ISIS: An Introduction and Guide to the Islamic State (2016)
Enemies of ISIS
One of the intellectual fathers of ISIS ideology is Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian-Jordanian Islamic theorist. Al-Maqdisi was the first to claim that the members of the House of Saud were apostates because of their failure to adhere to the proper Islamic beliefs and their willingness to host unbelievers in their country. From this statement, the intellectual roots of ISIS have grown such that it considers nearly all modern Arab states to be apostate entities. It is opposed, as are all Islamist organizations, to the existence of the state of Israel, and it considers the West, in its broadest sense, to be a source of debauchery, decadence, and evil. From just this simple summary, one can imagine that the list of enemies of ISIS will be large, and it is. This chapter will focus on those currently involved in the fight against ISIS and not include all possible future opponents.
U.S.-Led Coalition (Part of Operation Inherent Resolve)
The United States announced a policy to defeat and ultimately destroy ISIS in September 2014. Even before this date, the United States and other countries that would later join the coalition engaged in hostilities against ISIS. As of December 2014, 65 countries had committed themselves to getting rid of ISIS. The list of countries is included. The countries in this group are participating in very different ways. The coalition has grown and contracted over time and will continue to do so. Some countries provide aircraft, some trainers, others special operations forces, etc. Many provide no military assistance whatsoever; instead they offer assistance monitoring terrorist financing or similar functions. Simply put, do not assume that all of the countries listed are providing something similar. They are not. The variations of support to the coalition are significant and the list continues to change on an almost monthly basis. The largest country in terms of personnel and variety of missions is the United States.
Bahrain, Kingdom of
Belgium, Kingdom of
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Egypt, Arab Republic of
Iraq, Republic of
Korea, Republic of
United Arab Emirates
For the sake of simplicity, this section includes the regime itself as well as those formally allied with it—Russia, Cuba, Hezbollah, etc. As discussed in “The History and Operations of ISIS,” the organization as it exists in its current construct was formed in Syria as the regime began losing control of various portions of its territory. ISIS’s control of a large portion of the Euphrates River valley and much of Syria’s eastern oil wealth poses a serious threat to the Syrian regime’s economic stability.
ISIS views members of the regime of Bashar al-Assad as corrupt unbelievers. The Syrian government is a combination of Alawite sectarian families and Ba’ath Party officials. The Ba’ath Party in Syria and Iraq shares the same roots, but the Syrian arm of the party morphed significantly under the influence of Hafez al-Assad, father of Basher al-Assad. The Ba’athists in Syria are still generally secular in nature. Despite this, Syria was the first state to recognize the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979. Because of this and its role in funneling weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, it is part of the Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.
Syria has modern capabilities in terms of aircraft, helicopters, tanks, etc. It has been fighting against opposition forces for more than four years and its resources have depleted. It withdrew from locations east of the Euphrates River valley in early 2015 to better position its limited resources. It is no longer trying to hold on to the entire country, but it is focusing on the specifics of the Alawite-controlled west—the coast, the Orontes River valley from Damascus to Aleppo, and Deir al-Zour on the Euphrates River. It has received significant assistance from Hezbollah in fighting against opposition forces along the Lebanese border for several years. Hezbollah has taken numerous casualties in the fighting, but it maintains a force of several thousand in Syria. The Syrian government recently requested and received assistance from Russia in the form of air and ground forces. A smaller contingent of Cuban forces followed the Russian deployment after several months.
The U.S. government is in opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad for the brutal way in which he has used the organs of state violence to suppress the opposition. These include chemical weapons and barrel bombs (improvised explosive devices dropped from aircraft and helicopters). There has also been bombardment from the land and air against various opposition-controlled neighborhoods inflicting significant casualties on civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed during the fighting with the majority of casualties probably caused by the Syrian regime.
Few of the groups listed in the following sections fight outside their villages or neighborhoods. Most do not have the resources in weapons, ammunition, or manpower to be expeditionary beyond their local area and almost none have the logistical support to mount anything like a campaign that would include battles in which multiple villages or cities could be captured. Part of the reason for the drawn out nature of this civil war is the limited consolidation of the opposition. This is not the U.S. Civil War where you had the U.S. government fighting the Confederacy. There is no confederation of any size or capability and where alliances do exist in some numbers they only last for a few villages worth of fighting or a few months. Then they break up and reconfigure. Thus any linear projections of Syrian opposition combat success are based off a flawed model. Those groups that are most influential are briefly described in the following sections.
