Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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ISIS Hasn’t Gone Anywhere—and It’s Getting Stronger

by Emerson Brooking and Janine Davidson
July 24, 2014

isis-isil-state-danger Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


By Janine Davidson and Emerson Brooking

Amid dangerous escalation in eastern Ukraine following the MH17 tragedy and a widening war in Gaza, it’s easy to dismiss last month’s lightning offensive into Iraq by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq’s (ISIS) as “old news.” Unfortunately, as global attention has shifted elsewhere, ISIS has only grown more virulent. The self-proclaimed caliphate has redoubled its efforts in Syria, launching a series of unprecedented offensives last week that now leave it in control of 35 percent of Syrian territory and nearly all of Syria’s oil and gas fields. The tumor is growing.

ISIS has shown remarkable military capability. A full-fledged July 21 counterattack by Syrian government troops failed—on two fronts—to reverse ISIS’ gains. Indeed, as Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, stated in Congressional testimony on July 23, “[ISIS]…is now a full-blown army.”

Meanwhile, these gains from Syria are being used to bolster the war effort in Iraq. As McClatchy reports:

The capture of nearly all Syria’s oil and gas has proved a financial bonanza for the Islamic State, which appears to be trying to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Syrians by guaranteeing low oil prices.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based anti-government group, said fuel tankers with Iraqi license plates and driven by Iraqi nationals have entered Syria and reached Al Omar oilfield near Deir el Zour in the last few days, waiting to be filled with oil before they return to Iraq through the territory controlled by the Islamic State.

The observatory said the group is selling oil to Syrian dealers for $12 a barrel, on the condition that those dealers sell them for no more than $18 a barrel to civilians, in an attempt to win support from people living in territories under its control.

That’s not all. As cities fall more firmly under ISIS’ grasp, the jihadists attempt to govern.  They are building and running schools in Syria and delivering “justice” across the Levant.  As the New York Times reports, the result is a mix of public executions and imposition of harsh religious law, supported by a surprising level of order. While ISIS has “removed” old leaders from their positions of power, it has made a practice of compelling mid-level bureaucrats and technocrats to stay through the change in management. As a result, ISIS rule has not been as disruptive as some analysts thought—so long as citizens do what the “caliphate” says.

In Iraq, things are a mess. Government forces have seen little progress in winning back territory. On July 10, ISIS ambushed and captured an Iraqi armor convoy, including several U.S.-made and donated M1A1 main battle tanks. On July 21, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States called for U.S. air strikes against ISIS positions. Meanwhile, according to updated monitoring by the Institute for the Study of War, ISIS continues to close off vectors into Baghdad.


The Institute for the Study of War has been tracking ISIS’ offensive into Iraq. This July 21 snapshot show the jihadi group either controlling or contesting multiple vectors toward Baghdad.

ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected. Should ISIS continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist “army” will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.

For now, serious options for the United States remain limited. A decapitation strike targeted against ISIS leader al-Baghdadi could fragment the organization—but he still remains a very elusive target. There are signs that Iraq’s moderate Sunnis are cooling to ISIS rule, but it’s unclear what effect this might have in stemming ISIS’ gains, or how capable they could be in routing ISIS by force.

Overall, news from the region is grim. ISIS is in the process of evolving from jihadi network to outlaw state. Meanwhile, the unprecedented number of foreign fighters who have streamed to Iraq and Syria—some 3,000 of whom have Western passports—will bring their newly tempered ideology and combat experience with them when they return home.

As ISIS turns increasingly to the task of governing, internal pressures on the organization will grow considerably. The uneasy coalition will be strained; damage done to local civic infrastructure and institutions will take its toll. Yet the atrocities committed in ISIS-occupied territory, terrible now, will likely get worse.

In this case, simply “waiting it out” might be a viable strategy, perhaps leaving the work of direct intervention to Iran. After all, Iran has plenty of reasons of its own to stymie ISIS’ spread. But is this a strategy the United States can—or should—accept?

Emerson Brooking is a research associate for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Jack

    “In this case, simply “waiting it out” might be a viable strategy, perhaps leaving the work of direct intervention to Iran. After all, Iran has plenty of reasons of its own to stymie ISIS’ spread.”
    AMEN!!!!! The opposite of waiting it out hasn’t worked out so well for the US.

