Small Wars Journal

Why ISIS is Winning in Iraq

Mon, 10/19/2015 - 7:25am

Why ISIS is Winning in Iraq

Johnny Lou and Patrick O’Connor    

On May 17th, as the few remaining defenders of Ramadi collapsed and withdrew back to Baghdad in the face of massive attacks by ISIS fighters, officials and observers across Iraq and the United States were asking one question: how? How did the Iraqi defenders of the city, armed and trained by the most powerful military on earth get defeated in a pitched battle against an insurgent terrorist group armed with stolen weapons?

Analysts devised a number of explanations. Many Iraqi officers and political officials blamed a lack of supporting air-strikes from the American-led coalition. Observers in the US blamed the “lack of resolve” amongst the Iraqi defenders, a charge that outraged Iraqi Army officials. Other US officials believed that the defeat was due to an equipment mismatch: the Iraqi defenders lacked the heavy firepower needed to counter the stolen American-made weapons and vehicles ISIS deployed.

The existing explanations almost exclusively focus on tangible assets such as equipment and weapons or the problems within the Iraqi army. What has so far been missing from this discussion is the impressive military skill ISIS has exhibited. This is a level of tactical skill foreign to most terrorist groups, but familiar to any conventional military officer and to Stephen Biddle, who outlined the impact that skill plays in modern warfare.

The Battle of Ramadi

Nowhere was ISIS’s incredibly high level of skill better showcased than the Battle of Ramadi. The Battle of Ramadi began on May 14th with an assault by ISIS forces on the government compound at the center of the city. After four days of fighting in and around the city of Ramadi, the few remaining Iraqi defenders of the city fled from their positions in the face of relentless assaults by ISIS militants.  Important buildings in the city were soon adorned with the flags of the victorious Islamic State and people suspected of loyalty to the government were put to death. This was a humiliating defeat for the Iraqi forces and the US military advisors who had trained them, as a vastly outnumbered ISIS force managed to capture Ramadi in less than four days with no more advanced weaponry than waves of suicide bombers in stolen vehicles. This victory was due not to any numerical or armament advantage, but ISIS’s mastery of what Biddle terms the “modern system” of warfare.

Firepower and the Problem of Modern Warfare

The advent of long-range rapid-fire weapons in the modern era fundamentally changed the way soldiers attacked their enemies. As generals (and soldiers) painfully learned in the First World War, massive ranks of infantry charging a defensive position would be torn to pieces by rapid-fire machine guns, long-range artillery, and precision rifle fire. In the face of such formidable firepower, armies throughout the world had to fundamentally alter the way in which they went on the offensive. No longer were the principles of offensives centered on massed ranks of infantry; any such force would be annihilated long before taking their objective. Armies of the modern system would need to be nimble and efficient; leveraging training and skill instead of brute force to achieve victory.

Combined Arms Integration

The key to the modern offensive is the principle of combined arms integration. Infantry, now organized into smaller assault units to take advantage of cover, were still responsible for taking ground. To get them to their targets unmolested, other troops and artillery would fire upon defensive positions, not to destroy them, but to suppress their fire. This principle of combining attacking infantry with supporting fire is the basis of Biddle’s “modern system” and has been the key to modern military offensives from the Western Front to Ramadi.

Although the Islamic State also fields a significant amount of artillery, their weapon of choice on the offensive has been the suicide car (or truck) bomb. In the battle of Ramadi, a number of massive vehicle born suicide bombers were deployed in the attacks on government held positions. The attack on the Ramadi police headquarters on May 15th is a textbook example of ISIS’s offensive methodology: an armored bulldozer packed with explosives destroyed the barriers surrounding the western entrance to the government complex to clear the way for two more suicide truck bombers to destroy the entrance and stun the defenders. Immediately after the bombs went off, ISIS fighters swarmed through the breach, overwhelmed the defenders of the compound and took the position. Similar tactics were deployed in attacks on all of the government positions throughout the Battle of Ramadi, and we observe similar tactics in other cities such as Kobane and Mosul. Although they deploy suicide truck bombers instead of long range artillery, ISIS’s tactics hew closely to Biddle’s modern system: heavy firepower (in the form of suicide bombs) clear the way for a closely coordinated infantry assault via suppression.

