The Islamic State: A multilevel threat

Frieden & Sicherheit

After the deployment of hundreds of military advisors and incessant airstrikes carried out against it, the Islamic State has not been defeated. It remains a threat that has implications on three levels: internationally, regionally, and locally.


The thorn in America’s foot

At the international level, the Islamic State (IS) challenges US foreign policy. First, it delays the US departure from the Middle East and its “pivot towards Asia” that aims to counter China’s rising power in the region. Second, foreign fighters in the ranks of IS represent a serious threat to North America and Europe, as they are likely to come back to their countries of residence with combat experience. Although Switzerland is not one of the biggest suppliers in foreign fighters, around 70 Swiss have traveled to conflict zone with jihadist motivations since 2001. With caution, because there are still little verified facts, we can suppose that the terrorists in Paris, Sydney or Copenhagen were influenced by IS propaganda. Therefore, these foreign fighters might be a potential threat. Moreover, the IS-dominated territory could become a safe haven for future terrorist organizations, similar to Afghanistan prior to 2001. Finally, a violent rivalry may arise between IS and Al Qaeda, as both organizations may seek to become the sole leader of global jihad in the future, spreading their actions. Recently, already existing terrorist groups swore allegiance to the Islamic Sate, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, militant factions in Libya, Pakistani Taliban groups, former Al-Qeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants in Yemen and even Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

Regional rivalry and Kurdistan utopia

At the regional level, IS’s expansion exacerbates the Shia-Sunni rivalry over ideological and political leadership between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is also a challenge for Kurdish minorities present in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon who aspire for more autonomy and ultimately aim towards the creation of an independent state. Kurds are on the frontline against IS. The more power they gain, the better they are equipped politically and militarily to claim independence from Baghdad or Ankara. Therefore, preventing their rise is a strategic priority for Turkey due to the fact that Kurds represent around 17 per cent of its population. Furthermore, the on-going displacement of civilians could trigger a new crisis due to the spillover effect in fragile Lebanon as it is the first destination for most Syrian refugees.

Fighters belonging to the Islamic State group in Anbar, Iraq (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Iraqi and Syrian tragedy

At the local level, Syria has already been engaged in a protracted civil war for more than three years. IS is a strong new foe for al-Assad, who already struggles to regain control over the country. Iraq is on the verge of disintegration because of the rivalry between Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. As the Islamic State receives strong support from the Sunni minority, which has felt marginalized since the end of Saddam’s reign, the conflict is a serious threat to Iraq’s reconciliation process. A collapse would vanquish the efforts for stabilization made by the US and its allies over the last decade. Last but not least, Kurdish oil and gas in the North of Iraq is an essential asset for Bagdad. Without coalition support, these resources could have been permanently lost to the Islamic State. Indeed, around 20 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in the Kurdish Autonomous Region on the Mosul-Erbil-Kirkuk arc.

In the near future, IS is likely to continue to follow its primary goal of the establishment of state-like entity, consolidate territories gained, enforce Sharia law, and commit human rights abuses in an effort to spread fear and expand its borders. Since the beginning of its rise to power, geopolitical experts have pointed out that ground troops are required in order to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this entity, as Obama stated. But politics, public opinion and defence budget cuts do not think alike.