Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

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

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In Iraq/Syria Conflict, the Islamic State Leverages International Community’s Self-Imposed Boundaries

by Janine Davidson
August 12, 2014

isis-iraq A member loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa, June 29, 2014. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


President Obama’s recent military action in northern Iraq to protect American personnel and provide humanitarian aid to civilians besieged by Islamic State (IS) forces has likely achieved its limited tactical effects.  Airstrikes have restricted IS’s freedom of maneuver on the ground, and provided a bit of space for Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who appear to be the last best hope to face IS on the ground.

Still, as Pentagon officials have made clear, none of this will have a strategic effect on the well armed and increasingly well funded IS forces.  Boasting $2 billion in assets and generating roughly $3 million per day in oil and gas revenues, IS continues its reign of terror across the Levant, taking more ground and attracting more fighters each day. As I observed on July 24, “ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations.”

A key factor in the Islamic State’s success is its unfettered ability to stage operations from Syria. News reports this week reveal that IS has established a sanctuary and is operating unchallenged from the Syrian city of Raqqa. This is where, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Islamic State’s black flags still fly proudly over administrative buildings and living quarters,” and new recruits arrive—with their families—by the busload daily from Turkey.  Much of the surplus American military equipment IS seized from the collapsing Iraqi army has also flowed back across the border.

To IS, the Iraq-Syria border is largely irrelevant.  To make the point, after having taken nearly 13,000 square miles in territory across the region, it changed its name from the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) to simply the “Islamic State.”

By contrast, the international community continues to view conflagrations in the region through the lens of traditional nation-states. IS has taken full advantage of this fact. To the West, military intervention in Syria would be against the Assad government—and subject to a certain set of international norms and laws. Meanwhile, intervention in Iraq is intended to support the government, taking place at the invitation of Iraqi leaders.

In either case, the ambiguity of potential strategic outcomes and fear of “mission creep” makes significant military action even less likely. Indeed, as President Obama made clear this week in an interview with Thomas Friedman, American intervention to arm rebel forces in Syria was “never in the cards.”


A displaced woman and child from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, rest as they make their way towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate August 10, 2014. (Rodi Said/Courtesy Reuters)

Meanwhile, the Islamic State is learning, growing, and adapting.  It has learned – because the policy has been clearly broadcasted—that Western forces will not challenge them in Syria, or on the ground in Iraq.  According to President Obama, the idea of a successful intervention in Syria has “always been a fantasy,” as the  “opposition [is] made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” pitted against a “well-armed state…backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah.”

As it remains unchallenged, IS continues to grow.  Each weapons cache it seizes and each town it takes only attracts a new stream of recruits from across the region, who continue to flock to join the cause. More Sunnis have been lured by IS’ steady stream of successes and victories. More Westerners have been charmed by the prospect of participating in a global jihad.

Finally, IS will continue to adapt.  If my August 6 assessment of the captured Al Qaeda letters is any indication, IS will be prepared to fall back on its Syrian territory in order to “retreat and regroup.” IS leaders, carefully attuned to global public opinion, and keen to avoid more airstrikes, may seek to reduce the visibility of atrocities and focus on holding and governing the territory it has – for the time being.

Ultimately, as the Pentagon has made clear, IS “remains focused on securing and gaining additional territory throughout Iraq, and will sustain its attacks against Irsaqi and Kurdish security forces and their positions.”  As long as IS can operate freely between the Iraq-Syria border, it will continue to grow and strengthen.

Emerson Brooking, research associate for defense policy, contributed to this post.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by John Ferrier

    I’m nodding my head vigorously at much of this analysis, but wondering if IS has enough internal organisational coherence to reliably have regard to a public affairs strategic component in making choices from here.

