Tightening the Screws: How Can We Defeat ISIS?

16/12/2015 10:29 GMT | Updated 14/12/2016 10:12 GMT

On Wednesday 3 December 2015, the British government voted to authorise military action against the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS) over Syria. As previous conflicts in places such as Kosovo and Libya have demonstrated, victory is not won by military power alone. In lieu of the will to use ground forces, and a united Free Syrian Army (FSA) failing to emerge, Western states must use alternatives to bring about the group’s downfall. Economics is the answer; isolating Libya from oil markets was instrumental to Gadaffi’s downfall.
Like many extremist groups, ISIS bolsters its support by providing salary and social security to its followers. Based on ISD’s research, its estimated that the average monthly salary for a fighter is somewhere in the region of $50 to $100. This is matched by allowances for a wife of $50, $30 for each of their children, and $50 for each of your parents. And that’s for a fighter; members of the al-Khansa brigade (morality police) earn $200 a month, with the salaries of their media teams reaching $700. This may seem low to Western standards, but to give a comparison, based on World Bank figures, the average monthly salary in Jordan in 2002 was roughly $150.
ISD’s research on ISIS defectors suggests that (thus far) salaries have managed to remain consistent for the past three-years. This has allowed ISIS popular support and free manoeuvre. But if such social payments were throttled, then ISIS will quickly lose its necessary core support, and could face open revolt.
At present, around 25% of ISIS’s expenditure is on social services. Such estimates are confirmed by the testimony of individual ISIS defectors, who talk of the clothing, food, family and winter-fuel allowances that are handed out. Such ‘welfare’ has led scholars such as Chatham House’s Hassan Hassan to suggest that many Syrians and Iraqis prefer ISIS to the neglectful regimes that they have replaced.
To break the back of ISIS’s welfare model, we need to identify and stop their funding sources.
leaked ISIS budget showed that 54.8% of their money comes from internal revenue sources such as taxes. The remainder comes principally from oil sales to Assad. Ironically, as the Financial Times has helped reveal, this trading relationship is so close that it can be considered symbiotic and a source of internal revenue. ISIS has a guaranteed market for its cheap oil.
This oil trade is believed to generate $40million a month, and is an obvious target (the US began airstrikes against oil trucks in November). It is one of the best targets to attack. But the oil trade is very difficult to control. As long as Russia protects Assad, this will make going after ISIS’s oil revenues a less viable option.
There is much talk of their trade in antiquities, or using crowd-funding to gather cash. But the evidence of their use of so-called cryptocurrencies is limited, and the antiquities trade is incredibly difficult to permeate, due to its opaque and unregulated nature.
Some cause for optimism rests in what we can learn from ISIS’s own budget. Roughly 44.7% of all their income is made through so-called “confiscations” (theft of items from its citizens). This revenue stream is valued at somewhere between $30million and $50million per month.
Although going after oil, tackling the illegal trade in antiquities, and clamping down on efunding is difficult, it will begin to stretch the margins of an organisation spending $1million a month on ammunition alone. This hopefully will oblige the group to draw more from taxes and confiscations, raising the people’s disquiet, and pushing them into open rebellion.
To facilitate such a popular revolt, the West needs to keep tightening the screws and cutting ISIS’s margins. This will take a long time, but gradually such moves will hopefully strangle the group’s economic lifelines and create enough internal disquiet to make the group implode. The road to victory is not quick and will put further hardships on the people of Syria, but - to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt - “Nothing in the world worth having comes easily”.