You have to hand it to Islamic State. It’s not only good at capturing towns and cities, cutting off the heads of its enemies on camera, selling off 14-year-old girls into sexual slavery, carrying out mass executions with the efficiency and enthusiasm of the Reich’s SS Panzer Division and cutting videos to music; it has also managed to persuade us that it can’t be beaten.
“Seemingly unstoppable,” as someone on the BBC’s Today programme described the Islamist group the other day. “The Isil steamroller,” an American news anchor echoed. “There’s nothing to hold them back,” agreed an exhausted Kurd who had just escaped the street fighting in Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey, and was interviewed by the massed ranks of the world’s press.
How can you blame them, when our political leaders are queuing up to tell people how effective the Islamic State fighters are, and how useless are the efforts of those who are fighting them?
More than a week ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forecasting the imminent fall of Kobane and warning that air strikes had failed. The Eeyorish US secretary of state scored a particularly encouraging headline: “John Kerry suggests Iran could lead fight against Isil if ‘US fails miserably’ ”. That’s the stuff to give the troops. And here is our own Foreign Secretary, in his best Henry-V-before-Harfleur manner: “We can’t save Kobane from falling to Islamic State, says Philip Hammond”.
Still, the inevitable victory of IS doesn’t look quite so inevitable elsewhere on the two-nation battlefield where it is fighting. In Iraq the other day, only 40 kilometres south-west of Baghdad, I was being driven towards the front line by the commander of the Iraqi national army’s 17th Division in his US-supplied Humvee.
Brigadier Jabbar Karam al-Taee is precisely the kind of officer the new Iraqi government is starting to promote: older, experienced and not necessarily Shia Muslim. Slightly built, with sharp eyes and an ability to charm, he fought the Iranians under Saddam Hussein, and possibly (though I was too tactful to ask him) the western coalition forces in 1991 and 2003.
How, I asked the brigadier over the grinding of the Humvee’s engine, did he rate the IS forces? “Not bad,” he said. “But they aren’t properly trained, and when you start to beat them they run away immediately.”
He should know. Like Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park of Fighter Command in 1940, Jabbar Karam is one of the few people who could lose the war in an afternoon. The 17th Division is all that stands between IS and the south-western approaches to Baghdad. Three weeks ago it took on a sizeable group of IS fighters gathered on the east bank of the Euphrates.
If the Iraqi army had failed, Baghdad would have come under attack and could conceivably have fallen. But an intelligent combination of US air strikes and action by Iraqi ground troops threw the Islamist fighters back across the river. They are still there, and for now they are showing few signs of activity.
So why didn’t we hear about the battle for Baghdad, when we have heard so much about the battle for Kobane, a relatively insignificant small town in Syria on the border with Turkey?
It’s mostly a question of access. Turkey is easy to get to, and dozens of journalists and cameramen have gathered on the heights overlooking Kobane to watch the street battles and air strikes. We all know from hour to hour what is happening there.
Baghdad is a lot more problematic to report from. It takes time to get visas, and only a few big news outfits such as the BBC or the New York Times have the infrastructure to protect their staff there.
If you were a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcaster with limited money and resources, you would be much more likely to use the services of one of the brave and adventurous freelance photojournalists who specialise in reporting on the Syrian side of war. You might even send one of your staff people to Turkey. You wouldn’t bother sending them to Baghdad, because it’s much too expensive and requires too great an effort.
For a news organisation working with a limited budget, Kobane is the natural place to report from. But it offers a skewed picture of the fight against Islamic State: in many ways, the picture that IS itself wants to promote.
Kobane provides the world with the impression that IS is advancing everywhere, successfully dealing out the savagery that makes it so terrifying. The only boots on the ground belong to Kurdish fighters, who have not always been particularly effective. The Turkish army could sort out IS in no time flat, but the Turks have a phobia about helping any form of Kurdish resistance, in case it spreads into Turkey itself.
It seems reasonable to assume that President Erdogan would actually welcome it if the Kurdish peshmerga in Kobane got a bloody nose – though they have done far better than he, and the gloomy duo of Kerry and Hammond, seemed to expect.
The reason Erdogan’s tanks have been sitting idly on the hillside overlooking Kobane, like Hitler’s tanks outside Warsaw in 1944, is that he regards the peshmerga as close allies of the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation that is Turkey’s bête noire. At some point after Kobane falls, if it does, Erdogan’s forces, infinitely tougher and better trained than IS, will no doubt move into Kobane on some pretext or other and take it over.
