ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)
The History and Operations of ISIS: Iraq to Syria to Iraq Again
The history of ISIS, as already briefly shared when discussing the names and leaders of the organization, is varied. At its beginning, the organization was often characterized as something like a mini-al-Qaeda. Later on the organization was mistakenly characterized by the U.S. government as the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq. As this chapter demonstrates this was not the case in either instance. ISIS has changed and there were multiple organizations that existed before ISIS became a land-owning poststate in Syria and Iraq. ISIS had also maintained a consistency of ideology and behavior.
Here the history of ISIS is discussed in six phases. The first is the longest in terms of time (from about 1999 to 2006), but it takes place when the group is the smallest in size. The second phase extends from the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq until the expulsion of the organization from Iraq—2006 to 2010. The third phase discusses the events in Syria resulting from the Arab Spring. The fourth phase follows the development of the organization while in Syria pending the opportunity to return to Iraq from 2010 to 2014. The fifth phase is the declaration of the Islamic State and discusses the return of the organization to Iraq. The sixth phase is the protection and governance of the Islamic State as a poststate entity or actor in the Middle East.
Phase One: Operating in al-Qaeda’s Shadow
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started an organization in Jordan predating his travel to Afghanistan in 1999, but this history will start with the creation of the training camp outside Herat and the founding of the group known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ) or Group of Monotheism and Jihad. Names have significance and the name for JTJ is important. It emphasized the unity of God and called to the minds of Muslims the shahada, or witness statement. (See entry on Islam, Five Pillars later in this book.) This is the first pillar of Islam where all Muslims state that there is only one God and that Mohamed is the prophet and messenger of that one God. The other important reminder inherent in this name is the principle of struggle, or jihad. JTJ embraced the concept of a struggle of violence; it focused on the use of violence in order to destroy those who oppose Islam and bring about the foundation of an Islamic State.
From the beginning, al-Zarqawi and bin Laden had a difference of opinion regarding the use of violence in the furtherance of creating a caliphate. This will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter, but it is important to understand the difference between al-Qaeda and the root organization of ISIS from the very inception of that organization. Al-Zarqawi believed that the caliphate had to be brought into the world in blood and violence. He also felt it should come forward sooner and by force. In comparing the two groups of al-Qaeda and ISIS, many authors and commentators argue that the differences between them are slight and are primarily about leadership. In reality, the difference is about vision. Though this difference existed at the beginning, the two groups were still similar enough in ultimate design that bin Laden gave money to help start the JTJ training camp and al-Zarqawi gave his allegiance to bin Laden later on in Iraq, taking on al-Qaeda’s name. Despite those connections—JTJ and all following named groups that became ISIS was never truly al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was always conceptually something else.
JTJ moved from Afghanistan to Iraq following the American invasion of Afghanistan. It operated a training camp in the mountains of northeastern Iraq as the United States prepared to invade Iraq. The existence of the group in Iraq was one of the pretexts used to justify a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In the period from about 2002 to 2004, JTJ looked a lot like other nonstate actors in that it recruited, trained personnel, and then conducted terrorist operations regionally and, if possible, globally. JTJ conducted attacks in Jordan, Turkey, and possibly as far away as Morocco. If history stopped in 2003, then JTJ would not make the history books. It was small and it was unspectacular.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq changed that. Most specifically, the Battles of Fallujah and the opportunity to use the U.S. forces as a justification for extreme displays of violence created the mystique and reputation for what became ISIS. In 2003, there were numerous groups in opposition to the U.S. invasion that operated in Iraq. JTJ was simply one of them, and no one at that time imagined it would become the dominate salafi-jihadi group.