Moderate Syrian Opposition. This is the most fictional group in this chapter. A Russian official made the statement that moderates do not rebel. There is some truth to this. For the most part, this group represents people who are non-Islamist or non-Jihadist. The most publicized group was the Free Syrian Army. This group, as is true with all groups fighting in Syria, is not a single group, but represents numerous small organizations that come together, in a general sense, under an umbrella name. Because of the umbrella nature of both supporters and opponents of both the Syrian and Iraqi governments, there is a mercurial nature to the fight with any small group splintering off to work with another group based off common interests that day, week, or month.
The “moderate” opposition is the groups that the U.S. government was supporting and training through both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). They have received money and arms, and some training from the United States. In some cases, the weapons are significant in terms of firepower. At least one group received heavy antitank guided missiles that are effective against both vehicles and fortified positions at more than two miles. The groups shift from dozens to hundreds in number. There are tens of thousands in armed opposition to the Syrian government, and there may be thousands that can be called moderate. If a reader were to see a group of opposition fighters lined up against a wall, it is unlikely that she or he would be able to distinguish between the moderates and the religious extremists.
Jabhat al-Nusra. (See entry on Jabhat al-Nusra later in this book.) As discussed in “The History and Operations of ISIS,” this group was formed by members of the Islamic State of Iraq who were sent to Syria to begin establishing a base for the state in the burgeoning civil war. It has grown in power and influence over the years since its initial arrival. It separated from ISIS in a well-publicized disagreement over authority and control, and it swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. It is violent and like all of the other opposition organizations it regularly changes sides depending on who it is fighting. It represents several thousand fighters at the very most. In most areas where it is conducting operations, it has dozens to hundreds of fighters present. They are salafi-jihadis, and they subscribe to most of the same ideology as ISIS with the exception of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being the rightful caliph and the Islamic State being the caliphate.
Islamist Opposition. There are numerous (at least several dozen and maybe hundreds) other salafi-jihadi or Islamist organizations participating in the fighting in Syria. As stated previously, they are mercurial and change names, size, and affiliations on an irregular basis. For the most part, groups are defending neighborhoods or villages with which they have lasting relationships and associations. This is common with the “moderate” opposition as well. An analogy that may prove useful is that of gangs that protect their “turf” from interlopers as other gangs attempt to muscle in on the territory.
The relationship between ISIS and the Iraqi government was laid out in “The History and Operations of ISIS.” The government of Nuri al-Maliki was forced out of office in September 2014. The new Prime Minister is Hader al-Abadi. He talked about all of the things the U.S. government wanted to hear—creating an inclusive government (Sunni and Shia), controlling corruption, reconciling with the Kurdish Regional Government over oil concessions, etc. Very few of these promises have achieved success. The main complaint against the Iraqi regime is that following the U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011 the regime became sectarian. In 2014, the Iraqi Army collapsed in the face of ISIS advances. ISIS captured hundreds of vehicles and thousands of weapons plus ammunition. Much of the weapons being used by ISIS have been captured from the Iraqi security forces and some from the Syrian security forces. It is critical to understand that the Iraqi military collapsed in mid-2014, and it still has not been rebuilt at least not in terms of psychological or emotional stability. The army has gotten better with regard to training, but it has not developed into a force that is willing to stand and face ISIS.
As it exists, the Iraqi military mainly organizes in brigades (1,500-3,000 soldiers) though there are divisions. Brigades are assigned to area operations commands. The operational commands are based off provincial governments. Thus the Anbar Operational Command has responsibility for the fight in al-Anbar Province. The regime has received F-16 attack aircraft from the United States and Su-25 attack aircraft from Russia. This gave a significant ground attack capability. Though it has the aircraft, the Iraqis are not sufficiently trained nor do they have the supporting elements to conduct precision strikes from the air.
The main plan for the U.S.-led coalition was to train and equip the Iraqis to fight against and remove ISIS from Iraq while providing close air support from coalition aircraft. Until late 2015, this plan had consistently failed to achieve noteworthy success. The retaking of Ramadi late in December 2015 was the first real success predominately led by the Iraqi military. Early 2016 saw small successes in villages surrounding other ISIS strongholds. Varying reports credited improved Iraqi training received from the U.S. with spurring this additional success. The Iraqi military is dominated by the Popular Mobilization Forces that have more forces in the field and are, generally speaking, better armed.
