Small Wars Journal

Why ISIS Is Our Problem

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 1:03am

Why ISIS Is Our Problem by Steve Coll, The New Yorker

… In June, the Islamic State in Iraq al-Sham (ISIS) declared Raqqa the seat of a new caliphate, presided over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a fierce preacher who was once an American prisoner in Iraq, and is now in hiding. The city has lost its splendor. Public executions are “a common spectacle” on Fridays in El Naim Square or at the Al Sa’a roundabout, a United Nations human-rights commission reported last month. ISIS fighters mount the dead on crucifixes, “as a warning to local residents.”

ISIS emerged a decade ago as a small Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, one that specialized in suicide bombings and inciting Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the country’s Shiite majority. The network regenerated after 2011 amidst Iraq’s growing violence and the depravities of Syria’s civil war. This year, ISIS has conquered cities, oil fields, and swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The movement draws its strength from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, led by Bashar al-Assad.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called ISIS “as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen . . . beyond anything we have seen.” The group has former military officers who can fly helicopters, spot artillery, and maneuver in battle. ISIS is increasingly a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah—part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state…

Read on.


Robert C. Jones

Tue, 09/02/2014 - 6:59am

ISIS is problematic in the same way the Nazi party was problematic in the 1930s and 40s. But the real problems among the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq today have little to do with what ISIS stands for or promotes; just as the real problems of the German people then had little to do with what the Nazis stood for or promoted.

We cannot ignore ISIS; but nor should we buy into misguided beliefs that they somehow are causing what is going on in Syria and Iraq; or that it is because of some evil mix of ideology and coercion that is forcing otherwise happy Sunnis to follow their leadership. As Mao stated about his leadership in China in the 1930s, "I saw a parade and leapt in front."

ISIS too saw a parade of disparate Sunni populations who saw, and see, no future for themselves under Assad in Syria or under the Shia-dominated government the US created in Iraq. Under these conditions revolution is natural, and the causes of that revolutionary energy must be understood and addressed if we hope to in any enduring way help to disperse this "parade" that ISIS has leapt forward to lead.

Unfortunately, I see little indication that our understanding of the problem has evolved much at the official level over the past 13 years, so I caution the US to not give too much merit to those who clamor for the US to jump back into this mix to simply "defeat" ISIS. Efforts to do so may well disrupt or suppress current activities; but will likely make the parade larger and far less likely to be open to US influence or concerns in the future than if we take a more neutral approach.

The bigger question for the US is "how do we outcompete ISIS leadership for influence with the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq"? At this point that may well be a true "mission impossible." But when the dust settles, ISIS may well be in charge of an emergent Sunni state for a while. We will have to deal with that reality if it occurs. But our tools of statecraft work well on weak states, so that should not be an outcome we overly fear.