In late March 2004, four Blackwater security contractors were killed and hung from an overpass in Fallujah. This generated a U.S.-led operation into Fallujah that wreaked havoc on the city, which was called off by the interim Iraqi government in relatively short order, giving the impression of U.S. defeat. The insurgents celebrated their victory and continued to demonstrate a complete lack of respect for the Iraqi government. The U.S.-led coalition went back into Fallujah in November. It destroyed numerous buildings and killed a lot of fighters opposing the coalition. The fighting in Fallujah made insurgent leaders. It became the way to demonstrate your prowess as a battlefield commander. Many of the leaders who went on to lead at various levels of the organization gained their street and fighting credibility in Fallujah.
Most of the future leaders of ISIS who fought in Fallujah made it out before the U.S.-led attacks in November 2004. In October 2004, the group formally designated its association to al-Qaeda by taking on yet another name—Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia)—or al-Qaeda in Iraq. From this point until the U.S. departure from Iraq, many U.S. military and civilians looked on this group as simply a part of al-Qaeda—just another franchise owned and operated in Iraq. This thinking was wrong. It was its own group with a driving ideology made up of a distinct set of beliefs.
One of the most notorious examples of this ideology was the attack on three hotels in Amman, Jordan, on November 9, 2005. Based off international dating, this was Jordan’s 9/11. One of the attacks ended up targeting a wedding celebration where the majority of the casualties were wedding guests. This attack turned Jordan against al-Zarqawi and AQI and caused many others to distance themselves from the group and its tactics. As the group added video beheadings and then attacks on mosques to its repertoire, even Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri cautioned al-Zarqawi to change his tactics. The final voice of reason came from the man who led al-Zarqawi to the path of salafi-jihadism, al-Maqdisi. The strategy to use violence as a means to generate a civil war in Iraq and to force the Sunnis to support the creation of an Islamic State took precedence over all calls for moderation. Al-Zarqawi and subsequent ISIS leaders consistently held true to their conception of the fight regardless of who asked for them to change.
Despite their difference in perspective of the fight, ISIS still made the effort to band together like-minded groups into a common organization of sorts. The idea was to form a council of groups that were opposed to the U.S.-led occupation and also held similar beliefs with respect to jihad against both the foreign occupiers and the perceived puppet government of Shia. So on January 15, 2006, the groups announced the formation of the Mujahideen Shura Council. The leadership of the group was nearly exclusively ISIS supporters. The ISIS of 2014 and 2015, as stated in a previous chapter, was an umbrella organization. That umbrella was being built on the streets of Fallujah in 2004 and again in the formation of this organization in 2006.
A month later on February 22, 2006, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq, was partially destroyed with a car bomb. The mosque is considered one of the most holy sites for Shia Muslims and the attack on the site by Sunni extremists sparked a civil war in Iraq as desired by AQI. Al-Zarqawi continued to conduct attacks designed to foment and expand the sectarian violence, tearing the country apart. U.S. forces eventually found al-Zarqawi and killed him with an airstrike on June 7, 2006.
Phase Two: A State Is Declared
On October 15, 2006, the new leader changed the name and declared there to be an Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). This statement received numerous rebuttals from the salafi-jihadi community. Leadership of al-Qaeda and others stated that Iraq was not ready for this declaration. ISIS ignored them and continued to promote the sectarian war that it had effectively initiated.
Despite the declaration of the founding of the Islamic State, there was little change in behavior for ISIS. It continued to act like an insurgency composed of terrorists and street thugs. It conducted kidnappings for ransom and extortion, it facilitated suicide bombings to maintain the sectarian killing, and it manipulated tribal loyalties and relationships. The response to ISIS activities was not typical. Some tribes were fiercely loyal and supportive of the actions and activities of ISIS. Other tribal leaders in al-Anbar province and elsewhere began to oppose the extreme behaviors of ISIS.
Iraq shaded the view of many Americans about Arabs where an Arab is perceived as extreme in belief and behavior. In general, Arabs are moderates. This mindset stems from the nature of their formative life—living in a harsh, potentially life-threatening climate and environment—which inclines one toward moderation and going with conditions as they are. Extreme interpretations violate this natural sense of moderation as well as the majority Muslim perception of their faith as a personal observance that creates the ideal community. One Muslim telling another Muslim how to be acceptably Muslim is not compatible with the general interpretation of the faith.
