The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is ultimately a theocratic dictatorship, and like almost all dictatorships past and present, the security of its rulers is insured by an elite military force lavished with resources and chosen for its loyalty. In the case of ISIS, this is an elite brigade of about 4,000 troops called the "Shield of Islam" which is heavy with foreign fighters of whom the Chechens are particularly feared.
Apparently, the behind the scenes strategy of the U.S. and many of its allies in the air power and special forces oriented fight against ISIS is to destroy the Shield of Islam on the theory that if this unit that plays a central role in securing the authority and power base of the regime is destroyed or experiences major desertions, that the regime too will soon fall.
This may or may not work, but it is the most sensible strategy I've heard yet. It shows real promise of felling the ISIS regime.
But, it does have one serious problem. What if it succeeds?
We still have no back up plan for when the regime collapses.
There does not appear to be any serious organic resistance movement within ISIS controlled territory that could be installed as the legitimate government of these territories if ISIS were to collapse from the top down.
We have not offered the people now ruled by ISIS no alternative regime to offer them but the rump regimes of non-Kurdish, non-Sunni Iraq, and loyalist Syria which perpetrates horrors on its own citizens in a truly gruesome civil war that has displaced half of the nation's population.
Given those choices, people now ruled by ISIS may be willing to tolerate the abominations imposed by ISIS on that theory that the ISIS regime, like the theocracy in Iran, may eventually moderate itself, and that ISIS at least offers them a nation-state and some measure of self-determination, rather what appears to them to involve perpetual subordination to factions that hate them in a multi-ethnic state.
Non-Kurdish Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria have no interest in being ruled by regimes controlled by Shiites or Kurds. This didn't work out for them in either Iraq or Syria in the recent past, and neither the rump regimes in these countries, nor the U.S. and its allies, have given them any reason to hope for better if ISIS collapses. A substantial minority of Sunni Arabs in both places are exiles from Shiite and Kurdish dominated areas of Iraq who were driven out in U.S. tolerated ethnic cleansing campaigns by paramilitary sectarian private militias during the Iraq War. The memory is lost to no one. And, Iraq demonstrated dramatically in the fall of Ramadi, that Shiite Iraqi troops are not willing to risk their lives, even when they vastly outnumber their opponents, to reclaim Sunni Arab territory populated by people whom they presume will be disloyal to Iraq if Iraq could have managed to hold this city.
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As an aside, another truly remarkable development also related to the Chechens who figure so prominently in the Shield of Islam brigade that imposes the iron hand of the ISIS regime on its people and territory and other troops, has taken place.
Russia went to the mat in a brutal counterinsurgency against Chechen rebels not so long ago. But, rather than decapitate the Chechen insurgency, they identified one of the strongest rebel sympathizing moderate political leaders and cut a deal with him. In exchange for loyalty to Russian and to Vladamir Putin personally, they could get autonomy and earn respect as the Russian leader's bulldogs in disputes foreign (such as the "covert" Russian war in Eastern Ukraine), and domestic (e.g. assassinating and intimidating political opponents). Significant emigration of Islamist Chechens to be fighters in Iraq and Syria for ISIS has been tolerated as a safety valve that gets these militants out of Russia for the time being, even though the rump Syrian regime that they are, in part, fighting against has in principle been a long time Russian ally.
As a result, one of the most powerful internal military adversaries of Russia has been transformed almost overnight into one of Russia's most loyal forces. The toughest Chechen soldiers who just a decade ago were sworn enemies of Russia now sincerely proclaim their willingness to die to advance the whims of Vladamir Putin. This is arguably the biggest military about face since the Emperor of Japan signed the Treaty ending World War II and irrevocably shifted his countries alliances from the World War II axis powers to the World War II allied powers, particularly, the United States. It is the story of the new hit movie "Minions" of a cadre constantly seeking the most powerful evil villain to support and readily changing loyalties when their old leader fails, without all the cuteness and dance numbers.
Arguably, Vladamir Putin's strategy to deal with the Chechen rebels is exactly the opposite of the one that rumor has it (as reported earlier in this post) the U.S. and its allies are employing against ISIS. Rather than trying to sever its head, which might lead anarchy (as efforts to kill drug cartel leaders have in Mexico), Russia's military suppressed every other aspect of the Chechen rebel organization while leaving a leader of their movement strong enough to negotiate a dirty armistice that would work on terms tolerable to each side.
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As I see it, the official objective to put Iraq and Syria back together again the way that they were before ISIS declared its existence is a lost cause. That ship has sailed, although some critical oil fields and territory on the margins might be reclaimed.
Sunni Arabs, mathematically, are always going to be a minority in a multiethnic Iraq, since Shiites have a pure majority of the Iraqi population. Years of the government by the consensus of a multiethnic triumvirate of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Iraq failed dismally during the years when we tried to impose it in order to preserve the territorial integrity of the pre-Iraq War Iraq. Moreover, our own complicity in the ethnic segregation of Iraq during the Iraq War has destroyed almost all of the once numerous multiethnic communities of Iraq and inflamed hatred between Iraq's various religious sects. Even if a non-sectarian multi-ethnic regime to replace Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq could have worked had it been promptly implemented in the first hundred days or so of the Iraq War, by the time we left Iraq this option was no longer viable.
If we want stability in this part of the Middle East without a costly indefinite Western occupation fighting a never ending counterinsurgency operation, there is really no good alternative to a traditional, relatively ethnically and religiously homogeneous, nation-state of some kind for Sunni Arabs in this region.
This means that there are basically three alternatives that we could offer to the people now ruled by ISIS to inspire them to replace the status quo:
1. Negotiate a treaty with a senior ISIS leader with the power to control the regime under which the sovereignty of ISIS over most of its territory would be confirmed, in exchange for discontinuing its most repugnant practices, and allowing for the safe exile of minority religious populations and other asylum seekers whose security cannot be safely entrusted to the Islamic state. If necessary, kill other senior ISIS leaders with the guidance of the deal maker, to remove opposition to the plan.
2. Promise to, and do establish ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria, with minor adjustments at the margins, as a protectorate of the most friendly available Sunni Arab regime that is willing to step up to the job, such as the King of Jordan or Turkey, if the people allow the ISIS regime to be crushed. The protectorate country would need to be willing to rapidly deploy an occupying army into ISIS territory if the ISIS regime collapses to minimize any period of chaos between regimes.
3. Use an overwhelmingly large multinational force of ground troops to retake and occupy all ISIS territory as quickly as possible, and then to establish a Sunni Arab regime to our liking there that secured buy in (in exchange for political power) from local power brokers on the model of Afghanistan which handed out control of provincial capitals, local governments and legislative posts to former warlords and their allies. Presumably, Sunni tribal leaders would play a prominent role in the new regime.
In either case (2) or case (3) above, once a civilian regime has been installed and reached a basic level of functionality, and counterinsurgency actions have subsided, there is good reason to think that the foreign military presence could be then greatly reduced.
We have not won the war against ISIS until an alternative for the Sunni Arabs that is accepted as legitimate exists, and there is really no way to do that without carving up Iraq and Syria, neither of which are capable of maintaining their own territorial integrity without massive outside military intervention on behalf of regimes that have done nothing to show that they deserve to be propped up in this manner with outside military resources.