Eric Morse is a former Canadian diplomat who is currently co-chair, security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, and senior fellow at the NATO Association of Canada.
The Middle East lurched farther toward chaos last weekend as Turkey assumed an active military role against Islamic State for the first time.
Between the Turkish intervention and the paroxysms of reaction to the Iranian nuclear deal signed July 14, the end of Ramadan passed almost unnoticed. This was a guardedly hopeful surprise, since many analysts had forecast that IS would mount spectacular terrorist and military operations during the holy month. Among other things, IS was eager to commemorate the first anniversary of their caliphate – June 29 – and to display continuing strategic momentum.
Certainly, there was a spasm of terrorist acts in Tunisia, Kuwait, France, Yemen and Iraq, as well as a minor raid on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani – which was quickly ended by the Kurds – and an attack in Turkey that IS has not claimed. The civilian death toll in these attacks was frightful, but they did not rate as a strategic victory for IS, which in proclaiming itself a caliphate has staked historic, territorial, religious and mystical claims that go far beyond the pretensions of any terrorist group in history. It must now live up to those claims in the eyes of its followers and the world.
A member of the Obama administration was recently quoted as asking how IS can be winning and losing at once? Quite easily in fact. IS has gone beyond the usual parameters of either insurgency or terrorism and set itself up as a sovereign ruler in the lands of Northern Mesopotamia, where none of Syria, Turkey, Iran or Iraq ever really had an unchallengeable grip. Northern Mesopotamia has always been a politically debatable zone, which may make it easy to take but likewise makes it of doubtful worth as the heartland of a state bent on conquest.
Terrorism alone, no matter how vicious, won't achieve conquest. "Propaganda of the deed," no matter how lethal, remains propaganda. Terrorism alone cannot hold ground or advance conquest, and having proclaimed itself a conqueror "spiritual and temporal," that is what IS absolutely must do for political survival. At minimum, it needs a military operation with as big an impact on world opinion as North Vietnam's – militarily failed – Tet Offensive of 1968, or its own seizure of Mosul last June.
IS now has to act as a state at war, maintaining a civil administration plus offensive and defensive operations on its entire perimeter. It is aided by a reign of terror, internal lines of communication and divided objectives among its enemies. Its disadvantages are its immense need for resources (you really can't run a modern state, let alone a war, for very long on looted antiquities and smuggled oil) and its lack of a balanced armed force and military infrastructure. All the captured weapons in the world are no asset if they can't be used. Now IS has both historic regional powers – Iran and Turkey – in play against it.
Iraqi forces, supported by Shia militias, an unknown but probably growing number of Iranian assets and coalition air power, are preparing an attempt to retake Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province. It is said – verifiable facts being scarce – that senior IS commanders in the cities are concerned enough to be sending their families away; no martyrdom for them, apparently, but as word of that spreads it will not help morale. Both cities are being heavily mined and there are reports of civilians being forcibly prevented from leaving Ramadi and of a preliminary bombardment at Fallujah.
Fallujah and Ramadi now represent a large investment of force and face for IS. Taking them will be immensely costly in lives on both sides. IS's offensives elsewhere in Iraq and Syria have not achieved much, and its lack of successful military operations since May is beginning to become very visible.
In Canada, there is an election and all three parties have staked positions on the war, for what that may matter to voters. But all three parties should remember that platforms are static, wars are fluid, and – with apologies to Heraclitus – the war they pronounce on in summer is not the war they will step into on Oct. 20.