Comment

COMMENT

Why Mosul’s Sunnis find Islamic State death squads the lesser of two evils

Islamic State is being damaged by the US-led bombing campaign but civilians under the regime are finding it less fearsome than the alternatives.

I guess leaders of Islamic State are fiscal conservatives. This week we learnt they recently decided to slash salaries in the public service – in their case, fighters – by half. Apparently IS doesn't do deficits. So, confronted by plunging revenue and losing cash rapidly, it could only implore its people to sacrifice for the cause.

This is excellent news for several reasons. First, it reflects an enterprise in trouble.IS doesn't detail the "exceptional circumstances" that make the pay cut necessary, but they're simple to discern: significant losses of land – up to 40 per cent of what it held in Iraq and 20 per cent of its Syrian territory – including much of its money-making gas and oil fields. Moreover, things are only becoming worse. IS famously lost Ramadi last month, and last week saw something in the order of tens of millions of dollars literally blown up when a US air strike hit a cash facility in Mosul.

Up Next

US veterans join Standing Rock protests

null
Video duration
01:00

More World News Videos

Battle for Mosul shaping as Iraq end game

Defence correspondent David Wroe is with Australian soldiers in Iraq, where they are training Iraqi soldiers to retake the strategically vital city of Mosul.

Second, the lower pay threatens to harm the organisation's recruitment. That might surprise those convinced IS survives on the kind of fanaticism that does not need to be bought, but this oversimplifies the nature of IS, which is not merely a collection of ideological diehards.

It's easy to forget that in addition to its dedicated Islamists, IS is a home for sizeable chunk of Saddam Hussein's men who, after the United States invasion, found themselves excluded from the new Iraqi government and with nowhere to take their (often brutal) skills. The Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, formed alliances with many of them while he was in prison. Indeed IS probably couldn't exist without their expertise, acquired over years working for Saddam. Not so very long ago, these people were secularists – more particularly, Arab nationalists. For them, IS represents little more than a way back to power.

Radical groups are often affected by impressively mundane factors. Al-Qaeda, for instance, suffered infighting and resignations when Ayman al-Zawahiri (then Osama bin Laden's deputy) halved salaries and ordered his followers to cease spending on anything that was not an emergency. Members complained of being given only $30 a month to pay for housing, or of being driven broke. Another felt so aggrieved, he embezzled tens of thousands of dollars.

Beneath the austere, self-consciously pious veneer of such organisations is something far more ramshackle – susceptible to the same power plays and jealousies as, say, any political party. That's why IS so pointedly insisted its pay cut would apply to everyone without exception, "whatever his position". It fears some manner of rebellion if more senior fighters are seen to receive favourable treatment.

Advertisement

This underscores perhaps the most important truth of IS: that it ultimately succeeds or fails for political reasons. Its support depends upon its ability to present itself as the only viable alternative for Sunni Muslims in the region. It so infamously took Mosul in 2014 because that city's Sunnis simply declined to put up a fight. They feared Iraq's Shia death squads more and saw the Iraqi government in Baghdad as a force for sectarian repression. IS, which promised to slaughter the Shia, seemed preferable to Sunnis than the Iraqi government, which promised to watch while militias slaughtered them.

So when IS docks people's pay, it matters because it signals its weakness and damages its claims to being able to protect Sunnis. And in crassly commercial terms, it makes its offer to prospective members less compelling. In this respect at least, the US-led airstrikes are working.

But in other important ways, they aren't. Around the time IS made this decision, the Washington Institute published a remarkable opinion poll of people living under IS in Mosul. The results show that although a majority would like IS to leave Mosul, and declare that IS is not representative of their views, support for IS has grown markedly in the past six months or so. More than half now say their lives have improved since IS took control. In June last year that figure was only 21 per cent.

Meanwhile, about 40 per cent now say IS reflects their views and interests: a 400 per cent increase since June. It's unlikely these figures are entirely accurate, but the trend is clear.

And it's also clear why. Of those who would prefer IS to stay in Mosul (39 per cent), only a third actually support them. The rest simply distrust the US, the Iraqi government or Kurdish militias too much. More people now regard US air strikes as the biggest threat to their family's security than see IS the same way, and a large majority are also worried about Shia militias. Put simply, the people of Mosul feel trapped. Unable to trust the Iraq government, and terrified of both American air strikes and Shia militias, they are more or less back where they were 18 months ago when ISIS rolled into town: sizing ISIS up as the least worst option.

Put simply, in the most predictable way the military campaign is making IS more popular among those living under their control, at least in Mosul.

That's what happens when military action is divorced from political strategy: your military gains develop a nasty habit of undoing themselves. US President Obama intuits this, hence his recent State of the Union exasperation: "Our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians".

But it's unclear precisely what more the US-led coalition had in mind when it commenced this campaign. That's a problem apparently Malcolm Turnbull comprehends as he attempts to withstand subversive pressure from his own party to throw more soldiers into the Middle East.

But there seems sadly little urgency in fleshing this out. Amid the sporadic debates about increasing our military involvement – amid the Palinesque outbursts, the Trumpian bravado and the more subtle provocations of the Abbott faction – it's as though we've forgot to debate our political strategy: how we'll win the trust of the Sunnis living under the IS neo-Jacobin regime; how the inevitable contests for control of this land will be resolved; and what exactly will hold a post-IS region together.

These aren't luxurious, esoteric considerations that follow the "real" issue of our military involvement. They're the very guts of the issue. And if you're going to argue for expanded war, the price of admission should be nothing less than an argument with the politics fully considered. If only those who refused to pay it could have their salaries halved.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

Advertisement

261 comments

Comment are now closed