Execution of journalist James Foley again highlights the nature of terror group ISIS
Lister: Getting rid of ISIS will be tougher than taking on al Qaeda
Challenges facing the U.S. and others including the resourcing of, and territory held by, ISIS
Unlike most jihadist groups, ISIS has some serious weaponry and plenty of seasoned fighters
“We need long-term to take out ISIS’ leadership, to degrade their operational capabilities, to cut off their financing sources, to go after them in a comprehensive way to cut off their ability to do the things we’ve seen them do.”
Those were the words of State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf on Monday – suggesting the Obama Administration is preparing to do much more against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq than deprive it of the Mosul Dam. They sounded much like the checklist used to degrade al Qaeda over a decade.
Until the sudden capture of Mosul in June, ISIS was of concern to Western governments but not a pressing priority. Since then, the threat to Baghdad, the plight of the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq, direct threats to U.S. interests and citizens and now the gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley have galvanized an unlikely coalition.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Jabhat al Nusrah, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria: all have the same adversary.
On Wednesday, President Obama said: “There has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread.” French President Francois Hollande concurs. In an interview with Le Monde Wednesday he called for a “comprehensive strategy against this structured group, which has access to substantial funding and to very sophisticated weapons, and which threatens countries such as Iraq, Syria or Lebanon.”
The first step in taking down al Qaeda central was the invasion of Afghanistan to deprive it of living space. This time, the United States hopes others – specifically the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi armed forces – will do that part of the job against ISIS, with a little help from U.S. drones and F-16s.
Even so, killing off an organization that is now much more potent than al Qaeda or its affiliates will depend on a lot of things going right in a region where much has gone wrong.
Here are just a few of the challenges.
1. ISIS has considerable territory
In eight months, ISIS has taken control of swathes of western and northern Iraq, and expanded its presence in northern Syria. For hundreds of miles along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, ISIS is the power in the land; it now holds an area larger than the neighboring state of Jordan. While al Qaeda never really held territory beyond training camps and caves in remote parts of Afghanistan, ISIS controls cities (Mosul, Tikrit and Tal Afar in Iraq; Raqqa in Syria) and oil fields, main roads and border crossings. And it possesses more military hardware than some national armies after seizing both Iraqi and Syrian military bases and armories.
Critically, ISIS is able to use both Syrian and Iraqi soil in a much more muscular way than al Qaeda and the Taliban used the mountain tracks between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This gives it tactical flexibility and safe havens. Although its Syrian strongholds have come under aerial attack recently by the Syrian air force, the group retains control of Raqqa and Deir Ezzour provinces in the north and east of the country, and has in recent days seized villages close to Aleppo, some 250 miles from the border with Iraq. It also holds villages and towns along the Syrian border with Turkey.
As ISIS threatens to overwhelm other rebel groups (see below), especially the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, one critical factor will be the Syrian regime’s tactics. Until recently it has focused its fire on other groups in securing Damascus and retaking Homs. There are signs it now sees ISIS as a clear and present danger; ISIS has seized several military bases in Raqqa province, and threatens to take the important Tabqa air base.
In the last week, the Assad regime has stepped up its use of air-strikes against ISIS, no doubt aware of the coincidental benefit of showing the West that Syrian help is required to tackle ISIS.
ISIS could be squeezed from several directions, but it would require co-ordinated commitment from Syria – which has other battles to fight and may still see ISIS as a useful counterbalance against other rebel groups – as well as the Iraqi army and the Kurds. Desperation has led Baghdad to co-operate with the Kurds. Whether that is sustainable is open to question.