ISIS also challenged the preexisting power base. In the years between Operation Desert Storm (1991) and the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), Saddam Hussein consolidated his hold on major population centers, but he also allowed local leaders and tribal leaders to act freely so long as they did not disrupt his power centers. This meant that certain families controlled various smuggling routes, specifically the smuggling of certain commodities. ISIS exacted specific rules about what would cross the border and who would receive the benefits of the smuggling. The challenge to culture, religion, tribal economy, and tribal power caused a response that is often referred to as the Awakening (sahwa) or, as it is often linked with the increase in U.S. troop levels, the Surge. (See entries on Sahwa (Sunni Uprising) and The Surge later in this book.)
Sunni tribes, tired of fighting the Iraqi government, and government authorities in what seemed to be an endless sectarian war, grudgingly came together in this Awakening (sahwa) to pay Sunni tribal members to provide security. The Sons of Iraq fought alongside U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces against the extremists and foreign fighters including ISIS. This forced ISIS to go to ground and become less significant as a player. It also radically decreased the acts of violence around the country.
It is important to note that the violence did not end.
In specific times and locations, the violence increased. The insurgent community wanted to communicate through its violence—a particular hallmark of ISIS—that the United States and its coalition partners were being driven from Iraq. To send this message it staged attacks, particularly spectacular attacks that garnered significant media attention, immediately preceding the announced withdrawal of U.S. units. So overall attacks reduced across the whole of Iraq, but specific times and specific locations still experienced mass casualty attacks in which dozens of people were killed and wounded. ISIS was concealed and not nearly as active, but it wanted the people of Iraq to know why the coalition member states left Iraq—they were forced out.
Phase Three: Arab Spring
In the Fall and Winter of 2010 and continuing into the Spring of 2011, separate events happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen. The people in each of these countries rose up in protests—sometimes small and sometimes shockingly large—against their existing governments and the leadership in their states. This was an amazing display of popular will and it featured the use of social media to a degree never before seen. Some called it a Twitter revolution after the name of the social media service. Each of these events needs to be taken as separate and distinct. It is certain that there were inspirational overlaps between the different countries, but the circumstances in each country were unique.
The events in Syria started in the south near the Jordanian border where a young boy painted anti-regime graffiti. For that he was tortured and killed and his body was left in the street. This sparked significant outcry from the people of Deraa. What has come to be called the Syrian Civil War started with this overreaction by the Syrian security apparatus. It rapidly spread to Idlib province in the north of the country. Deraa in the south and Idlib in the north served as centers of opposition to the regime until the time of writing this book—more than five years later.
To understand the Syrian Civil War, it is important to understand Syria and the complexity of the country. Syria has been ruled by an Alawite minority since a military coup in 1978 led by Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president of Syria. Alawites are typically linked with Shia, but their practices and beliefs, which have common roots, are different enough to be considered heretical by many Shia. Despite this, the first country to recognize the Islamic government in Iran following the 1979 revolution was the government of Syria. From this moment in 1979 until the present, there has been a close relationship between Iran and Syria. With the establishment of Hezbollah in 1983 and the support it received from Iran throughout its opposition to Israel, Syria has served as a conduit of arms and equipment from Iran to Hezbollah. The complexity of the relationships between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah are worthy of a separate book. It is important for readers to understand this connection in order to understand the dynamics of ISIS and opposition to ISIS within Syria. (See entries on Alawi and Hezbollah later in this book.)
The Alawites are a minority population in Syria—about 11 to 12 percent. The majority of Syria is Sunni. During the Alawite reign in Syria, the regime has always been supportive of minority groups throughout the country. This is especially true of the Christian population that at one point was more than 10 percent of Syria. Over the decades of rule, the Assad family effectively linked the regime to the Alawite communities, creating an environment wherein survival of the regime equaled survival of Alawite villages and families.
