Brian M Downing
Mosul and Raqqa will soon fall, leaving ISIL with no major cities, only a few towns in the thinly-populated expanses of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Its bold claim to be an ever-victorious army conquering vast lands across the Middle East for the new caliphate is becoming more fanciful with the loss of every neighborhood.
The hope in many quarters is that defeat will undermine ISIL’s credibility with potential recruits. Numbers will dwindle and the once fearsome army will recede into irrelevance. In a few decades ISIL will be almost as forgotten as the apocalyptic bands of medieval Europe, which it parallels in many ways.
This hope is as fanciful as ISIL’s claims of restoring the glory of an Islamic past. Defeats are interpreted in very different ways. The Alamo and Pearl Harbor, to the surprise and dismay of Santa Ana and Tojo, bolstered support for wars. The British debacle that led to Dunkirk has been recently commemorated in film. Defeat can be inspiring, the defeated can be admired as martyrs in a noble but lost cause. Dark realities of the Middle East make this likely with ISIL’s defeats.
Prosperity and improved healthcare has brought higher fertility and lower mortality rates to the Middle East. The result is an immense bulge in the youth population. Over sixty percent of the Islamic world is under thirty. Many are reasonably educated and try to eke out livings in urban areas. The men face poor employment prospects and fear they will never have the means to attract wives and start a family.
Petrodollar largesse created illusions of mobility and self-worth but oil and gas prices are low and expected to be sluggish for the foreseeable future. Opportunity is at a new low, rootlessness isn’t.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are beginning ambitious plans to build industry and jobs – a remarkable undertaking that should have begun decades ago. Payoffs in economic diversification and greater employment are far away. Whatever boom lies ahead, it is unlikely to be so robust as to absorb and placate the huge youth cohort that mills about cities. No boom in history, including the ones attendant to World War Two, could accomplish that. In any case, the programs are likely to benefit families and friends of elites far more than the countries’ subjects.
With the exception of Jordan and Tunisia, the Islamic world is governed by monarchal cliques or military-corporate oligarchies. Wealth is highly concentrated, more by the hands of grasping cronyism than by the unseen ones of market forces.
Privilege aside, rulers are seen as corrupt and decadent. Their displays of piety at mosques and hospitals are lifeless tropes. Over the years kings and emirs have aligned with the western governments they purport to oppose – all the more so with the recent coalition against Iran. Western troops are increasingly present in the region, though less openly as in the past. Most galling is the presence of Israel in the coalition.
The Sunni powers are increasing efforts to stamp out the Muslim Brotherhood – the large transnational organization that opposes monarchy and supports more open political processes, as long as they work to the Brotherhood’s advantage. Repression is well underway in Egypt, with the predictable outcome of splinter groups joining ISIL and al Qaeda in the lawless Sinai. Similar efforts may be forthcoming in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies.
Romantic views of warfare and heroism pervade most cultures. Poems and stories are rich with images of valiant Muslims defeating European crusaders. They merged with the yarns recounted by veterans of the mujahideen guerrilla bands that defeated the Russians in Afghanistan. ISIL fighters are often deemed as honorable parts of that long tradition.
ISIL’s armies caused the corrupt and uninspired regional forces to flee. Rulers trembled. Instead of reforming and winning popular support, kings and emirs pleaded with the United States for help. It was foreign weapons, advisors, and airstrikes that stopped ISIL. And despite tremendous advantages in arms and numbers, government forces took over eight months to defeat ISIL in Mosul.
This narrative will prove useful in recruiting new young men whose poor prospects and bitter hostility resonate with apocalyptic visions of heroic conquest and pitiless slaughter. The martyrs of Mosul and Raqqa must be avenged. Faithless rulers must tremble once again, and this time fall. So the narrative will go. It may be as accurate an account of the ISIL War as those from Middle-Eastern rulers.
1 See “Hearts of darkness along the Tigris and Euphrates” Downing Reports October 15, 2015.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.