  • Posted by Writt Woodson

    Davidson’s analysis brings the realities of the Islamic State into focus. I certainly agree with, “To IS, the Iraq-Syria border is largely irrelevant.”
    The Middle East and the risks have changed rapidly and dramatically in the last two months. I would like to draw attention to another “border,” where the stakes are even higher than those which surround the territory including Mosul and Raqqa. We really need to talk about it and think about it even if we don’t know where it is. By “it” I mean the boundary for the Benghazi Emirate. The BE is now just as much a reality as the Islamic State. The BE has the potential for morphing into more of a menace in the short term than the IS. The risk, of course, is at the border of the BE and Egypt. The “interests” of the US in the ME, now sit at that border. Egypt’s stability is now at risk.
    I don’t agree with the US political elite with respect to Israeli security. And I don’t think the State of Israel has done a good job of protecting the future of the State of Israel. I believe in the two state solution as the only potential path to peace in Palestine. But the door is closing.
    In my view the US, Russia, Germany, China, etc, have a humanitarian obligation to prevent genocide and nuclear war. The thoughtless bombing of Libya (2011), the US invasion of Iraq and certainly the imprisonment of the people of Gaza and the displacement of other Palestinians are making that obligation more difficult to uphold. Yazidis, Israelis, Palestinians, Sunnis, no people, no where, should be subject to genocide by nuclear attack or by any other means.
    Borders in the ME are being redrawn through violence. The potential solutions are primarily diplomatic. We can’t kill (Hussein and Gaddafi) or jail (Morsi) all of the heads of state in the ME and then expect to have diplomacy.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    Welcome to my camp. Things are fairly primitive here. But you are among friends.

    I am happy to read what you have had to say. But I must note that your contribution, though well-presented and correct, is hardly groundbreaking. It reads like Reader’s Digest. “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia”, a/k/a ISIS, and other Sunni extremists active in Iraq have been taking sanctuary in Syria, and controlling territory there, for ten years. Our government has known this all along. The whole world has.

    The most informative and indeed revealing elements of this analysis are the quotations from President Obama. Unfortunately, these confirm the disingenuous nature of his previous position statements regarding affairs in Syria.

    How interesting, and how odd, that the President would state that US aid for Syrian rebels “was never in the cards”, six weeks after having stated in a major foreign policy address to the graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy, that, to paraphrase, ‘it is time to increase aid to Syria rebels, and I look forward to working with Congress towards achieving that goal’.

    This is very strange. And the only way I can understand it is by concluding that our President at some point, either now, or then, was under the influence of some delusion. The question is, which ? That Congress would work with him towards that goal ? Or that anyone would take such a pronouncement seriously ? Truly, there are no fantasies at work here, only deception.

    Essentially, this essay makes the argument that national boundaries in this case are an artificial constraint upon the United States. This is so, and the author successfully knocks down this strawman rationale by proving that, if the US has any regard for its interests and objectives, it can not afford to observe this constraint, for in that event “As long as IS can continue to operate freely on the Syria-Iraq border, it will continue to grow and strengthen”.

    That much should be manifest to anyone who has been paying attention to the War in Iraq for the past ten years. Thus we can conclude that state boundaries in this instance are as much a matter of convenience for this administration, as they were for Lyndon Johnson during the Tonkin Gulf incident or Richard Nixon during the Parrot’s Beak incursion in to Cambodia, or in any other incident in which the United States military has appeared uninvited in a foreign land.

    What is most relevant and revealing in this instance is the President’s declared reasons for having such scruples. What are they ?

    To quote, the fact of a “well-armed state…backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle hardened Hezbollah”.

    Here, the President is answering his critics courtesy of Thomas Friedman. And what is he saying ? That Syria is well-armed state too dangerous for the United States to confront ? This, after three or four unanswered air-strikes by Israel ? Or is he saying Syria is different, because in that case, we would be crossing Russia and Iran, and Hezbollah, its client ??

    I rather think the later is the case. The President is saying he will not intervene in any way in Syria because of considerations involving these other countries.

    In the case of Iran, the reason is clear: the President wants a nuclear disarmament treaty with Iran, and he is willing to trade Syria for it. In the case of Russia, his reasoning is less clear, and hard to ascertain. Either he similarly wishes not to displease the leadership in the Kremlin, perhaps in the vain hope that he can secure a new arms limitation treaty with Russia. Or he genuinely fears Russia, and what it might do, were the United States to interfere with the course of events in Syria.

    In that case, we can conclude that he regards Russia as a far greater threat to the United States than ISIS or Hezbollah, or both.

    I guess we should all get back to building bomb shelters. ISIS is bad enough. But why, then, should we be troubling Russia over events in Ukraine ?

    Concern for Russia in this case does not make much sense. Concern for Iran, even less, for indeed, what the President is after in that case,, is a fool’s bargain.

    Respectfully submitted,


  • Posted by IslamreligionDOTcom

    The ISI is an outlaw group that nobody wants.

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