The Assad family was hostile toward Saddam Hussein and the Syrian regime was happy to see the fall of the dictator. They were particularly happy to see the United States suffer in Iraq following their designation as part of the Axis of Evil by the U.S. president in a State of the Union address. Syria became a conduit for the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. This became something of a problem as these foreign fighters eventually took advantage of the vacuum created in eastern Syria by the growing civil war primarily being fought in the western portions of the country. The smuggling lines used to move foreign fighters and material into Iraq were then traced backward into Syria to begin establishing bases of operation within Syria itself.
Since the military success of ISIS became evident in 2014 and 2015, there has been lots of ink spilled and hours of debate over who was responsible for the creation of ISIS. It is clear that the chaos that reigned following the overthrow of Iraq created the first incubation ground for such an organization, but it was in the chaos of Syria that ISIS was truly born as an effective poststate actor and an actual poststate.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi traveled to Syria as an operative of ISI and the council to develop the support capacity in Syria during this period. He became the leader of ISI with the death of his predecessor in a U.S. strike in 2010. He used the connections he made in Syria to exploit the opportunities created by growing chaos in the country and the weakening of the Syria security forces.
Phase Four: Building the State
The United States departed Iraq with all forces at the end of 2011 and it seemed, at the time, as if ISI was defeated in Iraq. The Iraqi government had extended its control throughout the country. Nuri al-Maliki (then Prime Minister in Iraq) felt secure enough in his leadership to begin bringing charges against Sunni opponents. He accused multiple individuals serving in senior government positions of corruption. One of the favorite accusations was against the security details of Sunni leaders. The security personnel were often accused of conducting sectarian extrajudicial killings at earlier periods during the occupation. By removing the security detail from the principal, it would both weaken the Sunni leader in the sense of guilt by association and weaken him by making him more vulnerable to personal physical attack. The United States did nothing in this early period to condemn the actions. Al-Maliki believed he had been given a green light to take care of things in Iraq as he saw fit. He then began mass removals of senior Iraqi security force leaders who were nonsectarian or pro-Sunni in their political leanings. Rather than choosing people who were capable, he stacked the military with people who were loyal to him personally.
These actions did more than weaken the Iraqi Security Forces. The actions also angered the Sunni tribes and the Sons of Iraq that had agreed to fight alongside the security forces against the insurgents. The Sunni leaders and fighters felt betrayed and threatened by the government. Even before U.S. forces departed Iraq in 2011, the Iraqi government began to reduce payments to the Sons of Iraq in terms of limiting the number of people who received money. By the time the United States departed, it was almost entirely eliminated and shortly after the departure all funds to Sunni fighters ceased.
In this same period, ISIS continued to develop contacts and operational space in Syria. Though it was yet to possess any Syrian city or area as a dedicated base of operations, it was still operating out of Syria as well as back into Iraq. Even before the United States completely pulled out of Iraq, ISIS was already working the relationships. It focused its engagements on al-Anbar province and on the city of Mosul. ISIS representatives visited their contacts in these areas multiple times—establishing and developing relationships. They conducted the meetings along the standard lines of Arab hospitality—bringing gifts, speaking of family and faith, and eventually speaking of security. They offered a shared vision of Iraq—an Iraq ruled by a Sunni majority.
ISIS conducted a multiyear engagement program designed to turn individuals, influential families, and tribes to its side long before it actually showed up in the country in force. This was aspirational. ISIS offered a positive vision for the country—Sunni-controlled, religiously conservative, and opposed to Iranian and Western influence. This was agreeable to most Sunnis.
