Why can’t we defeat ISIS?

Michael Gunter and Nahro Zagros explain the origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), how they have ruthlessly explored the weaknesses of the Syrian and Iraqi states, and why they are proving so difficult to challenge.


The immediate origins of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)1 lie in the opportunity spaces provided by two bitter civil wars that have challenged the existing state system and borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of World War I: (1) The bloody Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq that followed the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and (2) the even more horrific civil war that has been raging in Syria since 2011. Inspired by al-Qaeda’s atavistic yet modern militant stance against perceived American dominance, a significant sector of Iraq’s former ruling but now dispossessed Sunni Arabs created al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to regain lost power from the newly-created Shia-dominated government in Iraq, engineered by the US. Though the US military – which had total air supremacy and the latest technology for ground troops – repeatedly hammered AQI and killed its then leader, Musab al-Zarqawi, the US and its Shia-dominated Iraqi partners only managed to temporarily defeat AQI by using political and financial rewards to peel off significant Sunni support for this most dedicated al-Qaeda off-shoot. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failure to continue to politically engage with his state’s still-powerful but dispossessed Sunnis allowed AQI to resurrect and reinvent itself, especially after the US withdrew its ground troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.

At the same time, Syria’s civil war had begun. The porous and artificial border between Iraq and Syria provided a revitalised AQI with sanctuary and allowed them to establish bases in Syria from which the newly-reborn movement now known as ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) could move with relative ease, beyond the control of the Syrian and Iraqi states. Al-Maliki’s alienation of Iraq’s Sunni citizens abetted this process.

But ISIS did not immediately emerge as an existential threat. Initial battles against other al-Qaeda off-shoots – including its official Syrian franchise Jablat al-Nusra, more moderate Islamic groups, the supposedly more secular Free Syrian Army, Bashar al-Assad’s reduced but still formidable forces, and Syria’s Kurds, now largely under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) affiliate – all took place. ISIS persevered and at times showed formidable strength, but never to the extent it did in June 2014 when it burst from its interior confines and conquered Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. This major success gave the organisation control over large swaths of territory, a great deal of money2 (supposedly seized from Mosul’s central bank), some of the latest US military equipment captured from Baghdad’s US-supplied and trained troops, and a supportive Sunni Arab population. The achievement also led ISIS to declare the creation of a new caliphate and change its name to the Islamic State (IS) with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as self-proclaimed caliph. Its enemies, however, began calling the organisation ‘Daesh’, an Arab acronym for Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or ISIS, a term that also sounded like the word for crush and quickly became a derogatory expression. How had ISIS become so powerful?

Deciphering ISIS’s Power

At this moment in time, it appears that ISIS gained its strength from a wide range of political, sociological, economic and military factors. But the bottom line is the collapse of the traditional state system in Syria and Iraq and the resulting vacuum of legitimacy.3 Tribal loyalties have been reactivated and rejuvenated to the extent that we can now identify tribes and even gas stations with particular flags. In addition, the age-old Sunni-Shia split has further torn Iraq and Syria apart. Thus, the seemingly mad violence and power of ISIS is largely a symptom of the collapsed state system. Consequently, a solution would require sociological, political, and economic answers as well as military ones, which, of course, remain necessary to provide security.

There are, of course, a number of specific factors that should also be mentioned. Although ISIS denies it, earlier tacit support from Turkey, which allowed jihadists from all over the world to transit through its territory and into Syria, has been well documented.4 Turkey’s motivation was to enable the Syrian opposition to defeat Assad and increasingly too the Syrian Kurds who had declared a thinly disguised PKK proto- state on the southern Turkish border. Chechnya, long since radicalised by Islamic ferment and struggle, has been one of many important contributors to this jihadist traffic.5

These jihadists, who sought to recapture the lost glories of a resplendent Islam, were bolstered by others whose true motivations ranged from a sense of adventure and excitement to the pathologically sick and criminal who reveled in approved thrill-killings, rape, and the chance for wealth. Drugs have even been used to convince converts to launch suicide attacks with the promise of immediate entrance into a paradise that would offer them seventy-two virgins.6

The beheading and imprisonment of their enemies are ISIS’s most infamous trademarks. ISIS interprets some verses in the Quran (especially in Al-Anfal and Muhammad) to justify these deeds. The Surah Muhammad, in section 4, states as follows:

So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, and then secure their bonds …’ (Surah Muhammad, 47:4. Source: http://quran.com/47).

Another justification of beheading lies in the Surah Al-Anfal:

‘… those who disbelieve so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip’ (Surah Al-Anfal, 8:12. Source: http://quran.com/8).

Their use of intimidation is also supported by section 60 in the Surah Al-Anfal:

And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them whom you do not know [but] whom Allah knows. And whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged’ (Surah Al-Anfal, 8:60. Source: http://quran.com/8).

Paradoxically, even Christians and Kurds have joined ISIS for either sheer adventure or ideological reasons concerned with anti-Americanism/Westernism and perceived grievances, though their numbers are probably low and should not be over-emphasised. Still, that non-Muslims and non-Sunnis have been recruited warns against facile explanatory factors for the strength of ISIS. More relevant is the strict and uncompromising Wahhabi Islamic doctrine prevalent in Saudi Arabia as well as remittances from sympathisers in such states as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, among others.7

Even the US has inadvertently helped what has now morphed into the Islamic State by opting for lax policies that allowed many of its current leaders to escape from US detention centers in Iraq.8 The list includes the caliph himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – who spent almost five years imprisoned at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq – as well as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja, among others. In prison these extremists were held side-by-side with others who were less radical, allowing US coalition prisons in Iraq to become recruitment centers and even training grounds. Moderates who objected to being radicalised were harassed and dealt with through so-called Sharia courts that spread through the prisons. Limited resources with which to effectively evaluate prisoners helped to obscure what was really going on. Eventually, even prisoners with strong evidence against them were still released because of the weaknesses of the Iraqi court system and the refusal of the US to share classified information. In addition, some of the most extreme radicals who had been sentenced to death were freed by successful ISIS attacks on what were now Iraqi prisons after the US withdrew at the end of 2011.

ISIS has clearly learned much from its past about how to survive to fight successfully today. The organisation is now burgeoning because of its perceived success, dynamism and sense of destiny. The Mosul victory in June 2014 bolstered these attributes by giving ISIS the appearance of momentum – as well as more equipment and money. Although ISIS now seemed to be a universal enemy and became the specific target of a hastily constructed US alliance, its opponents’ strength was much less than the sum of their parts due to mutual disdain and an overall lack of unity. The US, for example, forgot Churchill’s positive reference to the devil when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and its own wartime alliance with Stalin, and refused to admit Iran to its anti-ISIS coalition, even though the Shia state was clearly one of the most effective potential partners in the battle against ISIS. For a time at least, ISIS was able to mobilise maximum strength, while its myriad opponents were divided and unable to strike back in unison.

Thus, when ISIS suddenly struck the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on 3 August 2014, its vaunted military, the Peshmerga, found themselves out-gunned and without allies. Since the KRG was not independent, American aid could only legally be given through Baghdad, which hesitated to give too much for fear that the Kurds may use it in a bid for independence. Only after an emergency appeal from KRG president Massoud Barzani for immediate US aid9 to stem the ISIS tide – that now reached within twenty miles of its capital Erbil and its 1.5 million inhabitants – was ISIS brought to a temporary halt by US air power. However, the present US proclamation that it will not commit US boots on the ground obviously encourages ISIS to believe that it can eventually triumph because of its enemies’ continuing weakness and disunity.

Difficulties in Defeating ISIS

In addition to its enemies’ lack of unity, ISIS’s tactics to date have proven very successful. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gained ultimate control of ISIS on 15 May 2010, he instituted a particular style of command and control structure premised on centralised control but decentralised execution. Thus central command sets the date of the attacks but regional commanders decide their own degree of participation according to local conditions. Strategically, ISIS attacks where there is weakness and halts when met by significant opposition, only then to strike elsewhere. For example, when a combination of US air strikes, KRG Peshmerga and PYD/PKK forces from Syria and the Qandil Mountains stopped the ISIS drive on Erbil in mid-August 2014, ISIS quickly and

Peshmerga Fighters in Kirkuk
Peshmerga in Kirkuk, Iraq

successfully turned its forces against the Syrian Kurdish canton of Kobanê (also known by its Arab name Ayn al-Arab).

Interestingly, Peshmerga fighters who faced ISIS’s onslaught in August 2014 told this author of how ISIS has adopted a tactic from the great Islamic (and Kurdish) leader Salahadin (1137-1193), who fought the Crusaders so successfully. This tactic involves advancing in broad lines in order to lengthen the battlefield. This has enabled ISIS to find weaknesses in its foes’ defences, concentrate its forces at the weak point, and ultimately break through, using its mobility to conduct surprise attacks. Unlike the famous mercy Salahadin showed his enemies, ISIS’s well-publicised reputation for brutality causes panic and flight, sometimes when it simply advances and certainly when it breaks through. Employing a motorised infantry column that included hundreds of armed utility vehicles that could move quickly on Iraq’s open and relatively good highways, the main ISIS column from Syria joined local cells within Iraq to quickly reach 10-15,000 fighters in the lightning capture of Mosul on 6 June 2014.10

Mobility and deception have also enabled ISIS to gain local superiority in spite of their smaller numbers. Probes and feints allow ISIS to judge its opposition, bypass strong defences and lure enemy forces away from primary targets. ISIS usually begins its attacks with one or more mass casualty attacks to arouse panic and cause flight. Car bombs to create chaos and overwhelm barriers, suicide attackers, fighters dressed in their foes’ uniforms, and hostage taking are all frequently used to scare their adversaries and shatter morale. During their advance on Mosul, the organisation also employed social media, announcing on Twitter that it would show no mercy to those who resisted. Well-publicised executions of those who still resisted are often conducted, as occurred in Tikrit on 11 June 2014 and Sinjar in early August 2014. ISIS’s mobility also permits it to take advantage of its foes when they thin their forces, as happened at Jalula on 10 August 2014. In this particular incident, the Kurdish Peshmerga had withdrawn to meet a perceived threat elsewhere at Makhmour. Lacking more sophisticated intelligence capabilities, the Kurds were unaware of massing ISIS forces until it was too late.

From its inception as AQI, ISIS – and now IS – has been skillful at identifying with tribal needs. For example, during the Iraqi civil war that raged in 2007 and 2008, Sunni tribal grievances provided the basis for the organisation’s very creation. More recently, during the battles that raged around Jalula in August 2014, ISIS took advantage of the anti-Kurdish feelings of Arab tribes. At the same time, during the battle for Amerli, ISIS permitted Arab tribes to harvest the ripe wheat fields of displaced Shia Turkmen farmers. On the other hand, ISIS has reacted brutally against opposing tribes, the tribal revolt at Zorwiya on 7 July 2014 being a good example.

Once the US air campaign against ISIS in Syria began in September 2014, the stated goal was to find and support moderate forces that would serve as boots on the ground in place of what would be a politically unacceptable use of US troops. This has not been easy to implement because the Kurds are probably the only and certainly the best such force that meets the US requirement of being relatively moderate, secular and pro-American. Indeed, the Syrian Kurds already have a proven track record of being able to hold their own against ISIS in battles that have been raging between the two sides for almost two years. However, in a catch-22 situation, the ruling PYD is a sister party of the PKK, which is on the US terrorism list. Thus, the US has ineptly blocked itself from supporting these wildly pro-American, moderate and secular Kurds because of its own arguably misguided anti-terrorist dictates, compounded by the belief that to support the Syrian Kurds would also alienate key NATO ally Turkey, long an opponent of the PKK. But this reasoning ignores the fact that Turkey itself has been openly negotiating with the PKK since March 2013.

If Turkey is now able to deal with the PKK, why can’t the US deal with its sister Syrian party the PYD, especially given that the PYD is not on the US terrorism list? As of October 2014, the US is allowing its best potential moderate ally in Syria to be slowly crushed by a better armed ISIS in Kobanê. To compound this ludicrous tragedy, Turkey has chosen not to intervene on the misguided basis that it would better favour its national interests to watch ISIS crush a pro-PKK autonomous entity on its immediate southern border. Of course, this overlooks the more dangerous possibility of blowback against Turkey that might result if ISIS replaces the PYD on Turkey’s southern border. This same short-sighted vision also kept Turkey from aiding the KRG when ISIS attacked it in August 2014. As a result of this convoluted situation, it becomes all the more difficult to defeat ISIS.

The KRG, of course, is being supported by the US – already with some success – against ISIS after its initial attacks in August 2014. However, as explained, the US is prevented from supplying the Peshmerga adequately because these supplies must first go through Baghdad, which hesitates to route them directly on to the Kurds lest the KRG use them in a bid for early independence.

As for the US air campaign, there are limited targets to hit in the areas controlled by ISIS because of the risks of civilian casualties, which would further alienate local Sunni Arabs. Already there have been reports of collateral damage involving Sunni Arabs hit by American bombs, at the same time as the US is asking them to quit ISIS and support the US.11 In addition, the bombing of ISIS oil wells is probably going to be less than successful as it is not possible to hit all of them. ISIS simply controls too many. Boots on the ground will be necessary to eliminate most of these ISIS assets. As for the use of US air power against ISIS bases, many fighters and equipment had already been moved before they were struck. Furthermore, the idea of bribing Sunni supporters away from ISIS with money, a tactic used in the Iraqi civil war of 2007-2008, will not work this time around as ISIS itself has already bribed Sunni supporters with funds stolen in Mosul or obtained elsewhere. The difficulties in defeating ISIS are clearly manifold.


This article has illustrated a number of the difficulties faced in defeating ISIS. The organisation’s success has been reliant on the virtual collapse of the traditional state system in Syria and Iraq. The US has been slow to comprehend this fact, as illustrated by its continuing insistance on trying to maintain the artificiality of what should be called former Iraq as well as former Syria. Neither entity now comes close to meeting Max Weber’s famous definition of a state as being that entity which commands a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a specific territory. Instead, new proto-state formations are emerging at pace and, ironically, the two bitter antagonists, the Kurds and ISIS, stand as the main beneficiaries. A variety of political, sociological and economic factors are operating in addition to the more visible military ones. The US has also been slow to understand and fully implement the Clausewitzian maxim that war is often politics by other means.

Nevertheless, ISIS is far from invincible and its success is not a certainty. Indeed, to a large extent ISIS has simply been lucky to face enemies already enfeebled by enervating civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Even so, at least until recently, the Syrian Kurds have been able to hold their own against ISIS, and even if Kobanê falls, will still be far from finished. Now that the US has at least partially entered the fray, some of ISIS’s opponents are recovering and beginning to receive international help – the Iraqi Kurds being one example. What is more, as ISIS has approached Shia-populated areas in Iraq, its success has been limited. Indeed, its earlier successes may also hold the seeds of its eventual demise. Now that it actually holds ground, ISIS will be sorely tested to hold its terrain if attacked at multiple points by foes acting in unison, as the US is certainly capable of orchestrating if and when the military tide begins to turn. ISIS’s dynamism and sense of inevitability will be questioned and it may falter as quickly as it rose.

Michael Gunter is a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and author of Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War.

Nahro Zagros is the vice president for curriculum development at Soran University in the Kurdish region of Iraq.


Most of this article is based on Dr. Gunter’s findings during his visit to the Iraqi Kurdish region in late September 2014 and his earlier background research on the situation in Syria recently published as Michael M. Gunter, Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (London: Hurst & Co., 2014). Dr. Gunter also benefited from talks with, among many others, Dr. Nahro Zagros, the vice president for curriculum development at Soran University in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and Dr. Till Paasche, a lecturer in political geography at Soran University.

[1] For further background see US Congress, US Senate, Foreign Affairs Committee, The ISIS Threat: The Rise of the Islamic State and Their Dangerous Potential (Providence Research: September 25, 2014); and Joseph Spark, ISIS Taking over the Middle East: The Rise of Middle Eastern Supremacy ISIS/ISIL (Conceptual Kings, 2014).

[2] Terence McCoy, “ISIS Just Stole $425 million, Iraqi Governor Says, and Became the World’s Richest Terrorist Group,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2014. Http://www.washingtonpost.com, accessed October 4, 2014. However, others latter expressed doubts about the authenticity of this event. See Borzou Daragahi, “Biggest Bank Robbery that Never Happened – $400m Isis Heist”, Financial Times, July 17, 2014. Http://www.ft.com, accessed October 4, 2014.

[3] See, for example, the prescient writings of Jonathan Spyer, “Do ‘Syria,’ ‘Iraq,’ and ‘Lebanon’ Still Exist?” The Tower, February 19, 2014; Jonathan Spyer, The Jerusalem Post, September 27, 2014. http://www.meforum.org/4832, accessed October 7, 2014; and Ofra Bengio, “Kurdistan Reaches toward the Sea,” Haaretz (Jerusalem), August 3, 2012. http://www.mesop.de/2012/08/03/kurdistan, accessed August 8, 2012.

[4] See, for example, Amberin Zaman, “Syrian Kurdish Leader: Ankara Supporting Jihadists,” AlMonitor, September 3, 2013. Http://www.al-monitor.com, accessed October 7, 2014; Amberin Zaman, “Syrian Kurds Continue to Blame Turkey for Backing ISIS Militants,” AlMonitor, June 10, 2014. Http://www.al-monitor/, accessed October 7, 2014; and Liz Sly, “Biden Issues Second Apology, to United Emirates, over Comments,” Washington Post, October 5, 2014. Http://www.washingtonpost.com, accessed October 7, 2014, among many others. Amberin Zaman has been the Turkish correspondent for the prestigious British-based The Economist for the past 15 years.

[5] Douglas A. Ollivant and Brian Fishman, “State of Jihad: The Reality of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” War on the Rocks, May 21, 2014. Http://warontherocks.com, accessed October 4, 2014.

[6] One does not have to subscribe to the analyses of Daniel Pipes who sees these violent attributes inherent in even mainline Islam to admit that historically the very English word assassin is said to stem from the secretive Islamic organisation that employed hashish to drug its adherents into launching suicide attacks against Crusader enemies more than 1000 years ago and that the Quran promises such earthly sexual rewards for its fallen warriors. For a recent example of Daniel Pipes’ work, see his “Explaining the Denial: Denying Islam’s Role in Terror,” Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2013), pp. 3-12.

[7] For background, see Josh Rogin, “America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS”, The Daily Beast, June 14, 2014. Http://www.thedailybeast.com, accessed October 4, 2014; Martin Chulov, “How an Arrest in Iraq Revealed ISIS’s $2bn Jihadist Network,” The Guardian, June 15, 2014. Http://www.theguardian, accessed October 4, 2014; and Glen Carey, Mahmoud Habouch, and Gregory Viscusi, “Financing Jihad: Why ISIS Is a Lot Richer than Al-Qaeda,’ Bloomberg News, June 26, 2014. Http://www.bloomberg.com, accessed October 4, 2014.  

[8] See Andrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri, “How America Helped ISIS,” International New York Times, October 2, 2014, p. 7.

[9] Patrick Goodenough, “Kurdish Gov’t Alone in Fight against ISIS, Appeals for Airstrikes and Urgent Aid,” CNSNews.com, August 7, 2014. Http://cnsnews.com, accessed October 4, 2014.

[10] The following discussion owes much to Michael Knights, “ISIL’s Political-Military Power in Iraq,” CTC Sentinel (U.S. Military Academy), 7:8, August 2014. In addition, see Murad Batal al-Shishani, “The Islamic State’s Strategic and Tactical Plan for Iraq,” Terrorism Monitor, 12:16, August 8, 2014.

[11] “Unintended Consequences,” The Economist, October 4-10, 2014, pp. 53-54.



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