After weeks of fighting, Islamic State succeeded in taking over the Iraqi city of Ramadi and it currently controls large parts of the al-Anbar province, which borders on Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Almost 25,000 residents have fled Ramadi. This week Islamic State also overran Syrian government troops to seize Palmyra (Homs province, Syria), home to the ruins of a 2,000-year-old city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.The U.N. human rights office in Geneva said a third of Palmyra's 200,000 residents may have fled the fighting in the past few days.
The Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is a radical islamist group aiming to establish a "caliphate", a state ruled by a single political and religious leader according to Islamic law, or Sharia. IS represents a clear threat to US allies in the region and, given the significant numbers of foreign fighters in its ranks, potentially to Western countries as well. This blog will focus on a few reasons why murderous Sunni terror organization Islamic State is still standing strong in the summer of 2015.
US-led coalition airstrikes and Iraqi army
The American remedy for IS in the form of airstrikes has proved to be insufficient. A massive ground offensive is required. Instead, the American strategy to fight IS in Iraq depends on local troops. The Pentagon has said it trained 7,000 Iraqi forces since Mosul’s collapse and launched more than 3,700 airstrikes, hitting 6,300 targets. In the month leading to Ramadi’s collapse, the U.S.-led coalition conducted 165 airstrikes in Ramadi alone, according to military statistics. And yet, once again, the Iraqis could not mount a defense against a charging IS. In Mosul Iraqi forces held the city for more than a year, even as IS-controlled areas dominated the province. In Ramadi, Iraqi forces conducted a tactical retreat. Iraqi forces have diminished from 200,000 to about 50,000 demoralized troops. The strong local ground force that the Pentagon hoped could exploit American air superiority over IS does not appear to exist within the Iraqi army.
Strategy of Islamic State
Ramadi was Islamic State's biggest success since it captured the northern city of Mosul last year and declared itself an Islamic caliphate. While it has been forced to give ground in Tikrit and in the Syrian city of Kobani (see previous blog on Coalition against Islamic State), the group still controls large areas of Iraq and Syria. Islamic State is able to adapt to circumstances; during airstrikes they were litteraly digging themselves in, in tunnels in Tikrit or in underground bunkers in Mosul. During the raid/attack on Ramadi IS used a sandstorm as a camouflage and attacks with carbombs to panic the defenders. When the Iraqi forces beat a hasty retreat from Ramadi at the weekend, they left behind a large amount of military supplies, including about a half a dozen tanks, around 100 wheeled vehicles and some artillery, the Pentagon said. Now Islamic State fighters have set up defensive positions and laid landmines, witnesses in Ramadi said. Since the airstrikes of the extended coalition the inflow of foreign fighters has increased up to about 25,000 now (100 countries).
This week, the administration in Washington announced that a Delta Force raid on Syrian territory in the Deir al-Zour district killed Abu Sayyaf, the “oil” minister of IS. The organization still controls the major oil fields in northwestern Iraq. In Syria, it now controls half of the country’s territory and most of its oil and gas fields, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. IS will continue to sell oil. The coalition drove the IS forces away from certain areas, and the organization conquered other areas instead. (See map US Department of Defense).
Sunnis and Shiites
The key for understanding IS' survival is understanding the internal Muslim conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. The Iraqi and Syrian regimes, of Haider al-Abadi and Bashar Assad, rely on the help of Shiite militias. The Syrian regime has the help of Hezbollah and the Iraqi regime in al-Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilization Forces). The two Shiite groups have waged an all-out war against IS, but they are also hated by the local population, which is mostly Sunni. The Sunnis in eastern and northern Syria are suffering from IS' presence, but they are as hostile towards Hezbollah, which is considered the main support of the oppressing Syrian Alawite regime. In western Iraq, the mostly-Sunni population is suffering from the IS regime, but hates the Popular Mobilization Forces – which only serves the Shiite interest in Iraq- just as much. The Popular Mobilization fighters have been accused of committing acts of revenge and abuse not just against IS prisoners, but also against the civil Sunni population. Sunni leaders in the al-Anbar province and heads of Sunni tribes in the region have firmly refused to let the Shiite militia take part in the fight to free their lands. The Sunnis see the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces as a threat which is as big as the Sunni IS.
United States - Iran
The United States-led coalition is not interested in including Shiite elements which are directly supported by Iran in the war on IS. The Americans are also aware of the fact that Iran is standing behind the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and are not interested in including the Syrian army either in the anti-IS coalition. US President Barack Obama is determined to reinforce his allies' stance in the moderate Sunni axis – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, Jordan and Egypt. It's reasonable to assume that the concern among the Americans and the moderate Sunni axis is that pro-Iranian elements will take over the wide areas controlled by IS today.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Cheterian, V., "ISIS and the Killing Fields of the Middle East", Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 57 (2015), No. 2, pp. 105-118.
- Henderson, C., "The Use of Force and Islamic State", Journal on the Use of Force and International Law, 1 (2015), No. 2, pp. 209-221.
- Holbrook, D., "Al-Qaeda and the Rise of ISIS", Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 57 (2015), No. 2, pp. 93-104.