It is important to note that many Sunni Iraqis do not believe the demographic statistics of Iraq quoted by Western leaders—60% Shia, 20% Sunni, and 20% Kurd—as they believe these statistics are politicized to favor Shia dominance. Many Sunnis in Iraq will tell you that they are the majority ethnosectarian group (or at least the plurality) in the country and thus they should be the dominant force as they were under the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein. Thus the ISIS message that argued for a form of Sunni nationalism appealed to the existing vision of people who believed they should be in charge anyway. The people who received the ISIS emissaries into their homes were inclined to accept the vision presented. As the engagements developed over time (it is important to understand that this process occurred over years), ISIS began to promise future opportunities of leadership positions. For example, if you back us when we come into your area, then you will be the mayor, the governor, etc. Many nonreligious groups began to see the benefit of the message that ISIS was selling. They were inclined toward that vision for Iraq and many believed that the religious extremists could be controlled. Not only did the former Saddam loyalists and other less religiously extreme groups think they could control ISIS and other groups, the secular Sunnis also wanted to harness the dynamism and near fanatic commitment to a cause that these groups demonstrated. In essence, they wanted to control the tornado. So they invited the tornado in. Their plan backfired; those who thought they could use ISIS were instead used by ISIS.
Many articles and reporters emphasized the development of intelligence and protection rackets in the Sunni communities in Iraq at this time. This did happen. Threats, kidnappings, extortion were and are part of the ISIS playbook. It is crucial to understand that ISIS also presented an aspirational message. The ISIS forces that returned to Iraq in 2014 did not come in as the surprise to Iraqis that the Western media believed them to be. Instead they rolled in on a carpet of engagement and threats that had been years in the making.
This same pattern was also playing out in Syria. ISIS was building a cache of weapons and resources and developing the relationships necessary to facilitate what would be a rapid rise in power that appeared to be a shocking transformation of the Syrian and Iraqi desert maps as they went from a small operating base to controlling large swaths of territory in a matter of months. It was not a matter of months—ISIS built an infrastructure of relationships and intimidation over a period of years that undergirded all of their future success.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sent a group of his ISIS operators into Syria to conduct an assessment of the possibilities to fight against the Assad regime. These operators then developed into an active and powerful fighting force in the western part of Syria. They became so powerful that as al-Baghdadi sought to retain control over them and to continue to direct their actions they grew disgruntled to the point of breaking away. The former ISIS operators used statements from the al-Qaeda leadership as an excuse to separate from ISIS. This group is known as Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra front. (See entry on Jabhat al-Nusra later in this book.) They continue to be an important part of the story of ISIS in Syria until the present time. The clash between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS is one of the key stories of actions in Syria throughout 2014 and 2015. What is important to know is that Jabhat al-Nusra was once part of ISIS and they hold the same basic ideology.
Phase Five: Declaring the State
ISIS became a global phenomenon in 2014. In January 2014 in Fallujah, Iraq, there was a parade of ISIS equipment and personnel with flags. This was its coming out party, its announcement to Iraq, the region, and the world that it was a power. Though the Iraqi Security Forces maintained positions within Fallujah, it was no longer truly in full control of the city. ISIS flags and militants appeared in numerous towns and cities in al-Anbar province throughout the winter. When President Obama was interviewed about the events, he referred to ISIS as a JV team. He also quipped that just because someone puts on a Lakers jersey that does not make him Kobe Bryant. These comments were later used as examples of the U.S. administration’s lack of touch with the events on the ground. The Iraqi Sunnis were regularly demonstrating against Nuri al-Maliki and the Iraqi government, in general. ISIS was on their side, and it seemed to represent Sunni power.
ISIS went on to launch numerous effective raids against Iraqi Security Force targets. In several attacks, it mounted jailbreaks to free Sunni prisoners. One of the most notable was against the infamous Abu Ghraib prison where it freed hundreds of prisoners and future ISIS fighters. During this same time, ISIS was also acting in Syria to capture entire towns and cities from Syrian forces. It took Raqqa, Syria, which became its de facto capital. For the most part, its attacks were focused on towns and cities in the Euphrates River valley. (See entry on Raqqa, Syria later in this book.)