    “But is this a strategy the United States can—or should—accept?”
    First, do the US have a choice? A REAL choice?

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Should we light a candle, or curse the darkness ? For those never disposed to action, the answer is always the same, and any reason will do.

    Two days before the seizure of Crimea by Russia began, President Obama solemnly declared that the Syrian civil war was America’s foremost foreign policy problem. That was a Thursday. By Monday, his national security team was declaring Russia’s move America’s number one foreign policy problem, and a nation transfixed by bold headlines nodded their heads in agreement.

    A month later, ISIS fighters took Mosul and most of northern Iraq outside of Kurdish control, cutting the country in two. The President acknowledged this to be a foreign affairs crisis requiring all the attention of his national security council and military leaders. Pundits, analysts and savy reporters took this for granted, and so did the public at large.

    Then a week ago last Thursday, Russia shot down a civilian airliner over Ukraine, and that event revived the administration’s interest in that war.

    Now Israel’s reinvasion of Gaza is America’s top foreign policy preoccupation.

    Round and round, and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows. Will North Korea launch another missile over Japan ? Will the Obama administration ever resolve to do anything ?

    More than a year ago, it was disclosed that Russia had shipped long range hypersonic cruise missiles, capable of sinking ships 300 miles away to Syria. At that time, I wrote to the Secretary of Defense concerning this matter and the civil war there. At that time, I proposed that the United States impose an arms embargo on Syria that would include a naval blockade that would put a stop to such shipments by Russia. Apparently my letter received scant attention.

    At that time, the United States was in a perfect position to offer Russia a choice: stop arms shipments to Syria, or watch us destroy the Assad regime. Had we followed this course of action, Russia would have been in no position to contest it. To this day, it is an “offer they can not refuse”.

    In turn, had Syria lost the support of Russia, the Assad regime would quickly have taken flight. Moderate rebels of a nationalist persuasion would have taken over Damascus and most of Syria. There would have been no Gulf State support for extremists. ISIS would have probably not taken root in Syria. At the very least, its power there would have been greatly diminished. And quite possibly Vladimir Putin would have thought twice about sending armaments to Russian extremists in eastern Ukraine. We would have given him something else to think about.

    The answer to your simple question is: no. To put a stop to ISIS expansion in Iraq, attack and kill it in Syria. To do that, first dispose of the Assad regime, and form an alternative to it. To do that, put an end to Russian arms shipments to Syria.

    Or sit back and watch the Middle East go up in flames.


  • Posted by Matt

    If the Sunni tribes ex ba’ath ex Saddam millitary secular want gentile mutilation, they would do it themselves and do not need some fatwa from a bunch of foreigners. This is why l-Qaida during the war outlive their welcome and then get turned against. They push it as far as they can so I doubt it will occur. But this is I know how they will be left like Saddam’s army on the road from Kuwait and bulldozed into trenches dead, alive, wounded in the Gulf War in 91. Only this time in the Jordanian desert.

  • Posted by B. Writt Woodson

    The establishment of the Islamic State is a geopolitical and historical event of enormous importance. It has and will reorder the stress points, the security needs and the relative power of many nations. It is certainly not something that President Obama or any future President can “resolve” as Mr. Harwell suggests. The United States ( U.S.) must reassess its security interests based on the development of this event.
    The most critical geographical stress point is the Golan Heights. The Assad regime no longer controls the territory on the eastern side of the Golan Heights border. For sixty five years the U.S. has supported Israel’s ceaseless land grab. The U. S has bankrolled the Israeli military and provided technology to insure than Palestinians bear in brunt of the carnage the conflict creates year after year.
    Al Qaeda was not in Iraq, before the U.S. invaded. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi likely was radicalized by Al Qaeda during the time he was jailed by the U.S. The U.S. does not know why it jailed the man, as there was not a hearing. Nor does it have a legitimate reason for invading Iraq.
    Israel should stop blowing up United Nations shelters and get serious about a two state solution. The stakes have been made higher by past mistakes. Israel thinks that a nuclear arsenal is a solution. The problem the U.S. has now is that we don’t have Churchill to tell us what to do this time.

