One year on, is the international fight against ISIS working?

One year on
Mosque in Kuwait attacked by ISIS

It has been over a year since Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an “Islamic State” caliphate on June 29.  It came after ISIS conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul on 10 June 2014.  It was the declaration that finally grabbed the world’s attention, and led to an international effort to fight ISIS.  But one year on, the “Islamic State” continues to expand.  

Today ISIS exercises some measure of control over 350,000 square kilometres of territory, including half the territory of Iraq and Syria.  In addition, it has a number of official province affiliates in Sinai, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caucasus area.  It has also threatened to invade Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and launch attacks in Europe. Recently, there have been a series of ISIS-claimed attacks in the Sinai, Kuwait and Tunisia, as well as lone wolves claiming to act for ISIS in countries including France and Australia.
ISIS has released graphic accounts of its brutal massacres, which have killed thousands of civilians, including Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Druze, as well as journalists and tourists. The disturbing images are reminiscent of the crimes against humanity committed during WWII, and yet they are being used for ISIS’s own propaganda on social media to recruit foreign fighters. Today ISIS is estimated to have over 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, including around 20 percent from  Europe, and around 120 from Australia.  Those numbers are still growing – the UN reports an increase of about 70 percent in the numbers of those joining ISIS in the past nine months.
Foreign fighters are a national security threat as many receive military training, which could be used in terrorist activity when they return home.  For example, a French foreign fighter who returned from Syria killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in June last year. The Australian Government is focused on this issue and has implemented various laws to tackle this threat, including its current bill before Federal Parliament that would strip dual citizens of their Australian citizenship if they fight for a terrorist organisation or engage in terrorist conduct.
While foreign fighters are a serious issue, according to reports ISIS is led by former officers in the Iraqi army.  ISIS also has strong local support from Sunni tribes due to the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian conflict that is unraveling the borders of Syria, Iraq and the broader Middle East.   ISIS is now seeking to stir Sunni-Shi’ite strife in the Gulf States.  Recently there were ISIS claimed attacks in a Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait and at two Shi’ite mosques in Saudi Arabia.
Military efforts against ISIS
The US formed a coalition of over 60 countries and has launched more than 5,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets. Currently there are no US troops in Syria, but there are around 3,500 in Iraq assisting the nation’s security forces.

However, the coalition has not succeeded in stopping ISIS, though it may have slowed it down.  The airstrikes on ISIS oil infrastructure have not critically undermined its finances, as ISIS has responded by raising taxes in various parts of its territories.

Moreover, while the US intended to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS, the plan is not working.  On July 7, Defence Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged that the program only has about 60 participating fighters.

On July 6, US President Barack Obama offered an update on the military mission against ISIS and said from the Pentagon, “This will not be quick. This is a long-term campaign. (ISIS) is opportunistic and it is nimble.” Obama also claimed that progress had been made and said that there are no plans to send more US troops to the region:

“The strong consensus is that in order for us to succeed long-term in this fight against (ISIS), we have to develop local security forces that can sustain progress. It is not enough for us to simply send in American troops to temporarily set back organizations like (ISIS), but then as soon as we leave see that void filled again by extremists… If we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing whack-a-mole and there’ll be a whole lot of unintended consequences that ultimately make us less secure.”

A recent editorial in the Australian noted its concern that the coalition is failing and called for “stronger” US action.  It stated:

“Australia has a clear imperative to consider an expanded role for our Diggers in Iraq. But in negotiating with Washington about that possibility… must be coupled with an undertaking by the Obama administration that US forces will do much more to defeat the advancing hordes of the so-called Islamic State. ‘Stronger’ US action, as Tony Abbott said in Singapore last week, is needed to confront the ‘death cult’. For months, leading military analysts such as Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute have been warning the strategy of the US-led coalition against Islamic State is not working. Such assessments are backed by on-the-spot accounts from commentators such as Jonathan Spyer, also in The Weekend Australian, who reported Baghdad itself was now a ‘city under siege’ with Islamic State forces only 65km away. Spyer reports the defence of the Iraqi capital is in the hands of Shia militias that owe allegiance to Iran. He says the fall of Ramadi – where an expanded role for our Diggers is being negotiated – ‘made a nonsense of Iraqi government claims the tide had turned in the war against Islamic State’.
Last month, US President Barack Obama announced the dispatch of 450 US military ‘trainers’ to Anbar, adding to the 3000 US non-combat soldiers already in Iraq. Despite admitting that he does not yet have ‘a complete strategy’ for countering Islamic State, Mr Obama has insisted he will not reconsider the tactics currently being used. Understandably, he remains resolutely opposed to deploying troops to fight on the ground. In this he is supported by Mr Abbott and other Western leaders who are similarly anxious to avoid anything approximating ‘boots on the ground’ and casualties.
But within those parameters there is much more the US, with the support of its coalition partners, can be doing to make the strategy against Islamic State more potent. Mr Abbott has emphasised the need to make the vital air war more effective. Mr Jennings has pointed out that could be achieved if small numbers of specialist coalition troops were deployed with Iraqi forces to provide the essential targeting data coalition aircraft need to attack jihadist targets. Despite similar recommendations from US defence authorities and political leaders, Mr Obama has remained unwilling to act. Worrying accounts have also emerged about Washington blocking the supply by Arab states of weapons directly to Kurdish forces, while the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, closely linked to Iran, has similarly held back weapons supplies from the ‘Sunni Awakening’ militia in Anbar.
No expansion of our Diggers’ role in Iraq should be undertaken lightly. It demands the most careful consideration by the Government. But with Islamic State posing the threat it does, even achieving an operational capacity in Sinai, where it claims to have been firing rockets into Israel, as well as in Libya and Tunisia, it is time for Mr Obama to reassess the strategy being used to counter the jihadist advance. It remains a potent magnet for global jihadist recruitment. Allies like Australia cannot be expected to take on an expanded role unless Washington is also prepared to do much more to make the strategy effective.”

The role of Arab states
There are some Arab states involved in the international coalition.  Jordan’s King Abdullah is now considering arming the Sunni tribes in southern Syria so as to create a security zone to Jordan’s north.

However, according to Yoni Ben Menachem of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Arab states are not waging a “coordinated, effective struggle” against ISIS.  He notes that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been leading the Arab states with calls for action. Menachem writes:

“Sisi has taken unprecedented steps against ISIS terror. He is using the Egyptian army to wage an ongoing bloody war against its branch in northern Sinai, known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.  He has also outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Al-Qaeda and ISIS are offshoots. Regrettably, however, the Arab world has not responded to Sisi’s call last year to mobilize together for a war on ISIS terror. His call fell on deaf ears, and he is a lone voice crying out in the wilderness of the Arab states’ abjectness and weakness. These countries are now starting to pay a price in blood.”

Recently, there has been a wave of terrorist attacks in Egypt including the murder in Cairo of Egypt’s top prosecutor.  According to reports, at least 70 Egyptians, mostly soldiers and police, were killed after simultaneous assaults on military checkpoints in North Sinai on July 1. Islamic State’s Egyptian affiliate, “Sinai Province”, claimed responsibility for more than 15 attacks on security sites and three suicide bombings.  

While Sisi remains committed to fighting terrorist groups in the Sinai, the attacks have raised questions about the effectiveness of the Egyptian government’s response.  Elliott Abrams explores this issue in Israel Hayom:

“Israeli analysts noted three things. First, despite the much larger Egyptian military activity in Sinai, the Egyptian Army has been incapable of crushing the terrorists…
Second, the terrorists are getting better at it. Last year they appeared as a ragtag bunch holding Kalashnikovs (“armed Bedouins,” one Israeli journalist said). Now they have attacked several targets in one day in a well-coordinated movement, they wear uniforms, and they have more advanced equipment such as anti-tank missiles. This is the ISIS we have come to know in Iraq.
Third, there are connections between the terrorists in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza. There are accusations that Hamas has done some training of these jihadis in Sinai, has provided them with funds, and has given medical treatment to wounded jihadis in Gaza hospitals.
Israelis know that developments in Sinai will present threats to Israel sooner rather than later. One must hope that in addition to protecting their border, the Israelis are giving the Egyptians some advice on counterterror strategies. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s overall strategy is a blunt one: repression. It is not going to work — in Sinai or anywhere in Egypt. This is partly because the targets of repression are not only the terrorists but any critics of the government. The government of Egypt now has about 40,000 political prisoners, and it is crushing all political activity — moderate, secular, liberal, democratic as well as extremist. That’s a formula for instability in the medium and perhaps even short term. Moreover, it is not going to work because the army and police don’t seem very effective in their counterterror actions and strategies.”

Other groups fighting ISIS and the role of Iran?

Aside from the international coalition, ISIS also faces resistance from rival Sunni groups including al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies, Kurdish forces and Shi’ite militias sponsored by Iran.  While the Assad regime appears to be weakening, the Kurdish fighters have recently achieved significant victories in Syria illustrating their battlefield capabilities.

Regarding these Shi’ite militias, Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer wrote in the Australian:

“The militias are irregular political-military formations, organised on openly sectarian lines and flying openly sectarian banners. The most significant of them are supported by Iran. Their field commander is a man who may very well be a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. And it is they, under the collective banner of what is called the Popular Mobilisation in Iraq, who today form the key armed force in the government-controlled areas of central and southern Iraq, including the capital Baghdad.”

Western nations including the US and Australia are reportedly considering ways to work with Iran against ISIS. However, there are a number of concerns with this approach.  Firstly, it must be understood that Iran is acting to further its own interests and secondly, that Iran’s Shi’ite militias may be counterproductive by provoking further sectarian conflict and generating Sunni support for ISIS. As Spyer notes:

“For Iraq’s Sunnis, the rise of the militias is deeply worrying. Documentary evidence has already emerged of widespread sectarian violence directed against Sunni communities in the wake of the militias’ advances.  Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have issued reports detailing looting of homes and abuse of Sunni civilians by the militias in Baghdad, Samarra, and Kirkuk. An Amnesty investigation is under way into similar allegations regarding militia actions in Tikrit.  The militias, for their part, predictably reject all such allegations. But it is clear that for many Iraqi Sunnis, the rise of the Shi’ite armed groups is a key element in the emergence of an Iraq in which the long dominant Sunni Arabs are set to constitute a vulnerable minority.
Hamed al-Mutlaq, an MP for the Iraqi List grouping and a Sunni from Anbar, sums up the situation: ‘De facto, Iraq is now divided,’ he says. ‘In fact, worse than divided. The Kurds and the Shi’ites are safe in their areas. But the Sunni component has no existence and is displaced. Those who remain are under the sword either of ISIS or of the Shia militias.
‘The militias are no different from ISIS,’ he continues. ‘The Iranian intervention is no different from ISIS.’
The Iranian intervention, as Mutlaq calls it, is the key element in all this. As things stand, Tehran stands to dominate the oil-rich south of Iraq and the capital, even if the Kurdish north and parts of the Sunni centre remain out of reach. This already constitutes a major achievement for the Iranians. As to whether their forces can defeat the Sunni jihadists or merely contain them, this remains to be seen. Tehran may even prefer to leave Islamic State in place while Iran consolidates its hold over the parts of Iraq with which it is mainly concerned.” 

Iran and ISIS are both regional threats in their own way, and in this case the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” should not apply.  ISIS is destabilising the Middle East and sponsors terrorism but so does Iran.  All this must be considered as the P5+1 seeks a nuclear deal with Iran that has the potential to support Iran’s dreams of regional hegemony.
Moreover, support for Iran and its Shi’ite militias may further strengthen the sectarian conflict, which must be addressed at a diplomatic level both in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, it seems strange that an international coalition of 60 countries cannot defeat ISIS – even though they are admittedly employing a tiny fraction of their military potential for a variety of reasons.  Yet ISIS’s apparent  “invincibility” is, as a result, furthering its appeal as a destination of choice for foreign fighters and extremists wishing to live in the “Islamic State”.  As the Australian editorial notes, “stronger” action is needed to fight ISIS, especially to stop its hold of territory as well as to protect the innocents who are being murdered for their religious and ethnic identity.

Sharyn Mittelman