One of the main Syrian cities on the Euphrates River is Deir al-Zour. This city still has not fully fallen to ISIS fighters, but it has been hotly contested since early in 2014 until the present among belligerents including ISIS, the Syrian military, and Jabhat al-Nusra. As ISIS began to capture and control cities, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, other opposition and extremist organizations began to swear allegiance to ISIS and fight for it.
The Syrian opposition is not a single group. It is not even a hundred groups. It comprises several hundred groups (maybe more than a thousand) that have near-constant shifting allegiances. With success, ISIS gathered other fighters like a large snowball as it rolled downhill.
The big attack happened in June 2014 as a large raid into Mosul, Iraq, originally intended to free prisoners from the jail effectively defeated the Iraqi army operating in and around the city. The fighting occurred over several days. As the Iraqi Security Forces fled or were ambushed and slaughtered, ISIS was able to capture the second largest city in Iraq. As previously indicated, the city had been worked over by ISIS for several years with engagements and intimidation such that numerous municipal, tribal, and civic leaders were already pro-ISIS when it came in. Mosul was a hotbed of pro-Ba’ath opposition to the government in Baghdad for many years. Now it was the crown jewel for ISIS.
On June 29, 2015, the Islamic State was declared to be the caliphate and all Muslims were invited to join the state in its defense and expansion.
Phase Six: Defending the State
At this point in mid-2014, it seemed like the Iraqi Security Forces could no longer protect the country from ISIS and its advances whether in the major river valleys or in the north. The most prominent Shia religious figure in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, extended a call to all Iraqis (his influence is mostly over Shia Iraqis) to rise up and defend their country and especially the Shia holy sites and the capital. Thousands of young men flocked to what became known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Many of these groups were backed by Iran in terms of pay, equipment, arms, and ammunition. The Iranian military deployed senior leaders and advisors and later elements of its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force. The senior Iranian leader who helped both in directing the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and the pro-Assad fight in Syria was Qasem al-Soleimani. (See entry on Soleimani, Qasem later in this book.) The PMF became the most successful non-Kurdish fighting force in Iraq by the end of the year.
As ISIS began to expand its operations from Mosul and from the main highway from Syria to Mosul, it captured numerous villages that were populated by ethnic and sectarian minorities. Some of these included Yazidi communities around the Sinjar Mountains. Stories of genocidal atrocities including slavery, massive rape, and kidnapping coming from the attacks on these villages galvanized the west like none of the other reports had. The United States looked at providing humanitarian support to the Yazidis trapped on Sinjar.
Additionally, there was concern for the Kurdish and Christian communities in the areas threatened by ISIS. It looked like ISIS attacks into the Kurdish portions of Iraq might reach the city of Irbil where the U.S. government has a consulate. U.S. airstrikes in support of Kurdish forces and in protection of the U.S. Consulate caused an ISIS backlash. ISIS beheaded two American journalists within a couple of weeks of each other as a way of threatening the United States against the conduct of further military operations. Within days, the United States increased airstrikes and began the deployment of hundreds and ultimately thousands of U.S. trainers and logisticians to support what became known as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR).
OIR had two components. The first focused on operations in Syria while the second coordinated operations in Iraq. These operations included an international coalition of several dozen countries who provided everything from a couple of staff officers to attack aircraft and special operations forces. The intent of OIR was to train and equip Iraqi and Syrian forces to go in and do the fighting on the ground while the United States and coalition airpower supported their efforts.
In Syria, there was a major fight around the border city of Kobane, Syria, where ISIS first took most of the town, but then was ultimately driven from the city by a combination of Syrian Kurdish fighters on the ground and coalition airpower. The city that was recaptured was little more than a pile of rubble and more than a year later was still a shell of its former self with only a small percentage of its original population having returned.
The year 2014 ended with ISIS fighters operating in some fashion in places along the Euphrates River in both Iraq and Syria. They were also operating in the Tigris River valley in places like Tikrit that is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, and Bayji that houses a key part of Iraqi infrastructure in the form of a large refinery complex. They may not have existed in large numbers, but they were aggressive and committed.