Deliberate Moderate Tempo

Though the implementation of the modern system provided a way for offensive forces to overcome the firepower of modern defenders, it required a different sort of offensive pacing. Attacking infantry now needed to wait for slower suppressing units to get in place before their attack could begin. No longer was the speed of an offensive dictated solely by how quickly infantry could be moved from one engagement to the next. The modern system, though effective, demanded a deliberate and moderate tempo to allow for all the requisite elements to get in place.

This sort of deliberate tempo was on display in the May assault on Ramadi. ISIS forces took over four days to take a city just over 5.5 miles across. The modern system necessitated this moderated pace through the city: ISIS commanders knew that infantry assaulting a position had to wait for the requisite suicide car bombs to be set up and launched before they could begin. This led to the pattern we observed in Ramadi of focused attacks to capture select targets before moving onto others.

Timeline of ISIS Attacks in Ramadi

The Need for Skill

These new combined arms offensives dictated by the modern system required a much higher level of training and planning on the part of militaries. Suppressing fire from the rear had to be timed precisely: if they stopped too early, the defenders would regroup and destroy the attacking infantry; too late and fratricide would ensue. This meant that leaders and officers across the chain of command needed to possess an unprecedented level of training and skill in order to carry out these attacks.

ISIS’s skills and mastery of the modern system were on full display at Ramadi, as well as battles across Iraq and Syria. The question remains as to where ISIS managed to find these all-important skills that are lacking in almost all other terrorist organizations. The answer lies in the events of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent toppling of Saddam’s Baathist party.

The Saddam Connection

In the weeks after the attack on Ramadi, it was discovered that the leaders of the ISIS fighters that had taken the city were former Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein. In fact, fully four out of seven of the members of the Shura council, including Abu Muslim al Afari al Turkmani, the second in command of ISIS, are former Baathist military commanders. Former Baathist military members also serve as fighters and lower level commanders of ISIS forces.

These Saddam loyalists can be traced back to after the fall of Saddam’s regime, when the Baathists that made up the core of his government and followers were swiftly removed from power. Following the collapse of Saddam’s regime, official US government policy under Ambassador Bremer called for the “de-Baathification” of Iraq. All individuals affiliated with the Baath party were purged from government positions, the military, and schools. It’s been estimated that over 500,000 Baathists in Iraq’s military and intelligence services alone were dismissed and stripped of their pay and pensions[i]. Many of these former soldiers then joined Al Qaeda in Iraq and fought coalition forces non-stop during the insurgency period.

These de-Baathification programs were continued even after the end of the interim government. In a decision sanctioned by the US government, all members or affiliates of the Baath party were subsequently banned by Prime Minister al Maliki from running in the Parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010. Dismissal of civil servants, including doctors, teachers, and engineers, over charges of being affiliated with the Baathist party continued well after the initial purges.

The Road to ISIS

When AQI gradually evolved into ISIS, many of these Baathists joined the new organization. Former Saddam army officers and soldiers, barred from service in the new Iraqi army, began to fight for the Islamic State. This infusion of military leaders and personnel was the key to ISIS’s acquisition of skill necessary for the combined assaults observed in Ramadi and elsewhere.

The rise of ISIS and its military successes are a direct result of the de-Baathification policies of the US interim government and the new Iraqi government. The continued alienation of former Baath party members, whom number in the hundreds of thousands and include Iraq’s most capable civil servants and military leaders, cannot continue if ISIS is to be effectively combated. The expertise and experience that they lend to ISIS is the key to their ability to use advanced military tactics like the ones we have seen in Ramadi and other major battles and these tactics have given them an unprecedented amount of campaign success.

A Baathist Awakening

Though the Baathists and the Islamic State are currently working together, their relationship is more a marriage of convenience rooted in the exclusion of the Baathists from the new Iraqi government and military. ISIS continues to be viewed as extremely radical, even in the Arab world, and it is easy to see how their plans for a global Islamic Caliphate clashes with the views of the nationalist and relatively secular Baathists. The surest way for the Iraqi government to strike at the fighting capability of ISIS is to cultivate relations with the former Baathists and bring them back into the fold of normal Iraqi life, including its political processes. Not only would this deprive ISIS of capable leaders and battle commanders, but it would allow us to use the Baathists to bolster the fighting capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces, which can only be for the better given their recent performances.

