09/05/2014 04:09 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

The Islamic State: Syria, Iraq and Beyond

Today's news from the Middle East is all about IS -- the horrors of beheading and the danger of returning jihadists exporting the atrocities to the streets of Europe and the US. Go and tell this to the people of North Syria, particularly the Raqqa province.

Syria? Not anymore, only nominally; welcome to the new state -- IS -- which today controls a huge piece of land in both Syria and Iraq. Clearly the IS spread in Syria is an indication of the gradual breakup of the Syrian and Iraqi states, something which happens while there still are governments in Damascus and Baghdad that still command armies and air forces.

IS dominance in large parts of Northern Syria, as well as Northern Iraq, clearly raises the specter of a possible expansion towards neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. It is here where we need to put things in context. IS cannot spread to Turkey, will find it almost impossible to penetrate Jordan, and can expect to have better fortunes only in Lebanon.

We need to understand that their success is built on two main foundations; the first is the Islamic message, and this is something that is beyond the scope of this particular article.

The other is their ability to take advantage of chaotic conditions in both Northern Iraq and Syria. In both territories, there was just nominal control by the central governments and it became clear that both preferred to concentrate on defending areas which seem to be more important to them. In the case of Iraq, it is Baghdad and the Sh'iite areas to the south of the capital, and in the case of Syria, it is Damascus, the Alawite enclave, and the cities of Homs, Hamah and Aleppo. While Syrian control in all these areas is far from complete, the fact is that the various rebel factions have failed to dislodge the Assad army from them, and it is a failure, particularly in Sunni-dominated areas, where the local population is strongly opposed to the Alawite regime, yet proved unable and maybe unwilling to counter the brutalities of the regime.

The Raqqa battle in March 2013 seemed to be too easy for the Islamists to win, and in fact, the Syrian troops gave up almost without battle, and that proved fatal, as the subsequent air raids were futile, and recently, the 17 Division [or what was left of it] near by Tabqa air base finally capitulated to IS.

A similar situation existed in recent weeks and months in Northern Iraq, and the conclusion to be drawn is that the Syrian and Iraqi governments do NOT have enough ground troops to deal with IS and [in the case of Syria] other Islamic opposition groups; and aerial power alone is NOT sufficient to deal with well-motivated and fortified Islamic forces which also enjoy the support of the local population.

The Syrians are learning this costly lesson in the south of the country, where Islamic militias [though not IS, at least until now], are taking control of the areas along the border with Israel, in itself a dangerous scenario, to be dealt with in a separate article.

Turkey is a totally different story. Strong central government, strong and coherent army, and no fertile ground for IS, as they cannot expect any meaningful popular support. Jordan also has a strong central government and very effective security apparatus, as well as a good and loyal army.

An invasion by IS to Jordan will be easily defeated by the Jordanians, and if push comes to shove, the King in Amman can trust the traditional, undeclared ally of the Hashimite Kingdom -- yes we talk about the Zionists [G-D forbid!...].

But things will not come to that, and this is NOT the real concern of the Amman government. Their problem is that there is in Jordan some not insignificant support for IS among Palestinians and disgruntled Jordanians. This is where the danger lies for King Abdallah, but no need to exaggerate its extent.

It is a different story in the case of Lebanon, where the sectarian division has always been a powder keg waiting to explode, and IS can be the detonator. Here, too, there are forces such as Hezbollah that are strong enough to prevent a full-scale invasion by IS from Syria, but in areas such as Tripoli in the North and places along the border in the East, there are local elements who can be potential IS allies. This is a more ominous situation than anything that IS can do in Turkey and Jordan, but not one which cannot be dealt with effectively.

So, we are left with IS and its state in large parts of Syria and Iraq. It is still their main preoccupation, and it is not at all clear that they are NOW interested in expanding beyond these territories in a way which will endanger what they already control. So, we are left with a situation in which IS consolidating its control over large parts of Syria and Iraq, and if NOT pushed back from them, will be able in the NOT too distant future to try and spread to neighboring countries.
This is the challenge of all those who raise the alarm bells about IS; deal with them now, and on the ground, or you will have to deal with them later, under far worse circumstances.