Popular Mobilization Forces
In mid-2014 as it looked like ISIS was close to attacking into Baghdad the Shia Grand Ayatollah in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani called out to all Iraqis to defend the capital and the country from the attacks of ISIS. This led thousands to take up arms to retain the capital. Numerous groups sprang up, but most people joined one of the three main groups that preceded the existence of ISIS: the Badr Corps, Kitaib al-Hezbollah, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In many cases, these groups are referred to in the media as Shia militias. Each of these three groups receives a great deal of its support from Iran. Not all of the Popular Mobilization Forces are linked with Iran, but the largest and most effective are. Since the call for people to rise up there have been efforts in the Iraqi Parliament to make the linkage between the Popular Forces and the Iraqi government semiformal. It is not uncommon for the various groups to receive equipment and pay from the government. This brings up the question of whether these groups are part of the formal Iraqi security forces or separate like gangs.
The nature, size, and delineation of these groups change on a regular basis. To quantify these groups and their supporters is to establish an artificial data point. The city of Tikrit was attacked by the Iraqi security forces and elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the total force was about 30,000 strong. Most of those (more than two-thirds, at least) were from the Popular Mobilization Forces. This should give some idea of the size they have. Almost every town or area regained from ISIS in 2015 (outside of Kurdish territory) had been liberated by these forces or militias with the notable exception of Ramadi in December 2015.
Arabs trace their culture back to Bedouin tribes and familial connections. In some parts of the Middle East, there are tribes that still exist in this historical and cultural context—moving from one location to the next with their flocks and tents. Tribes do not have borders or boundaries and they do not have nationalities. Some of the largest Arab tribes are spread across numerous countries. Tribes are not sectarian although there are tribes that are predominantly Sunni or Shia. Despite this when writers or commentators write or speak about tribes in Iraq with respect to ISIS, they are typically referring to Sunni tribes from either the al-Anbar or Ninawa provinces.
The emphasis on tribes in countering ISIS influence goes back to the Sunni Awakening—Sahwa—associated with the Surge of 2006 to 2009 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2005 and 2006, several tribal leaders in Anbar became frustrated with the death, destruction, and chaos, and they decided to oppose the foreign fighters (al-Qaeda in Iraq at that time). At first, these were not senior tribal leaders, but typically sons or nephews. They gathered small groups of men, and they cooperated with U.S. forces operating in their areas. By the time the Surge began in 2007, the awakening had been going on for more than a year. Sunni tribes were becoming more and more likely to oppose al-Qaeda and other similar groups. Because the local tribes knew who was an Iraqi tribal member and who was a foreigner, it was much easier for them to identify the enemy. The intelligence provided by the awakening was more important than the combat actions conducted by them. In many ways, this was what changed the combat dynamic in Iraq more so than the extra deployment of U.S. soldiers. That said, extra U.S. forces did make engagement with and exploitation of awakening information much more effective.
The idea by those encouraging greater support to Sunni tribes is to recreate the Awakening. Most Sunnis oppose ISIS and its interpretation of Islam, and many tribes that are opposed to their brand of governance have suffered at the hands of ISIS through intimidation and assassination. As with the Syrian opposition, there is no group or organization that represents all Sunni tribes. Each tribe is a kingdom, and each tribe has internal political dynamics. It represents thousands of possible fighters in opposition to ISIS, but it lacks weapons, equipment, training, and logistical support. The Sunni tribes also do not trust the government in Baghdad or the Popular Mobilization Forces although they will work with them as situations require.
As previously mentioned in this chapter, this is complicated. Kurds are an ethnic group that is ancient in origin with a rich history, culture, and religion. They are predominantly located in the modern countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. In each of these countries, they are an ethnic minority and have been historically persecuted. Historically, the Kurds have resided in the mountains of these countries and conducted commerce across the borders without much concern for modern boundaries. Their sense of Kurdishness and the fact that they are a persecuted minority have caused them to bond together and form semiautonomous regions in each of the countries. Despite this statement, there is no monolithic Kurdish identity or singular organization that represents Kurdish interests. At various times to include the recent past, Kurdish groups have fought one another, and there are Kurds who are participants in ISIS.
Kurdish issues are always complicated by the fact that the country with the largest number of Kurds is Turkey. Turkey has been fighting against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for decades. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and considered to be one by numerous other countries as well. Its members conduct terrorist attacks against Turkish government targets in Turkey and then often flee across the Syrian or Iraqi border for safety. They regularly use northern Iraq as a staging base for protection from Turkish reprisals. Over the years, Turkey has conducted numerous cross-border incursions to attack the bases in Iraq or Syria. Turkey considers the PKK to be its primary threat.