  • Posted by Macnos

    I know the American people are tired of war but it will be a colossal mistake to think that “waiting it out” will somehow solve this ISIS problem. An ISIS state will inevitable serve as an incubator for future terrorist attacks against the West.

    I am not advocating for an Iraq or Afghanistan-style response but rather airstrikes in coordination with the Iraqi forces to give them a massive advantage over ISIS.

    Being weary of years of war should not serve as an excuse to avoid dealing with a problem threatening so many countries.

  • Posted by Andrew Garcia

    Have we learned nothing from the past 50 years of failed interventionist policy? Perhaps we should heed the words of President Eisenhower who famously stated that it is sometimes wiser to allow history run it’s course. There are dozens of countries in Europe and the Middle East whose interests are more greatly affected than ours by the aggression and oppression and consequential instability brought about by the debacles in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Palestine. Lets wait until these countries are fully engaged and financially committed before we put our resources on the line.

  • Posted by Zorro

    It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected. Should ISIS continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist “army” will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.


    Self-refuting gratuitous add-ons. If ISIS is so effective, why is it not an army, but just a terrorist entity? The US army is a TERRORIST ARMY; so is ISIS, albeit on a smaller scale. the US terrorist army brought instability into Iraq by invasion. ISIS is a product of US terrorist policies.

  • Posted by Byron Prinzmetal

    The real question is current us policies, strategies, actions and words making the us and our treaty allies safer or less safe? ISIS is just one of many unpleasant things happening all at once. So, in my opinion, we need to look at the totality of things happening around the world and ask if our national interests are being served by our current policies, strategies, actions and words.

  • Posted by Somebody

    It maybe sound crazy, but just support Asad regime and you will be on the same page with Russia and Isreal, united against evil. Common enemy is our together enemy. We need to turn next page in history. Of course you will find many arguments against this idea, first is that you will must admit that you were wrong and that you need to learn like whole human race, and admit in advance that this maybe not the best option but its the only option we got to stop evil from spreading. All that is bad is going in anarchy that is ruled by evil mind, we must stop it. In ww2 we just watched Hitler how he rised and didnt stop him, now we must stop fighting with each other and unite against together enemy. The biggest step that mankind can do is common step, evil that is here it can destroy us or unite. This is not battle against Islam, its bettle against human filth that is gettering and we are doing nothing. Our Islamic neighbors in our country are proof that are good people in Islam religion, but we must acknowledge when evil is manipulating with people. Hitler was a Christians also, he was one of us, our worst part. And we let him rise. Most of the burden is now on Islamic states to unite and to refuse collaborating with filth. Isral need to find strength to forgive and unite, this is turning point in our wheel of karma. We are here to help.

  • Posted by B. Writt Woodson

    I agree with Posted by Somebody on two points. First it is imperative that certain powerful leaders “admit you were wrong,” only because it is nearly impossible to “turn the page” without that. Obama was wrong about Syria and Libya. Rumsfeld and his two former staffers, Cheney and Wolfowitz were wrong to take out Saddam Hussein. Of course, Iraq was more costly to the U.S. (so far). It would help the national debate if they all acted like grown-ups. The stakes are very high now, as per the Islamic State.
    Secondly, Posted by Somebody says that we should help Assad. The U.S. should help Assad in the near term, without forming a long term alliance.
    The most important thing the U.S. has to do is to insure the establishment of a Palestinian state. Without that the U.S. will continue to have very little influence in the region. Boots on the ground have been a complete failure (Iraq – no alliances, no exit strategy). Shock and Aw. The U. S. can not bomb its way into peace either. Been there- done that. (Libya, which is a 100% disaster and will be for a long time.)
    Second most important – make Ron Paul the next Secretary of Defense. (Kidding, but with great respect)

  • Posted by Jerel Rosati

    Type your comment in here… Janine I like your piece much better than the one by your friend you posted on the salon. Much more thoughtful and informative, especially for DC.

    But you may want to rethink the following statement: “ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organization.” What about the Bolsheviks? And there are others. Cheers! J

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