08/20/2014 04:16 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Combating the Islamic State

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE via Getty Images

The extraordinary rise of the extremist jihadi Islamic State (IS) has left the world's governments scrambling to devise ways to counter the group. This has manifested itself most dramatically in Iraq, where a new, less divisive prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has been appointed, and the U.S. has launched a series of air strikes against IS positions. Yet defeating and dismantling the group, which now controls an area proximate in size to the kingdom of Jordan, will almost certainly prove a long-term undertaking, given both its near unassailable position in Syria and its control of over half a dozen oilfields.

However, at least in northern Iraq, its position is more vulnerable than is commonly assumed, with the group in serious danger of overreaching. Its tactics in Iraq thus far can probably be best categorized as conquer and plunder, with the movement focused on: recruiting personnel (often by freeing its prisoners from jails); seizing weaponry (as it spectacularly succeeded in doing after its capture of Mosul, when it amassed huge quantities of Iraqi army equipment); and, most recently, capturing and redistributing government food supplies, as evidenced by its recent seizure of some 40,000-50,000 tonnes of wheat from government silos in Nineveh province. Yet such a tactic naturally relies on maintaining the group's forward momentum, as well as, to an extent, the group's aura of invincibility after repeated astonishing military successes in the field against Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

Momentum shifting against IS in Iraq...

Yet all this could move into reverse if the IS's advance in Iraq is halted. Thus far the group has successfully plucked the low-hanging fruit: it moved into fellow Sunni Arab areas, where resentment against the government of Iraq's contentious former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was strongest, and exploited the obvious lack of motivation and discipline within Iraq's armed forces. However, both the political and military momentum has now shifted in four key areas.

A motivated and capable opponent. Although the peshmeraga (armed Kurdish fighters) have suffered a series of surprising reverses, it retook two towns, Makhmour and Gweir, from IS on August 10th, and, more significantly, the strategically and economically vital Mosul Dam on August 18th. The Kurds' military prowess will be further boosted by a veritable flood of donated military supplies (including new ammunition and French equipment).
Western military intervention. The IS's heavy equipment -- including the tanks and artillery seized from the Iraqi army -- is hugely vulnerable to U.S. air power out on the Nineveh plains. Although thus far these air strikes have been piecemeal, we expect the U.S. to step up its air-delivered bomb and missile strikes once a new government of national unity is formed in Baghdad (albeit the U.S. administration will almost certainly shy away from putting boots on the ground).
A plausible, national unity government. A new, less sectarian (and less Shia) government would provide an alternative political route for those within IS territory, or on the front lines. Mr Maliki had alienated Iraq's Sunni Arab population to such an extent that it accepted (albeit perhaps not fully welcomed) the return of the jihadis less than seven years after bloodily evicting them. The nomination of Mr Abadi, although not universally welcomed among all Iraqi Sunni groups, has for the most part been positively received, including by puritanically Sunni Saudi Arabia.
International unity over the issue. The backing given by all major external players to the new premiership of Mr Abandi -- including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and the U.S. -- should ensure that no major party will seek to undermine the transition (in the way that Iran did in Iraq after 2003).

...but wind is behind it in Syria

In contrast, however, the position of the IS in Syria looks almost impregnable. It is worth noting that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (now renamed the IS) was rebuilt in Syria, from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq. Unlike Iraq, the IS's Sunni strain of Islam overlaps more closely with Syria -- over 60 percent of Syria is Sunni Arab, compared with just 20 percent in Iraq. Admittedly, prior to its civil war, Syria was viewed as a relatively secular place, under successive Assad regimes; however, three and a half years of war and 170,000 dead has undoubtedly unleashed increased religious extremism.

On the back of this, a plethora of Sunni Islamist groups has formed across Syria, most of whom are currently rivals of IS, but may be persuaded to shift into its camp. For example, al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra co-operated with IS in the attack on the Lebanese town of Arsal on August 2nd, and there is speculation that, as IS advances on Syria's second city, Aleppo, the Salafi-oriented Ahrar al-Sham, which reportedly has more boots on the ground than IS (up to 20,000, compared with 10,000-15,000, respectively), is considering throwing in its lot with IS.

