The Islamic State has reached its natural frontiers. Since its capture of Ramadi and Palmyra earlier this year, its expansion has stalled. In the north, its advance is blocked by the Kurds, who tenaciously hold on to their mountain redoubts. To the southeast, the Islamic State (IS) faces the Baghdad government. While totally ineffective on the offensive, Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite forces can defend their homelands around Baghdad and southward. For the IS to take Baghdad, it would have to incur huge costs, only to win control of a large hostile population. In the west, the IS advance has ground to a halt against the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad. In recent weeks, the SAA has, with Russian support, found the will to stage a cautious counterattack.
There is a strong relationship between the military situation and the demographic realities: The IS wins where there are Sunni Arabs (as pointed out by Russia-watcher Anatoly Karlin). Its attack stalls when it encounters concentrations of anyone who is not Sunni and not Arab, for example, in western Syria, with its millions of Alawites, Shiites and Christians. Here the IS has made little headway against the SAA, which is all that stands between the local population and almost certain enslavement or annihilation. An even more extreme example is the city of Deir Al-Zur in eastern Syria, which has a large Armenian minority. There, over 200 km from friendly lines, SAA forces have held out for months. Contrast this situation with that of Ramadi, which the IS overran in a matter of hours, facing little resistance. The difference? Ramadi, like many other victims of the IS blitzkrieg, is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab.
So the IS advance had stalled, but why had it not been destroyed? Notionally everyone is against it–the US, Russia, Iran, the Damascus and Baghdad governments, the Kurds, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and the Gulf Arabs. But realistically, none of these players is committed to the immediate destruction of the IS. There are, broadly speaking, two major ‘coalitions,’ based on aligned interests. On one side is Russia, Iran and Damascus (and Hezbollah). On the other is the US (and Europe), Israel, the Kurds and the gulf Arabs, preeminently Saudi Arabia. Outside these ‘coalitions’ stand Baghdad and Turkey. Baghdad manages to be a vassal of both Iran and the US, and Turkey plays for its own team.
Of course, this two-sided breakdown is a gross simplification, each ‘coalition’ is a mess of competing interests. But each is founded on an important convergence. The Russia ‘coalition’ (Russia, Iran, Damascus) are united in their desire to boost Iranian influence and maintain the existence of the Damascus government. They therefore oppose IS expansion into western Syria and southern Iraq. The US ‘coalition’ (USA, Israel, Kurds and gulf Arabs) opposes IS expansion in Iraq, but will tolerate, even encourage, IS attacks into western Syria. It would prefer to see the IS weaken Damascus’ position, because as Assad’s power weakens, so does Iranian and Russian influence. Some reports suggest that the US has gone so far as to give IS material support (accidentally no doubt). On the other hand, the US coalition is wary of allowing the IS too free a hand. All players recognize that should the IS fall, their geopolitical opponents might gain an advantage from the ensuing power-vacuum. Everyone agrees that the IS is evil, but no one wants to destroy it.
In recent weeks, things seem to have changed. With Russian support, the SAA has started to regain ground, at first against assorted rebel groups, now against the IS itself. The Paris attacks have brought in France, who presumably would not be allowed to act without approval from Washington. Has the US coalition decided that it is time to wrap up the IS? Or is this just another head-fake?
Perhaps the US will continue its ineffectual bombing campaign, while continuing to funnel arms and supplies to IS. Maybe the US will pull the plug, and go all in against the IS. Whatever the case, one thing can be certain. The IS will not allow any outside power to decide its fate. And, while all the powers are jostling for advantage against one another, the IS has an ace in the hole.
The Saudi Option
The Islamic State has the grandest of ambitions, but only the meagrest of capabilities. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, claims the position of Caliph and Amir al-Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful). He has received the nominal fealty of Islamist groups around the world. But his actual authority is limited to the upper Mesopotamia and stretches of Syrian desert. His state has limited economic resources, and it controls no cities of importance, save Mosul. His armed forces have reached their limits of advance, given demographic and political conditions. The global and regional powers, though divided, might well wreck IS in a matter of weeks. The IS doesn’t have a chance, even with soldiers fired up by its dank-ass fight song and balls-out helmet-cam footage. So what should their next move be?