Nor is this kind of reconciliation without precedent. During the Sri Lankan civil war, the Sri Lankan government reached out to Col. Karuna, commander of the LTTE in the eastern provinces, who then defected with a third of the LTTE’s fighting forces. Not only did Karuna abandon the Tigers, but his men actually joined the Sri Lankan army in fighting the remaining insurgents. This proved to be the key to taking down the Tamil Tigers, who collapsed five years later. Coalition forces followed a similar strategy with the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribesmen were recruited to help eventually defeat AQI. Now that AQI’s remnants have evolved into ISIS, we need a Baathist Awakening to turn the tide.

End Note

[i] Ferguson, Charles. No End in Sight: Iraq’s Descent into Chaos (United States: Public Affairs, 2008).


About the Author(s)

Patrick O'Connor is a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and a student in the College at the University of Chicago.

Johnny Lou is a researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and a student in the College at the University of Chicago studying Economics and Political Science.


I fully agree with this article.

The exclusion of ex-Baathists was a tragic decision, which severely exacerbated the Sunni minority's sense of vulnerability in occupied Iraq. Maliki certainly bears much blame for zealously continuing this exclusion. While ISIS can be contained and rolled back in many places through NATO airpower, bolstering the Iraqi Army and Shia militias and allowing the Iranians to bear some of the brunt - meaning that ISIS cannot "win" per se - the underlying grievances will not be solved until there is true unification of the country.

The Sri Lankan example is highly relevant, although one would expect some Sunni flight into Syria, Jordan or Turkey.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 10/19/2015 - 9:08pm

What governing body besides ISIS is offering a viable political alternative to the Sunni Arab people of Syria and Iraq?

Certainly not the US. We are on the fence regarding the Shia government of Syria - doubly so now that Russia is involved. As to Iraq, we remain dedicated to restoring the Shia dominated government that we created. Both within a newly expanded, Iran sphere of Shia influence created by our removal of Saddam's critical role as the keystone, creating separation and stability between the ancient larger Sunni-Shia competition that shapes this region.

Step one to a winning role in this type of conflict? Offer the affected population a governance alternative they believe is viable for their future livelihood.

ISIS has outcompeted AQ for influence by offering "Caliphate now" to those tired of AQ's more patient "Caliphate someday" approach. If we do "defeat" this ISIS government of the emergent Sunni Arab state, it will not pave the way for success of the current US plan for the region. Most likely it will re-empower AQ as the best hope for a viable political future. AQ will say "we told you it was too soon for a tangible Caliphate, and will once again continue their more patient UW campaign to advance the cause of Sunni populations frustrated with autocratic regimes that remain unwilling to seriously address evolving political issues.

We are approaching this conflict playing by rules that do not apply. Blinded by our own bias of doctrine, strategic culture, and post-Cold War belief that we make ourselves safer when we make others more like us. We need to recognize the conflict for what it is, and change our approach to one designed to drain the negative energy from the many sources contributing to the current mix. This is not a military problem, but the military can help create time and space for civil leaders, and to mitigate the high end of violence.

Harder, bigger, faster isn't the path victory. This demands first that we re-frame how we think about the problem itself. Only then can we begin to frame and support viable solutions.


Mon, 10/19/2015 - 4:54pm

Another excellent example of this miracle military skill ISIL has is their 1-hr long propaganda video from early this year. In it they have several "combat camera" scenes. Two noteworthy ones are an assault on a Syrian defensive position through an obstacle and against a tank using small hunter-killer teams and an engagement against two Iraqi Abrams tanks in the open. In both scenes what the footage demonstrates is maneuver tactics to close with the enemy and engage with RPGs. In a tragi-comic scene with the Syrian tank, the Syrian crew in a desperate effort to find targets(?) or break contact(?) starts neutral-steering while maniacally traversing the turret all the while small ISIL teams continue engaging from covered positions while an RPG team maneuvers in for a kill.

The pain is repeated in the Iraq Abrams scene where the two tanks are stationary on an elevated road, engaging with main guns and machine guns. Alas, with no visible infantry support and being elevate so far above the field in front of them that they offered maneuvering infantry a defilade position along which to advance to within molotov cocktail range (also comic to see a molotov cocktail splash against a tank in a farm field, but depressing once you realize where the thrower is).

In any case, that the ISIL troops have adopted professional tactics is clear to see. What is also interesting is that ISIL and IA forces are from the same cultural background and even country. Meaning, the failures of the Iraqi Army are all leadership.