A black flag belonging to the Islamic State is seen near the Syrian town Kobani, as pictured from the Turkish-Syrian border, Oct. 6, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Is the Islamic State luring the US into sending ground troops?
This is not the first military confrontation between the Islamic State (IS) and the United States. Both parties have tested each other’s will in Iraq for years.
There is no doubt that both will rely, in one way or another, on their experiences between 2003 and 2011 to decide on their strategies for the current confrontation in Syria. The whole world has heard US President Barack Obama’s strategy, but the question remains about the strategy of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
IS circles state that Baghdadi considers himself to be facing a fateful challenge, but that the challenge does not rise to the level of “a war of life or death.” IS is infinitely confident that the results of this war will not be worse than the previous ones, in which the Americans failed to accomplish their declared mission to “eradicate terrorism.” Therefore, IS is not worried about the fate of its “state and presence.” On the contrary, IS’ leadership thinks that it has raised the ceiling on jihad globally by declaring the “Islamic caliphate” on the 1st of Ramadan this year and that any new jihad experience would not accept a lower ceiling for now on.
Characterizing the confrontation as a “fateful challenge” did not prevent Baghdadi from sending clear signals that he is willing to rush this confrontation, which he had previously predicted in his speech “God knows and you do not know.” That was evident when he chose to behead Western hostages before Obama had even adopted a strategy.
Regardless of whether Baghdadi’s prediction is based on realistic information or is just a propaganda speech to motivate his fighters, IS’ discourse is clearly using the term “lure,” which means provoking the opponent into sending ground forces, since IS cannot send its fighters to US territory to fight there. The late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden believed in and adopted this strategy. So IS is discounting the criticism by its jihadist opponents — including Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani — who recently accused IS of being responsible for the formation of an international coalition targeting Islam and jihad in the Levant and Iraq.
Obama has always said that he would not send ground troops to Iraq or Syria. IS interpreted this as an attempt to avoid the trap prepared for him. But IS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani seemed confident in his speech “God is on the lookout,” about two weeks ago, that Washington will send ground forces and that the mujahedeen will be waiting.
There is no doubt that some US officials have started talking about the possibility of sending ground troops, whether American or Arab, after seeing the inadequacy of aerial bombardment [alone], indicating one way or another that the IS leadership is reading from an open book. Some attribute that to having learned from experience. Others are suspicions and consider it a plot.
Baghdadi distinguishes between two phases. The first is the current one, represented by aerial bombardment. He thinks that IS should aim to minimize its losses, especially vehicles, artillery and tanks, although it did not pay for them. Those items will be important for the second phase. During the bombardment, however, it is not enough for him to hide and fortify his fighters and weapons because there is a task that he needs to do: continue provoking his opponent to force him into sending ground forces, whatever their nationality. When that happens, the second phase will begin.
IS’ insistence on storming the city of Ain al-Arab [Kobani] in northern Syria, may be an intentional provocation, especially as IS is well aware that Washington decided to start air strikes only after IS fighters got near the perimeter of the Kurdish city of Erbil, in Iraq. IS is also well aware that Ankara considers IS coming close to its border a red line and that it will not hesitate to respond using all means, including the military. The Turkish army had bombed IS convoys for simply traveling on a path leading to areas adjacent to the border. That happened in al-Rahi, in the north of Aleppo, several months ago. So what if IS takes control of a whole city, such as Ain al-Arab?
Again, IS' leadership is reading from an open book. It is as if it knew of Ankara’s plan to establish a “buffer zone.” Regardless of whether the matter is related to experience or is a conspiracy, there is no doubt that the complexities of the situation make it open to all possibilities. It is difficult to decipher the code by relying solely on things visible or on prior positions.
Based on IS’ discourse, despite the strangeness that IS would make an effort to mobilize armies against it and push them to fight it from air and land, the matter is in fact natural and not strange at all.
First, IS and other jihadist organizations can only live in an atmosphere of chaos. Stability is its enemy. So these organizations try to create and sustain chaos regardless of the cost, because they would cease to exist if the chaos ended.
Second, IS, in its bid to lead the global jihad, realizes that it will not be able to progress as long as it is stuck in the region fighting the “near enemy.” Since IS cannot send fighters to fight the “distant enemy,” it has opted to lure that enemy to its own battlefield in order to fight both enemies together. This way, IS would gain more legitimacy among jihadists, and that would translate into more funding and volunteers. That means, in one way or another, pulling the rug from under the feet of its rivals, first and foremost al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.
It seems that this time Washington is reading from an open book. Washington is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Zawahri’s stronghold, but is also preparing to storm the “land of the caliphate,” Baghdadi’s stronghold.