In 2015, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria saw numerous successes as they beat back ISIS from village after village. The Mosul Dam that was in danger of collapse for many years was captured by ISIS in 2014 and regained by Iraqi Kurds in late 2014 with the help of coalition airpower. Fighting expanded from the manmade lake created by the dam as the Kurds regained land contact with Sinjar Mountain and the villages around it to include the retaking of the city of Sinjar itself in late 2015.
In March 2015, the Iraqi Security Forces in combination with tens of thousands of PMF attacked Tikrit. The fighting for Tikrit took more than a month with little gain. Coalition aircraft did not support the attack because of the presence of the Shia militias and Iranian advisors. Finally, after the government of Iraq agreed to withdraw the militias the coalition aircraft began to strike. It still took several more weeks to retake the city and even then it was Shia militiamen who were first into the city. Tikrit was saturated with improvised explosive devices in almost every building. Months after the recovery of the city, very few families had returned.
Tikrit was retaken in May 2015 and within a couple of weeks ISIS attacked to take Ramadi. It captured the city with a combination of more than a dozen powerful truck bombs—each one as strong as the Oklahoma City bombing (April 19, 1995). The rapid response from losing Tikrit to taking Ramadi took the Iraqi forces by surprise and there was seeming confusion about whether or not to defend or to withdraw. A counterattack was begun within a matter of days, but it was poorly resourced and coordinated. Ramadi was reportedly retaken by late December 2015, but despite the reports there were still large sections of the city with ISIS presence and the battle to regain the city destroyed a significant percentage of buildings in the city. By the end of 2015, something like 30 percent of the territory captured by ISIS was retaken, but the major urban areas like Tikrit and Kobane were like ghost towns.
In Syria, the second half of 2015 saw significant success along the border with Turkey as Kurdish forces were able to work in concert with coalition airstrikes to regain village after village. The fighting in the west of Syria was also going against the Syrian regime with numerous opposition groups gaining ground. The U.S.-trained Syrian fighters were a nearly complete failure as only 60 had been trained and almost every single one was either captured or killed within weeks of reentering Syria to fight. The United States abandoned the training program in late September in favor of providing material and air support to groups already demonstrating battlefield success.
As the Assad regime looked like it was on the edge of failure; several key events happened in the summer and early fall to provide new hope. The first event was the signing of a nuclear material agreement between Iran and what became known as the P5+1 countries that included the permanent five countries from the UN Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China) and Germany. This agreement, though not fully approved by all of the participating countries, signaled an end to the arms and economic embargo and sanctions against the Iranian regime, the primary supporter of the Assad regime in Syria. By August 2015, Iran was in a position to provide both more manpower and more financial support to Syria. Additionally, in September Russia deployed attack aircraft, artillery, and armored units to Syria and began attacking Syrian opposition forces. This meant that ISIS only had to contend with the U.S.-led coalition as most Russian air and artillery attacks were directed at non-ISIS opposition forces. That was until October 31, 2015, when a Russian passenger jet was brought down by a reported bomb on board as it traveled from Sharm al-Sheikh. ISIS took credit for the attack through one of its declared provinces. This generated more intense attacks from Russian aircraft against ISIS targets in Syria. Following a multi-location terrorist attack in Paris, France, on November 13, 2015, which killed 130 and galvanized the French people and government against ISIS and spurred on additional attacks against ISIS targets from the air.
As 2015 came to an end, it was uncertain what would be the final result of the Russian participation in the fighting or the added efforts of French aircraft and personnel. It was clear that Russia was in Syria to support the Assad regime as were Iran and Hezbollah. It was uncertain whether or not there would be a resolution such that a combined Shia-led response would be directed from the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis to fight ISIS in Syria. The United States was also announcing additional special operations forces deployed to Iraq and Syria to serve as a targeted strike force.