Some Thoughts on ISIS

One of the hottest topics, if not the hottest, in international affairs in 2015 is the question of ISIS, and the terrorist activities associated with ISIS.  What is ISIS?  How did it become such a powerful force so quickly, when most people have never heard of it as late as about three years ago?  Did the U.S. play any role in the rapid ascendancy of ISIS?  This article attempts to shed some light on these questions.

Background Information on ISIS:  ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It is also known as ISIL which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, where Levant historically refers to the Muslim countries in Eastern Mediterranean shores, like Syria-Palestine, and Egypt.  It is also simply known as Islamic State or IS implying that it is more global in reach.  It was founded in 1999 in Iraq by the Jordanian radical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden of al-Qaeda, but was killed in June 2006.  It is an extremist militant Jihadist Sunni group who advocates religious war using violence.  Since April 2010, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi became its leader.   Its original base was in Iraq and was then known as Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but in 2013 expanded to Syria and became known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), participating in military opposition to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Even when it expanded into Syria in 2013, ISIS was still relatively small, in terms of the territory under its control, number of fighters, and amount and sophistication of its weapons.  But it quickly expanded in all these three measures within the last couple of years.  How did that happen?

How Did ISIS Get Started in Iraq:  Before discussing the situation in Syria, we first discuss how did ISIS or ISI get started in Iraq around the beginning of the 21th century.  Using the excuse that Iraq was hiding and denying her possession of weapons of mass destruction, the U.S., Britain, and their allies invaded Iraq in March 2003 and toppled their president, Saddam Hussein, who was captured in December 2003 (and executed in 2006).  However, there was no peace and stability in Iraq because conflicts continued for the next decade as Iraqi insurgency forces fought with the post-invasion Iraqi government set up by the U.S. occupying forces.  It is estimated that 150,000 to 600,000 Iraqi were killed just during the next 3-4 years after the invasion.  The weak and unpopular government was not able to provide stability to run the country, and enacted policies that were considered by many to have alienated the Sunni minority and enlarged the conflicts between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority.  Due to political pressure from within the U.S. against America’s direct involvement in another foreign war, President Bush started withdrawing American forces from Iraq at the end of 2007, and the withdrawal was accelerated by President Obama with all combat troops withdrawn by December 2011.   As a result, the Iraqi government infrastructure, police, and society were basically destroyed, resulting in a political vacuum in Iraq.

Political Vacuum in Iraq:  It was this political vacuum that allowed the newly established ISI or ISIL to grow.  In the summer of 2014, ISIL launched a major military offensive in Northern Iraq and captured Mosul, a major city in that area, as well as other cities in Iraq, e.g., Tikrit which is only about 85 miles northwest of Baghdad, capital of Iraq.  Therefore, the origin of ISIS (or ISI or ISIL or IS) and its growth were directly related to the political vacuum left behind in Iraq after the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq, toppling the government of Saddam Hussein but unable to replace it with a strong and capable unifying government, and subsequent withdrawal of American troops.

Syria Civil War and Proxy War:  This leads us to Syria and the rapid expansion in the military strength of ISIS.  Due to growing disparity between the rich and the poor, favoritism or corruptions from connections with government officials, poverty, high youth unemployment, etc., coupled with a most intense drought from 2007-2010 resulting in many crop failures, unrest by the Syrian people began in the spring of 2011 against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  The al-Assad government responded with crackdowns.  Then soon the unrest changed from demonstrations to armed rebellions, including the establishment of the Free Syria Army (FSA) from defected officers of the Syrian armed forces.  Syrian government officials are mostly Shiite Muslims, although President al-Assad’s wife is a British-born and British-educated Sunni Muslim.  The Syrian government, including its armed forces, traditionally has received support from Russia, and also from Iran and Iraq.  But from the beginning of the unrest in Syria, the rebels and the FSA have received military training and support from the U.S., and also from Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and other Western countries.  So the civil war in Syria is somewhat like a proxy war between Russia and the U.S.

Involvement of ISIS and Continuation of Proxy War:  Besides the two parties of the Syrian armed forces and the rebel forces led by the FSA, there was another major party involved in the Syria civil war, and that is al-Queda and later joined by ISIS (in the rest of this article, we will just refer to this combination as ISIS).  In contrast to the rebel forces led by FSA or the Syrian government armed forces who are mostly Shiite Muslims, supporters of ISIS are mostly Sunni Muslims.  Although both FSA and ISIS are fighting against the Syrian government armed forces, they also fight against each other, and trying to take control of territories under the control of the other party.  For example, FSA rebel forces and ISIS have fought against each other in areas around the cities of Aleppo, Idlib, Reqqah, etc., and sometimes with the control changing hands more than once.

Beginning on September 30, 2015, Russian military planes attacked both ISIS forces and FSA rebel forces in Syria.  Attacking ISIS forces may be consistent with U.S. policy, but attacking FSA rebel forces is not consistent with U.S. policy.  Therefore, Russia and the U.S. in one sense seem to be on the same side fighting against ISIS, but their proxy war also continues with respect to supporting al-Assad or the FSA rebel forces, with Russia supporting al-Assad and the U.S. supporting the FSA rebel forces.

Expansion and Growth of ISIS:  The FSA rebel forces are not necessarily dedicated with great convictions to fight against ISIS.  As a matter of fact, many fighters of the FSA rebel forces have defected from FSA and joined ISIS.  Because CIA provides training and weapons to rebel forces, such defection would increase the size of the ISIS army as well as the quantity and sophistication of their weapons.  Of course, when ISIS seizes a territory from rebel forces, it would also gain many American weapons that were left behind.  Sometimes FSA rebel forces would also sell their American-provided weapons to ISIS.  These are all reasons contributing to the rapid growth of the size and strength of ISIS.

Something else also contributed to the rapid growth of the size and strength of ISIS.  Besides fighting in Syria, the ISIS troops also moved (or moved back for some) to Iraq and became rebel forces against the Iraqi regime.  When the U.S. withdrew her troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, it left behind many American equipment in Iraq, such as jeeps, trucks, tanks, as well as weapons.  So when the ISIS troops moved into Iraq and gained control of parts of Iraq, all these expensive equipment and weapons became theirs for free.  The U.S. should have known that the situation in Iraq and neighboring countries are very tenuous.  So the U.S. should have either removed or destroyed those equipment or weapons, instead of just leaving them behind.

Summary:  The existence of ISIS, especially its rapid growth in size and strength in Iraq and Syria, was not due to U.S. inaction, but was directly related to three sets of actions by the U.S. government:

    1. The U.S. invasion of Iraq.  This toppled the Saddam Hussein government.  It destroyed the Iraqi infrastructure and security force.  But it was not able to provide a viable stable government that has the support of the Iraqi people.  The resulting political vacuum in Iraq led directly to the birth and initial growth of ISIS.  U.S. is very good in tearing down governments, but is not very good in creating stable and viable governments.
    2. The U.S.’ support for the FSA rebel forces to try to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad government and engaged in a proxy war in Syria with Russia.  This includes providing training and weapons to the FSA rebel forces, who turned out not to be so committed soldiers to the cause that is aligned with that of the U.S.  When the FSA rebel forces were not able to defeat ISIS or when these FSA rebel soldiers defected to ISIS, it contributed to the growth in size and strength of ISIS.
    3. When the U.S. withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, instead of taking or destroying their equipment and weapons, the U.S. left these equipment and weapons behind.  Thus, when ISIS moved into Iraq and took control of some of the territories, ISIS got these equipment and weapons for free.

For a short (12 minute) video discussing some of the above issues by an award-winning American journalist Ben Swann, see “Truth in Media:  The Origin of ISIS”:

The Refugee Issue:  The instabilities, fighting, and economic chaos left behind in Iraq and Syria, at least partially as a result of America’s actions, have created a huge stream of refugees from Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries to escape and try to find another land so they can survive.  The U.S. has a moral obligation to help solve the refugee problem by taking a share of the refugees.  Denying them a chance to survive would be like denying the Jewish people the chance to escape from the Holocaust from Germany-controlled countries during WWII.  This already happened once in 1938 during WWII when only two countries (China and Dominican Republic) were willing to increase their quota of granting visas to Jewish immigrants.  Now we have a chance to practice the often shouted slogan “Never Again!”


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One Response to “Some Thoughts on ISIS”

  1. david chai says:

    Hi Don,
    Again, a very clear explanation of the growth of ISIS. It is amazing that we, the US, is just concentrated on “regime change” by destroying the current one; but never given much thought about how to build up a replaced regime. Have we not learned from the Vietnam war yet?


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