Saudi Arabia. The IS needs to conquer Arabia, or at least Mecca and Medina. Admittedly an attempt on the Holy Cities would be the height of ambition, and could well end in disaster for the IS. But when has the threat of disaster ever deterred them? It would be difficult, but not impossible. The IS recruits from around the Islamic World, including Muslim enclaves in European cities, and no doubt has plenty of supporters and sympathizers in Saudi Arabia. It could also play on the internal weaknesses of the Kingdom, especially by stoking the ambitions of some distant relation with more self-esteem than career potential. Nothing fuels regime change quite like a butthurt second cousin. But before discussing the nitty-gritty of the “Saudi Option,” we need to examine why the IS should, and probably is, considering it. There are two factors: the Caliphate and the Holy Cities.
First of all, the Caliphate holds great symbolic value, even though it has been largely powerless, especially in recent centuries. The last Abbasid Caliphs were mere puppets. The Ottomans assumed the title in the 16th century, but the Sultan’s power lay in his earthly might, his armies, his police–his claim on the Caliphate was almost an afterthought. Still the claim was an important one, one that he regarded as crucial to his prestige. On several occasions, the Ottoman Sultan used his position as caliph to influence believers outside the Empire, for example to convince the Muslims of India to support British rule.
A crucial responsibility of the Caliph is to protect the Holy Cities. While he need not control them directly, he is at least notionally responsible for them as “Custodian of the Two Holy Cities,” a title first held by Saladin. The Holy cities are critical to the prestige of any Caliph. In 1803, when the forces of the First Saudi State seized Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph ordered an army into Hejaz to retake them. The cities secure, the army marched into the interior to raze the Saudi capital in retaliation for the affront. Even that was not enough to wash away the blot. The offense was so grave, the Sultan had the captured Saudi patriarch, Abdullah bin Saud, brought to Constantinople in a cage and beheaded. (see Trofimov. The Siege of Mecca. Doubleday, 2007.)
The Holy Cities are also crucial in their own right. Stripping the Saudis of Mecca and Medina would delegitimize the Saudi claim to be “Custodian of the Two Holy Cities,” and make the IS, as the suzerain of Mecca and Medina, almost untouchable. Thus Al-Baghdadi would virtually inure himself to Western overthrow. No western country would dare harm a figure of such prestige, for to do so would incur the fury of all Muslims, or at least Sunnis. Control of the Holy Cities would, for all intents, put the IS beyond the reach of western military power. For while Muslims can fight other Muslims for control of the Holy Cities, no western army has entered the Hejaz since–well–Augustus, who ordered the Prefect of Egypt to conduct an expedition into the region. It was a disaster.
As has been noted, the Saudi Option is a radical proposal. But it could be done, and indeed a similar plot was carried out in Mecca in 1979, when hundreds of gunmen stormed the Al-Haram Mosque, which houses the Ka’aba. Only after a long fight did the Saudis regain control. The incident was a terrible blow to their prestige, so the Saudis are surely on their guard for similar attempts. But the situation is drastically different today, because the Islamist movement is stronger than ever. The IS can count on the support of sympathizers all over the world. And while the Saudi regime has an impressive security apparatus, it is not invincible. The IS could achieve its ends by different means, whether by fomenting a revolution, supporting a coup d’etat, or, like in 1979, storming a religious shrine and taking hostages.
One could argue that IS will not attack Arabia, because the Saudis supported and probably continue to support the IS financially. But al-Baghdadi surely knows that Saudi faith is Punic. The royal family will turn on the IS as soon as it is in their interest (and I don’t mean some bullshit, half-assed airstrikes). Because the Saudis are part of the US ‘coalition,’ they will abandon the IS as soon as it becomes advantageous–likely when the US and Israel have leveraged the IS to extract maximum concessions from Russia and Iran. Once the US pulls the plug, the IS will find resupply and reinforcement increasingly difficult, and will struggle more and more to hold off its enemies. Moreover, toppling the Saudis would bring material benefits. If the Saudis were ousted altogether, the IS would be in a position to secure the Arabian oilfields. Why bother with the Saudis’ petty handouts, when you could just take it all?
The Saudi Option would be a coup de main of the first order. It would break the stalemate in Syria by rocketing the IS into the ranks of regional, even world powers. If were executed successfully, the US would be forced to deal with it as a legitimate power.