The Islamic State’s motto may be “remaining and expanding”, but lately they haven’t been having too much success with that. Their advance in Iraq was halted by Iranian backed militias and US airstrikes, and they have been pushed back in the north by the Kurds. Even the Iraqi army has been getting back into action in the IS held city of Tikrit, though they’ve been taking heavy casualities. In Syria they’ve still got the ‘remaining’ part together, but their invincible image was dented by their failure to expand into the crucial town of Kobane. So is Islamic State on the back foot? Well not entirely…
Looking at their stunning rise over the summer, it is clear that what Islamic State thrives on is division, instability, and alienation. In both Syria and Iraq they found divided countries, destabilised by civil conflict, and where the Sunni population was deeply disenfranchised and frustrated with the Shi’a government – the perfect soil for their jihadist seed to flourish. However, the chance that they would push on to take Baghdad was in retrospect small. The city is majority Shi’a, and they would either have to be massacred or expelled in their millions. What’s more, Iran and the United States would not have let Baghdad fall, as that would have been far too great a blow to their prestige and interests. So while IS may be remaining in parts of Iraq and Syria, it will have to expand somewhere else. And their sights are set on Yemen and Libya
IS seem to have made their presence felt in Yemen this week, with a horrific attack on a Shi’a mosque which killed over a hundred worshippers. While the US has cast doubt on their claim of responsibility, it does fit their tactic of massive attacks on Shi’a religious sites. The attack indicates IS may be taking advantage of the utter chaos in Yemen, where at least two Sunni militant groups, moderate Sunnis, Shi’a militants, the ‘official’ government, the former president and southern sessionists are fighting it out. After the government was deposed by the Shi’a Houthis, the country has all the conditions that allowed for such quick growth in Iraq and Syria – but what it lacks is the chance of foreign intervention. More on that later.
Libya is in a similarly violent situation, with around five differences forces claiming parts of the country, and all of them backed by numerous militias. There is no doubt that Islamic State is already on the ground, controlling the city of Derna. While they aren’t the biggest Islamist group in Libya, they are led by veterans of the Syrian Civil War, and they will benefit from the prestige of the IS name. What may hamper the rise of IS here is that the country is almost completely Sunni, with no oppressive Shi’a government to cause alienation. However, if IS can manage to present themselves as a force that can bring an end to the constant fighting, they may be able to expand further.
Unfortunately for Yemen and Libya, what is missing is the chance of outside intervention. The US even removed its last special forces soldiers from Yemen this week. In both countries there is no clearly legitimate government that the West or Arab League would be able to support if they wanted to combat IS. They would be simply intervening in an extremely complex civil war, and would become just another faction. The US tried intervening in an equally complex civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s – it didn’t go well. There is also simply not a strong enough interest for the US, Arab League or Iran to want to protect in Yemen or Libya. Iraq is worth the cost, Yemen and Libya are not. Islamic State looks set to continue its expansion in the world most unstable countries.