The so-called ISIL caliphate is an opportunist government. It emerged initially in the power vacuum caused by the Syrian civil war. ISIL was able to expand rapidly by filling in another power vacuum in Iraq. The caliphate was welcomed by Sunnites seeking some kind of way to deal with the injustices of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
In the grand scheme of things, ISIL is a place-holder. Nature abhors a vacuum. Just as with physics, so it is with politics and government. Its ability to stand has been augmented by the kind of leadership and technical expertise ISIL has been able to attract. Further acquisition of oilfields and money plundered from banks in conquered areas had provided the wealth to fuel its existence and its war machine. If there is any doubt that ISIL is a lucky opportunist, consider that it brought almost no military ordnance of its own except infantry weapons. All of ISIL’s tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons were captured from fleeing Syrian and Iraqi forces. And while there are some shady arms dealers who are doubtlessly selling their wares to the caliphate, none are significant enough to provide heavy weapons and armored fighting vehicles in quantities worth noting.
ISIL has been able to attract fighters from across the Muslim world, most of whom are Middle Eastern Arabs, Chechens, Dagestanis and Pakistanis. Many come with military training via the national armies of their home nations. Some even have prior combat experience. I do not know what percentage of enlistees have prior military experience, but these men can be integrated into existing ISIL units rather quickly. Among them are the men who have training to use the many weapons systems that ISIL captured. Tank crewmen, artillery gun crews, communications men and crewmen for heavy infantry weapons come already trained. Any tank, artillery piece or heavy weapon made from 1950 to the present can be put to almost immediate use.
ISIL’s leaders are not a bunch of ragged sand people. All evidence shows that they train their troops and provide good small-unit leadership. Their forces are disciplined enough to provide a credible threat to the Syrian factions and Iraq. It is no wonder that the force that has withstood them firmly, the Kurds, are also disciplined and trained fighters.
At the top, ISIL has people who can handle money and who can run oil operations. They also have people who can sell the oil in bulk on the black market. Just as they have done well with Internet media and recruitment, so they have been able to maintain a working economy.
For all they have, ISIL can only stand so long as the power vacuum continues. For all its bluster and noise, it is an aberration rather than a phenomenon. ISIL has almost no air power and no notable allies. Its shipping is not much different than smuggling. ISIL has neither a maritime nor an air cargo fleet. Military hardware is mostly what it has captured. Acquiring more via arms deals will yield little. The problem is not just buying it, but getting it to ISIL territory. One thing ISIL cannot survive is the war of attrition. The caliphate can be worn down by the slow and inexorable losses of military hardware, manpower and essentials for its economy.
ISIL can stand alone for the present. When the time comes that it needs allies and economic partners, its days are numbered. No stable government would ally with ISIL for a variety of reasons. Likewise, none will enter into an economic agreement with the caliphate. Ironically, ISIL has made enemies of nations that are inimical to one another. The Arab Gulf States and Iran both oppose it, even as they have their own cold war pitting Arabs against Persians. There seems to be some kind of non-aggression deal with Turkey, but that can unravel quickly. Without allies and a stable form of trade, ISIL will last only as long as its existing supplies of manpower, ordnance, food and fuel. Its survival depends on its ability to provide for itself with the means under its immediate control. That will also dwindle.
ISIL can fall apart in several ways. It may implode from within, splitting into hostile factions. It may be overcome from without by a stronger power, such as Turkey. And it may just crumble, its downfall accelerating as its infrastructure collapses. ISIL is a fierce dragon today, but once the region begins to stabilize, it will become a little sand lizard scurrying for cover.