(Republished from 2015)
Say whatever you like about ISIS, but for most of us, nearly everyone, ISIS is little more than a bunch of guys who have taken over a desert. They manage to poke the west in the eye every so often, and the response is always the predictable assortment of bombs, rhetoric and underlying lack of coordination between parties who if they really wanted ISIS gone, they would form a coalition and go in and get rid of them.
This hasn’t happened.
ISIS need a few things to survive. They need weapons, they need to sell their oil, and its very likely they need a lot of additional funding. These all come from, or go to, places outside their area of control. That implies complicity on the part of others who either sympathise or benefit from dealing with them. None of this is any surprise. And if you take any of the above support away from ISIS, they would quickly evaporate. But easier said than done. They key element here is weapons and ammunition – militants need plenty of these. They have to come from somewhere.
So the next step is working out who is supporting ISIS from the outside, and why. The weapons that pour into the ISIS controlled area have to come through a coordinated logistical supply network – and these are expensive and hard to maintain. And, in theory, given that the terrain that ISIS holds, and the fact that they are not on the move – should be well known. For any nation with an effective strike capability, targeting these supply lines is one of the most simple ways of weakening them. ISIS could be defeated quickly if these were severed.
So where from, and why?
If you look at the countries surrounding the Syrian desert, you have Iraq, Jordan, Syria itself, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey.
To look at each country in turn:
Iraq – They have their own ISIS problem, so they are in a similar position to Syria when it comes to the question of where the weapons are flowing from. It has to be from a non ISIS controlled area – either the south through Iraq, which is unlikely – the supply lines run through unfriendly territory for ISIS. To the northwest along the Jordanian border however is a likely route – Saudi is a tacit supporter of ISIS and ISIS controls the road down to the border through Iraq. So yes, Iraq indirectly is one possible supply line.
Jordan – not directly, but as above, an inlet through which Saudi can import arms.
Israel – I dont think anyone seriously believes that Israel is supporting ISIS. They are interested in a contained middle east that poses no threat to them, but apart from conspiracy theories, not really much chance.
Lebanon – No chance. They are a strong supporter of Syria.
Turkey – with the shortest route to areas under direct ISIS control, and the complicity of the Turkish government, this is where the majority of the arms are coming from.
But why? Why would a NATO member support what is by all measures one of NATO’s perceived largest threats?
To start with, there is a lot of nuance in this situation – forget “Good guys” and “Bad guys” – it is more about regional claims, religion, state actors, and power. Firstly Syria – it wants to cling onto its territory. If Assad falls, there is a good case to be made that the country will disintegrate – the Kurds will claim a chunk, the Alawites, and others will go for theirs, and the country will likely remain in a state of chaos until a strong government once again gets into power. But the key thing to this is the idea of a strong government. Western style democracy in the case of Iraq has been shown to be weak in terms of governance and control – its not like different tribes want to peacefully coexist there – they are all out for settling scores – and that means continual conflict.
Turkey wants Assad gone, no matter the consequences. And this is the part where ISIS comes back in. If ISIS can be controlled – to the degree that they are effectively doing someone else’s bidding, and this is what appears to be happening, then collateral damage, as long as it is not in the sponsor’s country, is acceptable. Dont try and convince France, or Russia, or Lebanon of that, but Turkey seems to be allowing, if not abetting this.
So ISIS seems to me at least to be the weapon of choice for Turkey to pursue its ends in the middle east. Duplicitous in the extreme, myopic in its focus, but in terms of achieving a goal of keeping Syria in perpetual chaos, quite effective.
It will eventually backfire – unintended consequences usually change the form of any battle where many players have competing aims, but one side will emerge as the victor eventually there. We have no idea who. It’s like any demon – we think we can tame it, but if we keep feeding it, it will come back to bite us. It is a mirage, but given enough time and energy, could solidify and pose a real threat. Their supporters, just like the rest of us, had better be aware that if they do become a real force then they are to be feared. Currently however, they are a balloon, with messages of hate scribbled all over them, but incapable of survival without support from outside. It may change, for better or for worse, but currently they are an artificial demon, summoned in support of someone else’s cynical purpose. We run the real risk of turning them into a fighting force. Currently they live in the desert, they may not stay there.