Most disturbingly, their extreme show of force was completely unexpected, a difficult feat to accomplish under the watchful eyes of the West, but one that was repeated by the ISIS attack Wednesday on Iraq’s largest air force base.
This second surprise attack came as experts were predicting that the group would begin to consolidate its control over territory already captured, instead of trying to extend its military (of only several thousand fighters) any further, raising the question of how far ISIS will get.
The Levant, stretching from Iraq in the East to Israel, Lebanon, and even Cyprus in the West, marks ISIS’ territorial claims. Can they realistically capture all that land?
The answer, in all likelihood, is no. Absolutely not. So much would have to be accomplished in such a short time by such a small group that the possibility is relatively inconceivable.
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However, the gains already made by ISIS along with the stagnation and lack of political will in the West means that this crisis is far from over. Chaos and brutality has yet to abdicate their throne in the Middle East and these forces will have far reaching impacts on politics, fundamentally changing the way the modern world views humanity, terrorism, the role of the UN and the US, and the very nature of warfare.
Where do things go from here?
Firstly, Iraq’s fate hangs in the balance. Analysts predict that ISIS will face a much harder fight taking Baghdad than they did taking Mosul. Iraq’s army in Baghdad is better-trained, and its Shia soldiers are more likely to stand by the Shia-led (and Shia-favoring) government.
Even so, Iraq’s leaders may be in for another surprise. After capturing Tikrit just north of Baghdad, ISIS seized large swaths of desert to the southwest, all the way down to the border with Jordan, and struck out eastwards where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is being fiercely contended. Baghdad is surrounded on three sides, at a classic tactical disadvantage.
In addition, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will most likely be unsuccessful in attempts to create a new, unified government with the will to combat ISIS. One of the reasons the group is appealing and effective in the field is the momentum of fervent action, contradictory to bureaucrats who remain slow, stubborn, and stagnant.
If Baghdad falls in the coming weeks, the Iraqi government will fall with it, most likely fleeing into exile. The rest of the world will struggle to respond while a massive influx of Shia refugees from the south-east of Iraq threatens the tenuous peace in Afghanistan.
The fear and complete shock of the ISIS campaign will no doubt trigger greater extremism even amongst those who are normally level-headed and security-oriented. Neighboring countries like Iran (although in no real danger of being captured by ISIS) could see a rise in border incidents and domestic terrorism, which would lead to a harsh crack-down on minority Sunni populations who will be apt to retaliate instead of submit.
ISIS will then use the military equipment and masses of funds captured in Iraq to make further gains in Syria, though they may have difficulting in facing the brick wall of President Bashar Assad’s stubbornly loyal (and Russian-equipped) military.
It would be logical at this time to expect a short period of consolidation in minor ways, but for the most part, ISIS will allow the population under their control an amount of freedom inconsistent with Sharia law, in order to avoid uprisings from within the population. Instead they will focus on PR and brainwashing in a massive recruitment campaign.
Jordan will be their next fish to fry.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is much more stable than Iraq, and will require a different style of assault by ISIS. Jordan’s army is strong and harbors great resolve, making it unlikely that ISIS could penetrate the country and create a large army-style front as they have in Iraq. Jordan could however, be paralyzed from within.
As a terrorist organization, ISIS is a part of a decade-long trend that’s changing the way wars are fought. Organized armies are still struggling to adapt to fighting terrorists instead of foreign militaries, and ISIS would no doubt utilize this fact in Jordan.
One tactic that ISIS appears to be very adept at using is social media. An internet campaign to gain supporters in Jordan would no doubt capture the fervor of many extremists grown tired of the monarchy. Jordan was one of the few countries to weather the storms of the Arab Spring, but that doesn’t mean that its people could not be incited to revolutionary action in favor of a holy liberator.
A campaign of fear and terror attacks by individuals from within and without Jordan could throw the country into chaos. A brutal regime crackdown would incite the population to join ISIS instead of fighting them, and could eventually lead to the collapse of the armed forces. It is important to remember that Jordan has a Sunni majority, a fact that the Sunni ISIS will no doubt seek to exploit.
However, the future of Jordan remains a possible source of optimism for now. Officials in the kingdom are already saying that any action from ISIS against Jordan would be dealt with quickly and unmercifully while any real threat to the Jordanian government would most likely finally trigger a severe reaction from Europe, the US, and possibly Israel.
If we can learn anything from history, it’s that things change. ISIS is not unstoppable, and will likely reach its limits in the coming months in Iraq, Syria, or possibly Jordan. It will most probably collapse under its own weight in the future, leaving a vacuum that could either create fertile ground for democracy, or, more likely, several more years or even decades of unforeseen chaos.
What can be said unequivocally is that the presence of ISIS will change not only political ties and possibly borders in the Middle East. These events will undoubtedly play a large, though perhaps subtle role in changing the mindset of the world, for better or worse.
For example, ISIS could be the death blow of the world’s reliance on the US to serve as global policeman, making further room for China, Russia, and other, even less savory characters.
Also, talks on the definition of terrorism, along with its implications and effects, will be renewed in international debates. How can the world combat these forces? A growing number of people may even suggest that such groups are left alone to evolve into semi-legitimate entities while the world ignores them.
The rapidly changing situation demands a new outlook, and such questions will become even more important as the US and Europe struggle with the threat of citizens who fought with ISIS and then returned home to bring jihad to the West.
No matter how the world decides to view terrorism in the future, discussions must be centered on creating Democracy 2.0 - a political force that is agile, secure, and capable of rapid movement to counter a movement like ISIS without surrendering reason and level-headedness.