The battle of the River Euphrates, on the Iraqi front, is an altogether different story. After IS forces captured the village of al-Yusufiyah, US air strikes destroyed their heavy gun positions. Iraqi troops moved in fast and winkled IS out, building by building. Soon it was in full retreat, escaping across the Euphrates and destroying the bridges behind it.
The situation is immensely dangerous for the Iraqi government. Anbar province, to the west and north-west of Baghdad, has been increasingly infiltrated by IS fighters. They are not on the ground in particularly large numbers, but there are few government forces around and many of them are too heavily Shia to be effective in a largely Sunni region.
Can IS be beaten there? Senior figures in Baghdad believe it can, if people stop repeating the nervous talk about IS being unstoppable and air strikes not working.
First, it will require a change of attitude. IS has been remarkably effective, but that could be changing. Some of its western volunteers seem to be losing their appetite for the brutality they are witnessing. A new IS training video shows recruits being beaten and bullied and forced to carry out exercises to the accompaniment of live rounds. This works with professional soldiers, but with volunteers, as most of IS’s fighters are, it can be counterproductive.
The hundreds of enthusiasts from western Europe and the US who have joined IS have often (Jihadi John aside) proved rather feeble and lacking in the necessary bloodlust. They are usually restricted to the status of what US soldiers call REMFs (short for “rear-echelon motherf***ers”), doing the cooking and the laundry. From time to time, it seems, foreign volunteers have been suspected of being plants for the western intelligence services. What happens to them after that isn’t known, but it is unlikely to be particularly healthy.
IS has 30,000 men at the very most, and there could well be fewer than that. Given that it is fighting on four or even five fronts across Syria and Iraq, it cannot be considered a big force.
Its strengths are twofold. First, it terrifies its enemies with the ferocity of its tactics, much like the Mongols in the 13th century. The downside of the IS practice of cutting the head off defeated enemies and gouging out their eyes is that it is a huge disincentive to surrender and a positive encouragement to fight to the last bullet. Initially, the Iraqi national army was so terrified by IS that it was paralysed. Now, the officers and men realise they have to fight fiercely if they are to survive.
IS’s second great strength lies in its commanders. Many are Saddam-era Iraqi army officers who used to fight for al-Qaeda and have now moved on to Islamic State. How they get on with wild men such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ferocious self-styled caliph of Islamic State, is unclear.
In the past, because it had captured so many American-made tanks, heavy weapons and missiles from the Iraqi army, IS often made the mistake of fighting out in the open, like a proper army. That cost it dearly in casualties when the US air strikes began. Now, it is acting more like a guerrilla force, and has reduced its losses accordingly.
On the other side, the Iraqi army is improving. Until recently, the sectarian, pro-Shia government under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would pack the army with young and inexperienced officers, chosen more for their Shia faith than for their fighting ability. They were easily intimidated by Islamic State’s reputation for aggression, and in June, when IS attacked Mosul, the biggest city in the north of the country, most of the Iraqi army officers there abandoned their men and simply ran for it. After Mosul fell, large numbers of Iraqi soldiers were slaughtered.
However, Iraq has a new prime minister: Haider al-Abadi, an engineer and businessman who lived for years in Britain. He has reversed Maliki’s Shia sectarianism by bringing Sunnis back into the army, and is negotiating with Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, where IS operates.
If the tribes decide to support the Baghdad government, as they supported the Americans from 2006 in the so-called Sunni Awakening, the Iraqi army stands a good chance of recapturing Mosul. It won’t happen for a few months yet, but Iraqi generals are hopeful they will get it back next year.
Clearing IS out of Mosul and Anbar province certainly won’t be the end of Islamic State, any more than the killing of Osama Bin Laden was the end of al-Qaeda; but just as al-Qaeda no longer seems the threat it once was, IS would start to seem much more vulnerable.
Maybe the next stage for IS will be to bring its horrific, trademark murders to the streets of western towns and cities. Some people, like the former US vice-president Dick Cheney, think it will do worse things than that. Perhaps. But let us hope that this time the United States and other countries choose not to fight IS with its own weapons of torture and brutality.
Contrary to what you see in the television pictures from Kobane, and hear from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philip Hammond and John Kerry, Islamic State can be beaten.
And it’s even possible that the process has already started.
John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC