The press is full of alarmist news about the threat of the Islamic State (IS). Many of our clients have asked us what it means for business and supranational organisations in the region. Major General Robin Searby argues, from a military strategy perspective, that there is cause for optimism.
IS has learned much from its short-term and ill-fated territorial expansion in Iraq in 2006 which it achieved with the support of the local Iraqi Sunni population. When that support was lost, so was their new territory. This time they have established themselves as an effective governing organisation, headquartered in Al Raqaa, (Central Syria) under the authority of self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Illegal oil sales and other criminal activity provides the bulk of their funding, but there are allegations that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and a few wealthy citizens in the Gulf are also providing funds. In the late summer the capture of the regional capital of Mosul not only provided additional funds but also brought vast quantities of military equipment abandoned by Iraqi forces.
The key IS strength is the credibility of their image of invincibility and remorseless success. The psychological advantage they gain from this is further enhanced by the terror they strike through the ruthless treatment of those they capture. This aura of invincibility is a vital element of their campaign strategy. They want all Muslims, worldwide, to believe that God is with them, creating their victories. Their very slick media presentations are aimed solely at promoting an image of invincibility, Islam and iron discipline.
Despite the disciplined front they present in the media, it is clear that I S has little regard for the basic principles of military strategy. Their top two priorities are the collapse of the Assad regime and the Baghdad government. When they launched their major thrust towards Baghdad they had to maintain their tempo on the anti-Assad front. The dissipation of their forces in sideshows such as the seizure of Mount Sinjar, the assault towards Erbil and the capture of Kobane reveals major weaknesses in their campaigning strategy or possibly even a lack of discipline.
The scale of their military ambitions presents them with two threats. First, they require major logistics support: their lines of supply, over great distances across unprotected desert roads, are highly vulnerable to air attack – where they lack parity, let alone superiority. Second, they need a constant supply or ammunition and weaponry: once they have used up the assets seized from the retreating Iraqi army they will struggle to find new supplies or afford to fund them.
It looks as though coalition forces are now exploiting these threats by switching their attention to IS’s supply lines.
Their key strength, the aura of invincibility, is also a major vulnerability. It is only a strength as long as they are winning. Once they start losing battles, their aura of invincibility will be lost.
In addition to fighting an offensive war on many fronts they have to devote resources to sustaining their state administration. They are doing an awful lot, all at once.
The whole IS machinery is vulnerable. It has taken on too much too quickly, over too great an area and in too many directions simultaneously. Coalition air operations can significantly degrade IS’s ability to mount offensive operations, and without this momentum, they will be unable to maintain support. They need success to create further success, and every time they are defeated or repelled, the aura of invincibility is damaged.
The Middle East will remain a fundamental part of the global economy. Of course it is, and is likely to remain, a high risk region, but if staff are properly trained to cope with a hostile environment and given adequate protection where appropriate, there is no reason they cannot continue to help the local economies grow and prosper.
Author: General Searby
Major General Searby, a member of Hawki’s advisory board, is a leading expert on security matters in the Middle East and North Africa. He has been Defence Advisor to the Sultan of Oman and was Counter Terrorist adviser for North Africa and the Sahel for the UK Prime Minister until 2012.