Franchises of al Qaeda, chiefly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), seek to foment Shia-Sunni warfare in the region and, amid the ruins, establish control over western Iraq and parts of Syria. It then seeks to coalesce a Syrian-Iraqi region with other regions in the Islamic world stretching from Mali to Afghanistan. These distinct “ink spots,” they hope (if quixotically), will expand and reestablish a unified Islamic empire. Recent events in both Syria and Iraq call into question the viability of ISIL control over the ink spots of major cities. Indeed, the movement may find itself facing sizable desertions as defeat weakens its image of divine favor and inevitable victory.
Two options stand out. First, ISIL could react to the ill-will it has created in cities it came to govern by moderating its brutal and alienating administration, ending harsh punishment for smokers, beardless men, and women they deem immodest. This, however, would require abandoning a key part of the disciplinary code which energizes its fighting groups and support networks and which constitutes a basis of the future they envision. ISIL and kindred franchises will likely see recent poor fortunes as transitory and as tests of faith. If anything, al Qaeda groups may treat even more harshly with the hapless people who fall under their control until the latter show proper fealty and piety.
Second, ISIL and kindred groups such as the al Nusra Front may reduce their urban presence to dedicated neighborhoods and cooperate more closely in controlling non-urban areas on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, where they can rebuild before striking out against major cities on both sides of the border. Three problems are clear. First, al Qaeda commanders are ambitious men who see themselves acting in accordance with God’s will, and one commander’s vision of the right path will almost certainly conflict with those of rivals, limiting cooperation among franchises. Second, the region will also be claimed – and fought for – by less zealous Sunni groups from Syria and Iraq who seek to establish their own separatist region free of Baghdad, Damascus, and Islamist extremism. Third, al Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri, perhaps fearful of a power center outside his control, has twice spoken out against unifying ISIL and al Nusra, though impending tactical defeats may cause him to rethink the issue.
© 2014 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, author of The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic.