The US-Led Coalition against ISIS: Strategic Difficulties and Political Will

By: MAJ Wael Abbas, Lebanese Armed Forces


The latest terrorist attacks by the violent extremist group calling itself the "Islamic State," aka ISIS, which hit Paris and Beirut in November 2015, have initiated a new wave of arguments about the effectiveness of the strategy pursued by the US-led coalition to fight the terrorist organization. These successful attacks underscore the fact that more than a year after the creation of the coalition, ISIS has not only proven its resilience, but has also demonstrated the ability to enhance its capabilities, widen its operational reach, and increase its international influence enough to threaten Western countries with effective terrorist attacks.

The tendency to underestimate ISIS arises from a misunderstanding of its ideology and the misconception that the extremists present only a regional threat. These mistaken views have influenced the level of commitment to the fight demonstrated by the United States and its allies, and is one reason for the failure of the strategy adopted by the United States and its coalition allies to achieve decisive victories.

The Rise of the "Caliphate"

In the aftermath of its sudden military successes in Syria and Iraq, the violent jihadist organization known as "al Qaeda in Iraq" (AQI) declared a caliphate under the name of the "Islamic State" in early summer 2014. When the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appeared in a broadcast from the Great Mosque in Mosul to lead prayers on the first Friday of Ramadan (4 July 2014), he publicly assumed the title of Caliph—the political and religious leader of all Muslims.1 The terrorist organization had originally formed as Jama'at al-Tawhid wal Jihad under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, several years before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. It was renamed al Qaeda in Iraq after al-Zarqawi declared allegiance to al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden, in October 2004. Al-Zarqawi was killed by a coalition air strike in June 2006, and in October, AQI joined with other jihadist groups to form the "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISI) under the leadership of an Iraqi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. ISI kept its allegiance to al Qaeda.

During that period, the US Joint Special Operations Command developed a network of special forces groups to fight the insurgencies, mainly ISI, in northwestern Iraq.2 The United States also had an important role in the formation of the Sunni Sahwa (Awakening) councils in Diyala and Anbar provinces, which were able to expel ISI from the region in 2007.3 The US strategy resulted in the death or capture of thousands of insurgents during that period, but the biggest setback for ISI came in April 2010, when Iraqi and American forces killed ISI's top two leaders, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri.4 The new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, inherited an organization in desperate condition.

The start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 presented an opportunity for ISI to recover. Within the first year, the Syrian regime lost control over many areas of the country, especially in northern Syria. ISI, which was still part of al Qaeda, started sending fighters to Syria under the leadership of Abu Mohammad al-Julani.5 These militants, calling their organization Jabhat al-Nusra, increased their numbers and military capabilities by recruiting Syrian civilians from their areas of control along with defectors from the Syrian army. On 9 April 2013, al-Baghdadi announced the merging of ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra under the name of the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL or ISIS).6 In a statement issued the next day, however, al-Julani rejected this merger and reaffirmed his allegiance to al Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who declared that ISIS was created without his permission and that ISI and al-Nusra would continue to work separately under al Qaeda's control. Al Qaeda publicly renounced any ties with ISIS in February 2014.7 During that period, ISIS continued its expansion by recruiting new fighters and integrating other jihadi groups, including some that split from al-Nusra.8 On 1 January 2014, ISIS re-invaded the Iraqi city of Fallujah from across the Syrian border, and by June, it had dramatically expanded its control to Mosul without much resistance from the Iraqi Army.9

What caused this dramatic collapse on the Iraqi front? In retrospect, after the final American withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government failed to maintain the Sunni support it had gained from the Sahwa councils. The government's policies were regarded by most Iraqi Sunnis as sectarian, authoritarian, and aimed at politically targeting and marginalizing them.10 In December 2012, following the arrest of the bodyguards of the Sunni finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, protests started in Anbar and then spread to many Sunni areas in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala, and parts of Baghdad. The protests remained generally peaceful until Iraqi security forces attacked a protest camp in Huwija, killing 20 protestors. This incident caused a shift towards more violent protests in most Sunni provinces, including calls for armed resistance. On 30 December 2013, Iraqi forces tried to clear a protest camp in Ramadi in the aftermath of an attack that killed 24 Iraqi officers in the Horan valley. This resulted in further violent confrontations, which forced al-Maliki to promise the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Ramadi and Fallujah. Consequently, ISIS was able to reinvade Fallujah with relative impunity. In other words, the Sunni Awakening that helped defeat ISI in 2007 and 2008 enabled the rise of ISIS in 2013 and 2014, as Sunni Iraqis revolted against al-Maliki and the apparent excesses of the Iraqi security forces.

The decline of al Qaeda has also contributed to the rise of ISIS. Before 2011, the decline resulted mainly from the arrests and assassinations of many of al Qaeda's operational leaders; the defeat of al Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Algeria; and other setbacks, including the need for the group to defend its reputation and actions to Muslims.11 Moreover, al Qaeda's main leaders had to take extreme security measures to protect themselves from being traced and killed, which forced them to limit their movements and communications and reduced their ability to manage and control the organization and its affiliates.12 After the assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and the declaration of al-Zawahiri as the new leader of al Qaeda, the weakness became more apparent. Many questioned al-Zawahiri's ability to control the organization and maintain its unity, especially after his failure to resolve the disputes between al-Nusra and ISIS.13 Others considered al-Zawahiri to lack the charisma to influence new groups and increase recruitment.14

Thus, the rise of the Islamic State has three main causes:

  1. The new Sunni uprising against what many perceived to be deliberate marginalization and political targeting by an overtly sectarian Iraqi government under Nouri al-Maliki, combined with the surprising incompetence of the Iraqi Army;15
  2. The opportunity for infiltration by radical groups that the Syrian conflict offered after 2011, and the unlimited and unconditional support that many regional countries gave to a fragmented Syrian opposition increasingly dominated by Islamist militants (the number of Salafi-jihadist groups increased by 58 percent from 2010 to 2013);16 and
  3. The decline of al Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri's failure to be an effective and powerful replacement for bin Laden—especially his inability to prevent fissures in his organization.

An Ideological Comparison between ISIS and Al Qaeda

Reflecting on the events that led to the declaration of the caliphate in July 2014, it is clear that the success of ISIS has been the result of tactical and strategic choices in which religion and ideology had minor roles. In an October 2014 report, the UN Security Council considered al Qaeda and ISIS to be fairly harmonious in their ideology and stated that the "al-Qaeda core and [ISIS] pursue similar strategic goals, albeit with tactical differences regarding sequencing and substantive differences about leadership."17 As was discussed earlier, none of the statements issued by al-Nusra, ISIS, and al-Zawahiri in the dispute over the declaration of ISIS showed any ideological friction. Moreover, even the apparent differences between ISIS and al Qaeda on many levels—political, military, and public—are purely strategic and tactical and are not based on ideology. This similarity in ideology is important because it shows that even if the regional and sectarian strategies initially pursued by ISIS differ from those of al Qaeda, policy makers should not underestimate ISIS's threat or be surprised by its latest actions (the downing of a Russian plane above Sinai on 31 October 2015, the suicide bombings in Beirut on 12 November 2015, and the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015), which show that ISIS strategists are able to shift between regional and global jihad and benefit from the support of networks that were previously related to al Qaeda.

Even if ISIS seems to exceed al Qaeda with its use of extreme violence and brutality, especially in the posting of high quality videos on various media that show hostages being viciously beheaded or burned alive, this remains within the context of strategic rather than ideological differences between the two organizations. The shocking violence used by ISIS can be traced back to the days of ISI's founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was a major advocate of violent attacks against civilians of other sects, especially against the Shi'a population in Iraq. Although disputes among jihadist and other Islamic scholars over the extreme use of violence and the killing of civilians were based on ideology, these disputes had a more strategic context between al Qaeda leaders and al-Zarqawi. While al-Zarqawi did not differ from other al Qaeda leaders, including al-Zawahiri, in his view of Shi'a as unbelievers and heretics, he differed on the strategic effectiveness of attacks against the Shi'a community. On the one hand, al-Zarqawi defended the use of suicide bombings against the Shi'a because he saw them as a necessary tactic to unify the Sunnis. On the other hand, al-Zawahiri considered "these attacks, even if permissible from a jurisprudential viewpoint," to have had a negative effect on Muslim public support and the general image of Islam. Al-Zawahiri also argued that the attacks against the Shi'a diverted attention from the main enemy—the United States—and opened too many fronts.18

Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the Roots of Extremism

As noted earlier, ISIS's split from al Qaeda was not based on ideological differences—even the declaration of an "Islamic State" does not represent an important ideological difference between the two groups. This can be better explained by discussing the caliphate from the religious perspectives of Wahhabism and Salafism.

The Arabic term salaf (ancient one) refers to the first three generations of followers of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions (al-salaf al-salih)—the original Muslims. Until recently, Salafist teachings were fundamentalist and non-violent, focusing on the need to return to Islam's root texts while rejecting modern relativism.19 Although Wahhabis—adherents to the fundamentalist theological movement founded by the Sunni cleric Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792)—consider themselves to be true Salafists, other Muslims identify them by their Wahhabist ideology.20 Wahhabis share several Salafist beliefs, including the rejection of common Muslim practices—such as instituting schools of Islamic jurisprudence and the practice of visiting tombs and shrines—as innovative and polytheistic. More importantly, both sects believe that other Muslims have lost the true path and are living in a state of ignorance similar to pre-Islam (jahiliyya).

Wahhabism and Salafism differ, however, in their political views and their view of the ruling imam. On the one hand, ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab called on Arabs to fight the Ottoman Caliphate and form an independent state, and consequently legitimized rebellion against the legal imam. On the other hand, the Salafist ideology is apolitical in nature, and its adherents follow the doctrine of al-wala' wal-bara' (loyalty towards the Prophet and prevention of heresy and unbelief). For this reason, Salafists have preferred to live in sequestered communities where they are protected from innovation and corruption. Traditional Salafists also reject the oath of allegiance (bay'a) to a temporal ruler for fear that this leader might commit sinful acts. This contradicts al Qaeda's declaration of allegiance to the "commander of the faithful" and ISIS's allegiance to a caliph.

Earlier Salafists argued that Muslims should not revolt against their rulers even if those rulers were unjust, and clearly considered the creation of an Islamic state to be unnecessary.21 The Wahhabist roots of their modern jihadist religious ideology, however, have given these groups a different point of view.22 Images and videos that were released from areas under ISIS control clearly show the leaders' commitment to the Wahhabist notion of a caliphate, while the schools that they opened in Syria used Wahhabi religious books from Saudi Arabia. Other videos showed Wahhabi texts in an official ISIS missionary van.23 Moreover, while al-Baghdadi has relied on former Iraqi officers for military operations, he leaves areas like religious guidance and media production to non-Iraqis, including many Saudis.24 Other Saudis were appointed as judges, including all of the twelve judges that were appointed in the Syrian city of ar-Raqqa in November 2014.25

As for al Qaeda, even though bin Laden was probably affected by the ideologies of Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam, he nevertheless followed a path of jihad that differentiated him from both of them.26 While Qutb spread an anti-American narrative, he did not call for fighting the United States.27 Moreover, al-Zawahiri, who was a true follower of Qutb, failed to influence bin Laden's ideologies and was accused by his former companions in the al-Jihad organization of following bin Laden rather than the reverse. Azzam probably mentored bin Laden and convinced him to follow the path of jihad, but there is no evidence that Azzam influenced bin Laden's religious beliefs. On the contrary, while Azzam rejected attacking Muslims and opposed targeting noncombatants as a tool of war, bin Laden issued a fatwa in 1998 that called for the killing of all Americans, regardless of their religion. In addition, bin Laden accused the Saudi king of being an apostate and called for a war against the Saudi regime.

Signaling their ideological link to Wahhabism, some Saudi clerics agreed with bin Laden that the US attack on Iraq in 1991, launched from Saudi Arabia, violated their belief that non-Muslim troops must never enter Saudi Arabia.28 Saudi clerics also hesitated to denounce the creation of an "Islamic state" after it was declared by ISIS in June 2014, and the Saudi king had to publicly urge them to do so.29 In 2001, bin Laden "called on Muslims everywhere to come to Afghanistan and engage in the jihad led by the ‘commander of the faithful,' Mullah Muhammad Omar."30 The title "commander of the faithful" was specifically given to the first four caliphs in Islam. This was similar to the call of ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani for all Muslims to vow allegiance to the "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and join the troops of the Islamic State.31 He, like bin Laden in 1998, also called for the killing of all Americans, military or civilians.32

The two organizations are similarly disparaging of other Sunni Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and political participation in general. After the Egyptian army overthrew Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Islamic Brotherhood, in 2013, ISIS declared that Islamists should choose "the ammunition boxes over the ballot boxes" and called the Muslim Brotherhood "a secular party in Islamic clothes."33 Similarly, al Qaeda viewed elections as heresy and preached that only violence could achieve political change.34 While some scholars consider these ideas to be part of Salafism in general, others specifically relate them to Wahhabi ideology.

By revolting against those they consider to be unjust rulers and waging war against unbelievers, both ISIS and al Qaeda follow the teachings of original Wahhabism. The religious educational system adopted by many Saudi clerics, based on the teachings of ‘Abd al-Wahhab, will probably continue to produce radical Islamists similar to the leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS. Moreover, the declaration of an Islamic state and vows of allegiance to a religious leader are specifically related to Wahhabism and not to any other Salafist group, which would indicate that both ISIS and al Qaeda have been loyal to their Wahhabi ideologies. Consequently, the tendency of the United States and its allies to regard ISIS as a regional problem caused by the sectarian conflicts in Syria and Iraq, rather than as a threat comparable to al Qaeda, is far from realistic and is one of the reasons that Western strategies to fight ISIS have proven inadequate. The similarities in the ideologies of ISIS and al Qaeda explain their similar strategies, including the use of extreme violence, targeting of civilians, and global jihad.

ISIS: From Regional Strategies to Global Jihad

While al Qaeda focused on global jihad from its earliest days, ISIS "pursued a strategy of establishing and consolidating a political entity in regions where the former state no longer functions or can be expelled. It is in this respect a fundamentally political rather than religious project."35 ISIS initially focused on controlling territories that could be defended and that were rich with the resources needed for establishing a state.36 It has utilized different tactics in Syria and Iraq. In Syria, it has tended to seize territories that were already lost by the Syrian regime while avoiding extensive battles with the regime's forces; at the same time, it has expanded its territories at the expense of other rebel groups.37 ISIS has proved to be more pragmatic in Iraq, by forming alliances with Sunni militant groups related to the former Ba'ath regime.38 ISIS also assassinated Sunni tribal leaders who had allied with the United States during the Awakening in 2007, as a way to preemptively prevent any future Sunni cooperation with the United States or the Iraqi government.39

The leaders of ISIS initially avoided the strategic mistakes of al Qaeda, whose focus on the global jihad contributed to its decline. To the contrary, ISIS leaders have preferred to follow in the footsteps of their founder, al-Zarqawi, by focusing on a strategy of fighting the Shi'a government in Iraq and the Alawi regime in Syria. This strategy has more popularity within Sunni communities than global jihad and can achieve higher levels of recruitment. For that reason, declaring a Sunni "Islamic State" that is contending against two Shi'a regimes, both of which are viewed as oppressing their Sunni populations, can achieve wide Sunni support. Moreover, ISIS declared a caliph of Arab origins—al-Baghdadi—whose ancestry is claimed to go back to the Prophet's Quraysh tribe and who boasts a PhD in traditional Islam from the Islamic University of Baghdad.40 This step had more legitimacy and a stronger appeal to Sunni Muslims than did al Qaeda's allegiance to an Afghan leader, Mullah Omar, whose background might be what prevented Osama bin Laden from declaring the Caliphate himself.

As ISIS expanded in Iraq throughout 2014, it gained control over much of the Sunni provinces of Ninewa and Anbar, over portions of Salah ad-Din, and over the major cities of Mosul, Baiji, Tikrit, Hawija, Fallujah, Tal Afar, Sinjar, and areas close to Baghdad. In August 2014, the United States conducted air strikes that allowed the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish militia, known as the Peshmerga, to recapture the Mosul Dam and the town of Armeli. Nevertheless, the ISF managed to slow ISIS's advance only with the support of Iranian armed forces and Iraqi Shi'a militias.41 In Syria, ISIS initially controlled about 35 percent of Syrian territory, mostly in the northeast, including six of Syria's 10 oil fields.42 ISIS declared the city of ar-Raqqa to be the capital of its self-declared caliphate. It also controlled most of the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor and made many attempts to expand into Syrian Kurdish territories in the Hasakah province and into Syrian opposition territories in the northwest.43

Analyst Eckart Woertz suggests that "ISIS is not a mere terror organization, but an insurgency that holds a classic ‘Clear, Hold, Build' strategy. The aim is state building, as the very name ISIS suggests."44 The group has a professional organizational structure with regional governors, a war cabinet, and departments responsible for media production, finance, recruitment, education, prisons, and religious guidance.45 Now holding a large amount of territory with about 8 million people in it, ISIS provides a number of social services in addition to financing its military operations and paying the salaries of its fighters. It is believed that the main source of its current revenues is oil, followed by looting, local taxation, and financing from rich Gulf donors. Moreover, ISIS benefited indirectly from the Gulf countries' funding of rebel groups in Syria, many of which later joined ISIS.46

Yet with the shift to global jihad, ISIS might be following a path that proved self-destructive for al Qaeda. After the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda lost its sanctuary in Afghanistan and has since struggled for resources and recruitment. By conducting terrorist attacks against countries that had not yet fully committed to fighting against it, as was the case with Turkey and France, ISIS is forcing these countries into more active and effective participation. While France previously avoided conducting airstrikes on ISIS positions to prevent weakening their ability to fight against the Syrian government, it launched extensive airstrikes after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.47

Though the leaders of ISIS may understand the negative consequences of following the path of global jihad, they may have been pressured onto this path because of the losses they incurred in October and November 2015, after Russian forces launched a major intervention in support of the Syrian regime (mainly in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zour). At the same time, ISIS lost important areas in Iraq's Baiji and Sinjar provinces to Kurdish and Iraqi forces with the support of US airstrikes.48 The main goal of ISIS's attacks on Western and Russian targets could be a desperate attempt to prove the organization's resilience and increase the levels of recruitment and support coming in by showing that it can still take the initiative and surprise its enemies with successful attacks. Nevertheless, the losses incurred by ISIS so far remain limited, and even if the shift to global jihad does prove counterproductive, ISIS still may not be easily defeated in the near future.

This will be especially true if the Western coalition's strategy, which has proven to be totally ineffective at countering ISIS for more than a year, does not change. It is worth remembering that al Qaeda was deprived of its safe haven in Afghanistan only because the United States committed sufficient resources and the direct involvement of US ground forces to the fight.

Why the US-Led Coalition's Strategy Is Failing

The US Army War College curriculum defines strategy as "the employment of the instruments (elements) of power (political/diplomatic, economic, military, and informational) to achieve the political objectives of the state in cooperation or in competition with other actors pursuing their own objectives."49 In this context, achieving the political objectives of a state is related to the cooperation or competition of other actors. In addition, any strategist should "know the end state he wants to achieve" and "develop appropriate objectives leading to the desired end state."50 In a speech on 10 September 2014, US President Barack Obama announced that the main objective of the US-led coalition against ISIS was to "degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy."51 This coalition, however, is formed of countries with different political objectives and different desired end states, which raises questions about the possible degree of their cooperation and consequently, the likelihood of achieving their various objectives.

The strategy of the coalition so far has consisted of conducting a systematic campaign of airstrikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria; increasing material support to the opposition forces fighting on the ground without introducing coalition ground forces; providing additional assistance and training to the Syrian opposition; interdicting ISIS's funding streams; countering its ideology; and attempting to limit the flow of foreign fighters into ISIS's ranks. While President Obama clearly stated that US intervention depended on the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq, only a few days before this speech, he declared the need to pursue a political solution to end the Syrian conflict without specifying the means to achieve it.52 He also highlighted the role of the coalition's Arab members in mobilizing Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.53 Therefore, the coalition officially consists of countries that declared they would participate in operations against ISIS, yet unofficially, non-state actors such as the Kurdish forces and Syrian opposition militias have assumed a major role in counter-ISIS operations.

Based on the speeches of President Obama and other coalition leaders, the expected role of each of the participants in the war against ISIS appears to be as follows:

  1. The United States is the major contributor of air strikes and air support to the ground forces. It has also promised to train the Iraqi and Kurdish forces and increase support to the Syrian opposition groups. It has already pushed for a political resolution in Iraq, which manifested in the formation of the government of Haydar al-Abadi.54 To counter ISIS economically, the United States has targeted the oil refineries and oil-storage tanks controlled by ISIS with air strikes. In addition, the US Treasury Department has taken measures against the financial supporters of ISIS and is pressuring regional countries like Kuwait and Qatar to take similar measures against their citizens who sympathize with and fund ISIS.55
  2. The Arab countries' military contribution consists of logistical support in the form of access to their military bases, from which the United States can launch airstrikes and train Syrian militants.56 More important, the countries can help "mitigate the potential negative perceptions of this US military intervention in the Arab world."57 They are also more effective than the United States or the Iraqi government at convincing Arab Sunni tribes to fight ISIS.58 And as mentioned previously, they have an important role in preventing the Gulf's private donors from sending money to the extremist groups in Syria.59
  3. Turkey's participation in the coalition is crucial "because its long and porous borders with both Syria and Iraq are the entry point for foreign fighters."60 By controlling its borders, Turkey can cut ISIS off from its major source of foreign fighters and control the smuggling of ISIS's oil into Turkey.61 It can also provide logistical support by allowing the United States to use the Incirlik NATO base, located 60 miles from the Syrian border.62 Moreover, Turkey's direct participation in military operations could be decisive in defeating ISIS, especially after the Turkish Parliament granted the government the authority to send troops into Iraq and Syria.63
  4. The Iraqi government is supposed to provide the forces on the ground for military operations. Its army is the only conventional army committed to fighting ISIS in Iraq without any legal constraints.
  5. The Kurdish Regional Government's irregular forces, the Peshmerga, have proved to be more effective on the ground than the Iraqi Army. After the Iraqi Army collapsed and retreated in 2014, the Peshmerga moved into areas around Kirkuk and prevented ISIS from occupying more territories.64
  6. The Syrian Kurds also proved to be effective at protecting their lands in eastern Syria, especially in defending the city of Kobani with the support of coalition airstrikes.
  7. The Free Syrian Army and other "moderate" groups are expected to fight ISIS and the Syrian regime and to prevent al-Nusra and other extremist groups from taking areas under the control of the Syrian opposition.

A Collision of Coalition Interests

Although the strategy of the coalition to target ISIS by military, economic, and ideological means seems to be comprehensive, it is not politically coordinated. Many of the participants reportedly have joined the alliance for goals "unrelated to the degrading of [ISIS]."65 On the one hand, the regional countries are very concerned about achieving their political objectives in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, the non-state actors in the fight have objectives ranging from survival to achieving self-governance. Therefore, the commitment of each of the participants to their individual political objectives rather than to their role in the coalition poses real challenges to the potential for military success: the failure of one participant to meet its obligations and objectives as a member of the coalition can lead to the failure of the whole campaign.

While the United States is clearly committed to its political and military objectives in Iraq and its support for the Iraqi government and the ISF, the Gulf countries are hesitant because any victory in Iraq can benefit the Shi'a-dominated government and its ally, Iran.66 At the same time, Baghdad is more concerned that any success achieved with the help of the Peshmerga would support the Kurds' bid for complete autonomy or even independence.67 Regarding Turkey's role, both Baghdad and Erbil oppose a long-term military intervention by Turkish troops deep into Iraq.68 In Syria, the political situation is even more complicated. The United States has declared that coalition airstrikes are not meant to support the Assad regime, but at the same time, Washington fears that the regime might indirectly benefit from these airstrikes and regain territories from ISIS. Gulf Arab countries need to demonstrate more commitment to the downfall of the Assad regime to calm their publics, who generally sympathize with ISIS.69 Turkey is more concerned about replacing the Assad regime than fighting ISIS, and it associates the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is fighting ISIS in Syria, with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization.70 The Syrian opposition also accuses the PYD and its militant faction, the People's Protection Units, of collaborating with the Syrian government.71

A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the US air operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria compares the current air operations to the air operations in several conventional and irregular wars: the First and Second Gulf Wars, the Kosovo campaign, the most recent war in Afghanistan, and the war against insurgents in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. The study concluded that these operations "have been very limited in comparison with other recent US campaigns."72 In addition, the study finds that even when the United States started targeting ISIS in support of the Syrian Kurds in Kobani, it diverted the air strike resources that were being used to support Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS. This is inferred from the drop in the number of air operations in Iraq in mid-October 2014 compared to September and early October, despite the fact that Iraqi forces were still struggling in Anbar.73 To put this in the context of the political discussion, the United States prefers to conduct a limited air campaign because of the allies' disagreements over the desired political end states in Iraq and Syria. The United States fears that a larger air campaign may benefit the Assad regime in Syria, while the Gulf Arab countries oppose a larger campaign against ISIS in Iraq before there is a political resolution between the Sunni population and the Iraqi government. Another reason for the limited air campaign is insufficient intelligence support from ground forces due to the political and sectarian nature of the conflict. The inability of the Iraqi government to control ISIS and the refusal of the Sunni populations to cooperate with the coalition limits access to intelligence information for the airstrikes.

The various actors' political objectives are having a similar effect on the ground forces' operations in both Iraq and Syria. A study by the RAND Corporation demonstrates that one of the reasons the Iraqi Army has been incapable of achieving long-term success against ISIS is the sectarian nature of the conflict.74 Although the Iraqi Army was able to stop ISIS and regain some of the lost territories in September 2014, they achieved this only with the support of Kurdish and Shi'a militias. Likewise in 2015, even with the support of US airstrikes, the Iraqi Army needed the participation of these militias to recapture territories in Tikrit, Baiji, and Ramadi. Other territories were regained by the militias, such as the retaking of Sinjar by the Kurdish forces in November 2015, without any coordination with the Iraqi government. This support from the militias can have negative effects at the political level, especially if the Iraqi Army tries to regain the more important Sunni areas in Mosul, because it reinforces the Sunni population's perception of a Shi'a-dominated army doing the bidding of a mainly Shi'a government. Even with US air support, the Iraqi army needs to gain the support of the Sunni population for such operations to succeed. Moreover, even if the Gulf Arab countries become more willing to help the Iraqi government, the likelihood of Sunni reconciliation and collaboration with the new government or a new "Awakening" among the tribes is small.75 As for the Kurdish forces, while the Arabs might accept the Peshmerga's defense of Kurdish territories, the coalition cannot benefit from Kurdish support to recapture Arab-dominated territories because this could spark an ethnic Arab-Kurdish conflict.76

The United States has faced serious obstacles to accomplishing its initial declared objective in Syria—to train and support the moderate Syrian opposition, mainly the Free Syrian Army, to stand up against ISIS and the Syrian Army. In October 2015, the Obama administration admitted the failure of its $500 million program to train moderate opposition fighters and replaced the failed program with direct support, including providing ammunition and weapons, to existing rebel groups.77 This kind of direct support to such groups has previously proven ineffective because many Syrian rebel groups cooperate with Jabhat al-Nusra. As analyst Marc Lynch notes, "Syria's combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was the worst profile possible for effective external support."78 Lynch states two necessary conditions for external support for the Syrian rebels to be effective: the external supporters themselves must adopt a unified approach, and there must be a unified rebel organization to receive the support. These two conditions are not satisfied in the Syrian case: once again, conflicting political priorities stand in the way of unified and coordinated support. The Saudi-Qatari rivalry, which affects the whole region, from the struggle over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the support of different rebel groups in Syria, is a clear example. Another problem is the different perceptions that the United States and the Gulf countries have regarding which groups are "moderate." Many of the Islamist groups that are supported by the Gulf countries are not considered moderate from a US perspective and are, therefore, not entitled to support.79


ISIS has benefited from the political opportunity created by the Syrian conflict and Iraq's sectarian and political problems. All the successes achieved by the United States and its allies in the fight against al Qaeda vanished with the rise of ISIS, which benefited greatly from both the reluctance of many countries to counter its expansion in Syria and Iraq and its ability to integrate groups and networks that were previously part of al Qaeda. This initial reluctance to fight ISIS, even after the formation of the coalition, was due mainly to a misperception that ISIS and al Qaeda are ideologically different and that ISIS presents only a regional threat rather than the global threat that al Qaeda posed. ISIS clearly proved these assumptions wrong, especially with the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, which some consider to be France's 9/11. ISIS may prove even more threatening than al Qaeda if it is able to preserve its safe havens in Syria and Iraq.

The swift rise and consolidation of ISIS clearly points out the failure of the coalition's strategy, which has deployed only limited air resources and relatively weak local ground forces. The US-led coalition against ISIS also faced serious strategic challenges caused mainly by the complexity of the political situation in Iraq and Syria and the conflicting political priorities of the countries forming the coalition. This lack of coordination influenced the level of commitment these countries were willing to make to the implementation of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS. Now that Russia has strongly intervened in support of the Syrian regime, all the countries that have been awaiting the fall of Bashar al Assad's government before they start fighting ISIS should recognize that this goal is no longer militarily achievable. If the United States wants to defeat ISIS, it should not take into account the conflicting political priorities of its allies, especially Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, but it should instead implement whatever strategy will achieve that goal. ²

About the Author(s):

MAJ Wael Abbas serves in the Lebanese Armed Forces.

  1. The information in this paragraph comes from Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, ISIS and the Deceptive Rebooting of Al Qaeda, GCSP Policy Paper 2014/5 (Geneva: Geneva Centre for Security Policy, August 2014), 2: back up
  2. Paul Rogers, The Islamic State and Its Potential, Global Security Briefing (London: Oxford Research Group, October 2014), 2: go back up
  3. Mohamedou, ISIS and the Deceptive Rebooting of Al Qaeda, 4.go back up
  4. Rogers, The Islamic State and Its Potential, 2; Bill Roggio, "Al Qaeda in Iraq Confirms Deaths of al Masri, Baghdadi," Long War Journal, 24 April 2010: back up
  5. Kenneth M. Pollack, Building a Better Syrian Opposition Army: How and Why, Analysis Paper Number 35 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, October 2014), 3: back up
  6. Mohamedou, ISIS and the Deceptive Rebooting of Al Qaeda, 3.go back up
  7. Peter Bergen et al., 2014: Jihadist Terrorism and Other Unconventional Threats (Washington, D.C.: Bipartisan Policy Center, September 2014), 22: back up
  8. Mohamedou, ISIS and the Deceptive Rebooting of Al Qaeda, 3.go back up
  9. Pollack, Building a Better Syrian Opposition Army, 3. go back up
  10. The information in this paragraph comes from Sinan Adnan and Aaron Reese, Beyond the Islamic State: Iraq's Sunni Insurgency, Middle East Security Report 24 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of War, October 2014), 10, 12: back up
  11. Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman, "Debates and Divisions within and around Al-Qa'ida," in Self Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within Al?Qa'ida and its Periphery, eds. Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (West Point, N.Y.: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010), 1: back up
  12. Ben Hubbard, "ISIS Threatens Al Qaeda as Flagship Movement of Extremists," New York Times, 30 June 2014: go back up
  13. Mohamedou, ISIS and the Deceptive Rebooting of Al Qaeda, 3. go back up
  14. Hubbard, "ISIS Threatens Al Qaeda."go back up
  15. Mohamedou, ISIS and the Deceptive Rebooting of Al Qaeda, 4.go back up
  16. Anthony H. Cordesman, The Imploding US Strategy in the Islamic State War?, Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 23 September 2014): back up
  17. Spencer Ackerman, "Foreign Jihadists Flocking to Iraq and Syria on ‘Unprecedented Scale'–UN," Guardian, 30 October 2014: back up
  18. See Mohammed M. Hafez, "Tactics, Takfir, and Anti-Muslim Violence," in Self Inflicted Wounds: Debates and Divisions within Al?Qa'ida and Its Periphery, eds. Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (West Point, N.Y.: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010), 31, 37–38: back up
  19. See Ezzoubeir Jabrane, "Understanding Salafism: Background and Development (Part I)," Morocco World News, 23 January 2015: back up
  20. The information on Wahhabism in this paragraph comes from Ahmad Moussalli, Wahhabism, Salafism and Islamism: Who Is the Enemy?, Conflicts Forum Monograph (Beirut: Conflicts Forum, January 2009), 4–7, 12–16.go back up
  21. In this respect, we should not confuse the current relationship between the Wahhabi clerics and the Saudi family as being Salafist in origin. Wahhabist power in Saudi Arabia is a result of compromises made by Abd-al-Aziz Bin-Abd-al-Rahman Al Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, and his success in turning Wahhabism into a state institution. The Wahhabi clerics were eventually given complete control over legislation and religious education in the Saudi kingdom in return for their loyalty. Although the Wahhabi clerics of the state, including the Saudi Mufti, were loyal to the Saudi family and tried to give religious support to the decisions made by the Saudi king during and after the Second Gulf War, many groups called for a return to puritanical Wahhabism. One group of clergy sent a memo to King Fahd in 1993 that repudiated his decision to allow American forces to enter Saudi land and demanded the reform of Saudi Arabia's religious system. Ibid., 7–9.go back up
  22. Ibid., 20.go back up
  23. David D. Kirkpatrick, "ISIS' Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed," New York Times, 24 September 2014: back up
  24. Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt, "Military Skill and Terrorist Technique Fuel Success of ISIS," New York Times, 27 August 2014: back up
  25. "The Other Beheaders," Economist, 20 September 2014: back up
  26. Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) was an Egyptian Islamic scholar who strongly opposed the rule of secular leaders in Muslim countries and the influence of Western culture in Muslim societies. He founded a secret paramilitary movement (al-Tanzim al-Sirri) to fight secularism and establish shari'a in the Muslim world. Qutb was imprisoned from 1954 until his execution in 1966 by President Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941–1989) was a Jordanian Islamic scholar of Palestinian descent. During the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he established a "services bureau" (Maktab al Khidmat) to organize the recruitment of Arabs to the fight. It is believed that he influenced Osama bin Laden, who first met Azzam while studying at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, and again during the Afghan war in the 1980s. Azzam was assassinated in 1989. See Fawaz A. Gerges, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 30–33, 40–50.go back up
  27. The information about bin Laden's influences in this paragraph comes from Gerges, Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, 33, 35, 44, 55–56.go back up
  28. Moussalli, Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism, 9.go back up
  29. Kirkpatrick, "ISIS' Harsh Brand of Islam."go back up
  30. Richard Bulliet, "It's Good to Be the Caliph," Politico Magazine, 7 July 2014: back up
  31. Ibid. go back up
  32. "The Failed Crusade," Dabiq, no. 4 (2014): 9: back up
  33. David D. Kirkpatrick, "As Moderate Islamists Retreat, Extremists Surge Unchecked," New York Times, 18 June 2014: back up
  34. Gerges, Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda, 4.go back up
  35. Mouin Rabbani, The Un-Islamic State, NOREF Report (Oslo: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, September 2014), 2: back up
  36. Ibid. The fact that ISIS initially focused on establishing a state rather than on attacking Western targets is what differentiates it from al Qaeda. ISIS's leaders wanted to achieve what al Qaeda had failed to do, which gave them credibility in the eyes of those Muslims who desired an Islamic state.go back up
  37. Tim Arango, Kareem Fahim, and Ben Hubbard, "Rebels' Fast Strike in Iraq Was Years in the Making," New York Times, 14 June 2014: back up
  38. Ibid.go back up
  39. Kimberly Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan, and Jessica D. Lewis, A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, Middle East Security Report 23 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of War, September 2014), 6: Defeating%20ISIS_0.pdfgo back up
  40. Bergen et al., 2014: Jihadist Terrorism, 22.go back up
  41. Kagan, Kagan, and Lewis, A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, 6, 13.go back up
  42. Julien Barnes-Dacey, "The Islamic State and the Struggle for Control in Syria," European Council on Foreign Relations, 2 October 2014:; Eckart Woertz, How Long Will ISIS Last Economically?, CIDOB Notes Internacionals 98 (Barcelona: Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, October 2014), 2: go back up
  43. Kagan, Kagan, and Lewis, A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, 15. go back up
  44. Woertz, How Long Will ISIS Last Economically?, 1.go back up
  45. Hubbard and Schmitt, "Military Skill and Terrorist Technique."go back up
  46. Woertz, How Long Will ISIS Last Economically?, 1–3.go back up
  47. Alissa J. Rubin and Anne Barnard, "France Strikes ISIS Targets in Syria in Retaliation for Attacks," New York Times, 15 November 2015: back up
  48. Thomas Joscelyn, "Assad Regime, Allies Break Islamic State's Siege of Air Base in Aleppo," Long War Journal, 11 November 2015:; Ben Kesling, Ali A. Nabhan, and Safa Majeed, "Kurdish Forces Retake Iraqi City of Sinjar From Islamic State," Wall Street Journal, 13 November 2015: back up
  49. Harry R. Yarger, "Toward a Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and the Army War College Strategy Model," in US Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy, ed. J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr. (Carlisle, Penn.: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006), 107: back up
  50. Ibid.go back up
  51. "Transcript: President Obama's Speech Outlining Strategy to Defeat Islamic State," Washington Post, 10 September 2014: back up
  52. This is not to imply that Obama is willing to let Assad stay in power, but he is probably—rightly—worried about the alternatives, especially with Russia and Iran backing Assad.go back up
  53. "Transcript: President Obama's Speech."go back up
  54. Kagan, Kagan, and Lewis, A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, 6.go back up
  55. Keith Johnson and Jamila Trindle, "Treasury's War on the Islamic State," Foreign Policy, 23 October 2014: back up
  56. Marina Ottaway, We Bomb ISIL: Then What?, Viewpoints No. 63 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, September 2014), 3: back up
  57. Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 113th Congress (18 September 2014) (testimony of Dafna H. Rand), from the Center for a New American Security website: back up
  58. Ottaway, We Bomb ISIL, 3.go back up
  59. Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 113th Congress (18 September 2014) (testimony of Dafna H. Rand).go back up
  60. Ottaway, We Bomb ISIL, 4.go back up
  61. Kemal Kiri?ci, "Turkey's ISIL Dilemma: To Fight or Not to Fight," Brookings Institution, 3 October 2014: back up
  62. Ibid.go back up
  63. Can Kasapoglu, Fighting the Caliphate: What Are the Military Options?, EDAM Discussion Paper Series 2014/7 (Istanbul: Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, September 2014), 15: ; Kiri?ci, "Turkey's ISIL Dilemma."go back up
  64. Ottaway, We Bomb ISIL, 4.go back up
  65. Ibid., 5.go back up
  66. Yossi Alpher, The US-Led Campaign against the Islamic State: Many Questions, Few Answers, Expert Analysis (Oslo: NOREF, October 2014), 2: back up
  67. Ottaway, We Bomb ISIL, 4.go back up
  68. Kasapoglu, Fighting the Caliphate, 15.go back up
  69. Alpher, The US-Led Campaign, 2.go back up
  70. Kiri?ci, "Turkey's ISIL Dilemma." go back up
  71. Kevin Mazur, "Local Struggles in Syria's Northeast," in Syria and the Islamic State (Washington, D.C.: Project on Middle East Political Science, 1 October 2014), 8: back up
  72. Anthony H. Cordesman, The Air War against the Islamic State: The Need for an ‘Adequacy of Resources' (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 29 October 2014), 5: back up
  73. Ibid., 46.go back up
  74. Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq: Testimony presented before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (17 September 2014) (testimony of Ben Connable), 4, from RAND Corporation's website: back up
  75. Ibid., 4–6.go back up
  76. Kagan, Kagan, and Lewis, A Strategy to Defeat the Islamic State, 20.go back up
  77. Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, "Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS," New York Times, 9 October 2015: back up
  78. Mark Lynch, "Would Arming Syria's Rebels Have Stopped the Islamic State," in Syria and the Islamic State (Washington, D.C.: Project on Middle East Political Science, 1 October 2014), 16: back up
  79. Testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 113th Congress (18 September 2014) (testimony of Dafna H. Rand).go back up
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