More importantly, however, arguably none of the four key political and security elements moving against IS in Iraq are being repeated in Syria.

A motivated and capable opponent. In this regard, the Syrian regime certainly counts, but its focus is split by the multiplicity of opponents confronting it (including up to 1,000 rebel groups). Equally, until recently, the Syrian government had avoided confronting IS, as the group had previously served its purpose of both weakening and dividing the main rebel forces, and helped reinforce the narrative that the regime's opponents are terrorist extremists. On the other side, several of the various rebel groups are certainly motivated to take on IS, but lack the necessary weaponry -- indeed, the Saudi-backed Syria Revolutionaries Front reportedly suffered a heavy defeat in Akhtarin on August 13th.
Western military intervention. After President Barack Obama's abortive effort in August/September 2013 to launch air strikes against the Syrian regime to punish it for using chemical weapons, any sort of U.S. military intervention in Syria is unlikely for the time being. This impression was reinforced by his speech on August 7th announcing the U.S.'s intervention in Iraq: first, he said it was to defend U.S. interests in the Iraqi Kurdistan region -- where a number of US personnel, and a US consulate, are based -- and he cited the threat of "genocide" against Iraq's Yazidis. Neither situation applies in Syria.
A plausible, national unity government. Although the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, might point to his thumping victory in the (highly dubious) presidential election in June, the mass uprising against his regime demonstrates the widespread loathing that his rule engenders. Meanwhile, the opposition political coalition, the Syrian National Coalition, has become at best peripheral and in many ways irrelevant to the ongoing war on the ground.
International unity over the issue. In contrast to Iraq, the major external actors are divided over the best way to approach Syria's civil war. On the hand, Iran, Lebanon's Shia political/guerrilla group, Hizbullah, and Russia backs the Assad regime; on the other, the Saudis, Qatar, the U.S. and EU back the rebels (and not necessarily the same ones). As a result, the key international players tend to focus on countering the influence of each other, rather than unifying against IS.

Halting the sale of "blood oil" will be key

Arguably, the best way to counter the IS in Syria would be to undermine its economic underpinnings: notably its oil. Currently, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that the group has seven fields under its control, largely based in the Euphrates, while the Iraq Oil Report estimates that IS is earning as much as US$1m a day from its Iraqi oilfields alone (via smuggling routes through Turkey and Iran). Although the UN Security Council condemned the purchase of the IS's oil in a vote in late July, a much more co-ordinated crackdown on the trade of what might be called "blood oil" is necessary to stem the flow. Seeking to build a firmer foundation for its rule, the IS has an energetic hearts-and minds programme in the areas it currently rules (with a focus especially on children), but its efforts would probably not add up to much without the cash behind them. Of course, it could revert to other, more violent options to cow the population, but such methods can only go so far: as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which was roundly defeated by a combination of U.S. forces and, in particular, armed Iraqi Sunni tribal groups, would attest.

Yet, even if IS's oil trade is curtailed, two crucial drivers necessary to undermine the group's grip are lacking in Syria. First, there is no obvious security (and financial) alternative to the IS -- a key component of AQI's defeat was the controversial US surge, which reassured locals taking up arms against al-Qaida that the US was not about to abandon them. The IS's ideology may not be especially popular -- they were recently kicked out of three villages near the Syria-Iraq border -- but any would-be anti-IS fighter will desire outside reassurance before confronting such a fearsome organisation. Second, and as a corollary, Syria remains a fertile location for the IS's conquer and plunder approach. Even if its oil funds are strangled, IS could divert its pillage policy to the south, against the Syrian army and all the way to Damascus. Although the Assad regime could rely on Iran's full backing and Russian equipment, it is not clear that the Syrian government would be able to stem the IS tide. If the US is horrified at the prospect of IS rampaging through northern Iraq, it would explore a whole new level of anxiety should the group end up pressing up against the borders of its two closest political allies in the Middle East, Jordan and, above all, Israel.