Regardless of all of the complexity, this section will focus primarily on three Kurdish groups that figure most prominently in the anti-ISIS fighting. Kurdish fighting forces are referred to as Pesh Merga. In Iraq, there is a Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and three provinces have been given an official level of semiautonomy. Within the KRG, two groups have formed Pesh Merga forces—the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In Syria, there is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with its designated fighting force the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The Pesh Merga of the KDP has borne the brunt of the fighting and received the bulk of the coalition assistance in Iraq. In many cases, coalition countries have shipped weapons, ammunition, and other supplies directly to the KRG. In the case of the United States, the policy is that all support to Iraq, wherever that support is intended to end up, goes through the central government in Baghdad, which means that the Kurds get less than intended and what they do receive comes to them much slower than it was delivered by the United States to Iraq. The Pesh Merga fighters have been aggressively carrying the battle back against ISIS once ISIS captured Mosul and threatened the KRG capital in Irbil, Iraq. Pesh Merga forces have regained lost villages and territory, and they have captured their ancestrally claimed capital of Kirkuk in Iraq. They also recaptured the Mosul Dam that is dangerously close to collapse and could threaten hundreds of thousands were that to happen. The PUK has also provided soldiers in the fight, but to a lesser degree and with less success. Because it is not the formal leadership of the KRG, it often does not get the same equipment and training that KDP Pesh Merga receives.
In Syria, the PYD is closely aligned with the Turkish PKK. This has proven problematic for the U.S.-led coalition as YPG fighters were the most effective in late 2015 and recaptured numerous villages across northern Syria. U.S. material support of the YPG would be seen by Turkey as support to the PKK. This further complicates what is already a complicated issue. The Russians have also begun supplying YPG personnel with arms and equipment.
With the goal of supporting from the air someone else on the ground, the best fighters on the ground in Iraq and Syria have been members of the Pesh Merga from the previously named organizations. The challenge is how to support their success without exacerbating problems with Turkey.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is the largest country in the Mesopotamian area of the Middle East in both geography and demography. It is a power that will not be going away as it lives in the region. In 1979, the country experienced a coup d’état by an Islamist group. The nature of the revolt and the new government put in place immediately created a problem between Iran and the United States that has not dissipated despite recent agreements regarding nuclear weapons. The animosity between the two states became more intense once the United States invaded Iraq, and Iranian funds, weapons, and fighters were used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.
Iran has serious and lasting interests in Iraq. It wants a stable and preferably friendly neighbor. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year brutal war from 1980 to 1988 that included the killing of thousands of civilians and the use of chemical weapons. Iran will not stand for a belligerent Iraq. Thus the instability resulting from the U.S. invasion created an opening for Iranian infiltration and meddling. Beginning years before the U.S. departure from Iraq, the Iranians began to progress well beyond meddling and have become the most dominating influence on the Iraqi government.
The rise of ISIS gave Iran yet another opportunity to expand its influence in Iraq as it was the first country to offer military and monetary support to fight ISIS. Iran sent equipment, advisors, and ultimately fighting units. One of the most broadcast foreign faces in Iraqi media in 2015 was Qasem Soleimani. He is a major general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the commander of the Quds Forces since 1998. This is the force responsible for actions outside Iran. He has directed much of the counter-ISIS strategy in both Iraq and Syria.
As previously stated under the Syrian Regime section, Iran has maintained a close relationship with the regime in Syria since the revolution in 1979. Iran wants the regime to remain stable and friendly to Iran. Many opponents of Iranian influence point to a “Shia Crescent” that spreads from Iran to Iraq to Syria to Southern Lebanon and sometimes to Gaza. This is part of designating Iranian hegemony through support of cosectarian or like-minded regimes or actors in the area. In the case of Southern Lebanon, it is Hezbollah and in Gaza it is Hamas (not Shia, but they do receive funding and support from Iran).
Iran’s participation in the anti-ISIS fight is significant. It has committed ground forces, money, and support to both Iraq and Syria. It is diametrically opposed to the ISIS ideology. Iran’s presence in the fight confirms the ISIS narrative of a war against the unbelieving Shia and helps ISIS recruit Sunnis from across the globe. Whether or not Iran’s participation is beneficial or good depends largely on perspective. It is certain that Iran’s participation is intended to expand its influence throughout the countries in the fight and across the region. As Iran is very much opposed to U.S. influence, this may be construed as negative.