakah province in Syria and Sinjar in Iraq, against Kurdish forces. The defenders did not unravel, the retreat does not appear to have been chaotic and the breakthrough was contained. The vision of Arab armies —although it was an extreme case — was June 1967, when Israeli attacks caused the Egyptian command structure to collapse, and while there were a series of static defenses thrown up, Israel easily overcame them. While that was an extreme case, and the Iraqi army fought tenaciously if not always effectively against the Iranians, there has always been a question about the professionalism of Arab armies. The best test of the professionalism of a force is how well it manages defeat. Consider the case of Bastogne, when an American intelligence failure and poor deployment of forces allowed the Germans to send the Americans into panicky retreat that might have led to collapse in some armies. The American 101st Division held at Bastogne, with an organized and professional defense, blocked German supply lines and held until relieved. This was the height of professionalism. The Egyptians in 1967 were the height of incompetence. There has been no Bastogne for IS, but there has been nothing approximating 1967 in Egypt either.
IS has proven capable of startling surprise on the offensive, managing fairly large formations in urban environments, which isn’t easy. It has absorbed defeat, withdrawn, regrouped and counterattacked at another location on a number of occasions. Whatever you think of its ideology and behavior, it has retained control of the areas it has occupied, and there are few indications of significant insurgencies against its control. Thus, it can not only defeat an enemy army, but it has shown that it can ruthlessly impose its will on occupied areas, both mobilizing support and crushing resistance.
The third most impressive part of IS is logistical. It has forces fighting on an east-west axis of about 300 miles, and a wide but varying north south axis. Assuming it has 100,000 troops, they need to be supplied with food, weapons and ammunition. Obviously some of it can be acquired locally, although even locally, looted food has to be distributed and in some areas water delivered. If they are operating their force solely on captured food and equipment that is in itself impressive. At the very least it means they have some well trained troops and technicians distributed around their periphery to utilize the anti-tank weapons they have used. If they are moving equipment around their battle space under air attack to reach forces located at all distances, which must be the case to some extent, this is an even more impressive capability.
In other words, to this point, IS is unlike other modern Arab armies, in their training, motivation, command and the other elements that modern warfare requires. One of the questions is where they gained such sophistication. It is said that Sunni officers from Saddam’s army trained them. That is not a persuasive explanation for two reasons. First, Saddam’s army was not this impressive. Second, a group of officers is necessary to lead and organize an army, but they can’t train 100,000 men, or 20,000 for that matter. For that you need a full array of ranks, and particularly non-commissioned officers, since training recruits is a hands-on process. Who trained the trainers?
Secondly, where were they trained? Assume the smallest number mentioned — 20,000. Training an army of 20,000 has to be done somewhere. They may not have been trained at the same time but they had to be trained quickly, as IS must always live in fear of detection and destruction before they are fully trained, equipped and deployed. A facility of that size needed to train 20,000 would be readily noted by satellite and other reconnaissance. Training facilities for 100,000 would be huge, or many scattered.
It is startling that no one spotted them. They may have been gathered from existing forces but I know of no existing Arab forces that have the skills IS has shown at every level of operations. There are constant rumors of some other country training them, ranging from some Persian Gulf State to Turkey to even the United States. The problem all of these theories have is that hiding training facilities of this size is tough, keeping 20,000 trainees silent and their families wondering where they are quiet, is very unusual. There is no obvious answer where they originated. And that is simply one other piece of evidence pointing to some very smart people working for them.
It is clear that IS have now come under pressure on the battlefield. At the same time they are far from broken. Yet, they have responded in an interesting way, carrying out terrorist strikes in Lebanon, Sharm el-Sheikh (the Russian airliner), Paris, and throwing Brussels into panic over intelligence about strikes there. Leaving aside the Mali attack whose relation to IS is not clear. IS in a short period of time ordered and executed attacks against the French and Russians, who entered the Syrian war about six weeks ago, and against Lebanese Shiites, aligned with another enemy, Iran. Carrying out varied operations that were widely dispersed indicates that along with a capable military, IS has a terrorism command with substantial personnel and resources to develop and execute operations in three continents in a matter of weeks.
IS is noticed because of the viciousness of its behavior toward captives. IS uses this to intimidate occupied territories and likely Westerners. It is also hiding, in plain site, a substantial military capability that has created a state — not a mini-state but a state – on a good chunk of the territory of Syria and Iraq. In addition, it has carried out complex terrorist operations at the same time.
The French have suggested that they are in a state of war with IS. There has never been a case where war was declared on a non-state actor. But the case I am making is that IS is not a non-state actor. It is a state, conducting war on multiple fronts and using terrorism as its equivalent of air strikes. In short, in this case, the French are right. Only by treating IS as a state and declaring war can the psychological barriers on what must be done be broken. And only by treating terrorists as what they are in this case — soldiers out of uniform and with hidden arms — in other words not protected by the Geneva Convention, but rather by tradition subject to rapid court martial, can we move away from the idea that this is a criminal investigation. This is war against a competent military, the creation of a new state, and it is using methods forbidden by the Geneva Convention for waging war.
In contrast, the war on al-Qaida was fought without anyone figuring out if it was war or a crime, very different things conceptually and legally. This time there is no ambiguity. IS is a state, it is at war, and it conducts operations out of uniform. Also, they are very good at what they do.