On the Rise and Fall of ISIS
Patrick Cockburn Wonders at What Comes Next
Could ISIS have won the war in Iraq and Syria? Was it always inevitable that the reborn caliphate declared in 2014 after the capture of Mosul would be eliminated as a territorial entity less than five years later? These are important questions that are seldom asked because many observers condemn ISIS as an unmitigated evil and fail to analyze its strengths and weaknesses. But these are important if we are to understand the chances of ISIS resurrecting itself in Syria and Iraq or re-emerging under a different name with ostensibly different objectives. It is worth asking what were the religious, military, political, social, and economic ingredients that went into creating and sustaining this extraordinary militarized cult that for a considerable amount of time controlled a state that extended from the outskirts of Baghdad to the hills overlooking the Mediterranean.
In retrospect, military defeats and victories acquire a false sense of inevitability about them, whether we are looking at the German defeat of France in 1940 or the claimed elimination of the last vestiges of ISIS in 2019. Historians study long-term trends, but contemporary witnesses are more aware of the degree to which good or bad decisions determined the outcome of a conflict and that the result might have gone the other way. For instance, what would have happened if ISIS had not attacked the Kurds, who would have been happy to stay neutral, in both Iraq and Syria in the second half of 2014? This diverted ISIS from its spectacularly successful assault on central government forces in both countries and precipitated the devastating intervention of US airpower. If the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had not split the jihadi movement in Syria in 2013 by seeking to absorb his former proxy, the al-Nusra Front, back into the mother organization, then ISIS would have been in a much stronger position to fight a long war. Probably its very fanaticism—and its belief that it had a monopoly of divine support—prevented it showing greater political adroitness, but we cannot be sure.
As surviving ISIS fighters staggered out of the ruins of their last strong-hold at Baghuz on the Euphrates River on 23 March 2019, it was difficult to recapture the sense of dread that they had spread at the height of their success. I was in Baghdad in June 2014 when their columns of vehicles packed with gunmen were sweeping south as the regular Iraqi army divisions broke into fragments and fled before them. Some Iraqis, with a sense of history, compared the onslaught to that of the Mongol horsemen who captured and sacked Baghdad in 1258. Official spokesman on television would stay silent or announce fictitious victories, so I would call policemen in towns in the path of ISIS and ask what was happening. Often the calls revealed that it was advancing with frightening speed against crumbling or non-existent opposition. I remember thinking that reporters in Paris in May and June 1940 must have tracked the advance of German panzer divisions towards Paris with similar trepidation.
I learned that ISIS had captured without resistance Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit and had occupied the town of Baiji next to Iraq’s biggest oil refinery. Their fighters were going house-to-house examining identity cards and, to the dismay of inhabitants, taking away the IDs of unmarried women to be photocopied, presumably as prospective brides. I did not know at that stage the full details of what became known as the Camp Speicher massacre that ISIS had carried out, slaughtering 1,700 Shia air force recruits outside Tikrit. Later I saw a horrible video of an executioner shooting the terrified young men in the head with a pistol on a landing stage by the Tigris, so their bodies fell into the water. On a bluff overlooking the river, the jihadis had dumped the bodies into pits amid old half-ruined palaces of Saddam Hussein.
ISIS might have made a quick dash for Baghdad in a bid to create a mass panic among the capital’s Shia majority. There were rumors that the Sunni minority inside the city would rise up in coordination with ISIS units attacking from the outside. I suspected that talk of ISIS “sleeper cells” was exaggerated and that it was outrunning its military resources.
Moreover, the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had called on 13 June for a mass levy of all Iraqis to support what was left of the Iraqi armed forces. There were negative signs as well: the Iraqi government seemed paralyzed by its surprise defeat in Mosul and state TV was broadcasting undiluted propaganda, though viewers noticed that there were no pictures of the morale-boosting but non-existent successes. ISIS might not be able to seize Baghdad, but that did not mean they would not try. Hotels in Jordan were reported to be full of Iraqi MPs and ministers. Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister, told me to look closely at the entrances to other ministries: if there were new sandbags visible, as was the case with his own ministry, that meant that the minister was still there. But, if the sandbags were old and torn and had not been renewed, then the probability was that the minister had already sought safety elsewhere.
The moment of opportunity for ISIS lasted for about two months in the summer of 2014, when they were carrying all before them in both Iraq and Syria. They had captured the largest oil and gas fields in Syria and inflicted a string of defeats on the Syrian army. Their atrocities, well publicized on the social media, created real terror among their opponents. Then on August 6th, they made a strategic change of direction, the motives for which are still one of the great mysteries of the war: they shifted the weight of their attack away from the Iraqi armies and invaded the territory held by the Kurdistan Regional Government, which would have been happy to stay on the by-lines and exploit the weakness of the central government to its own advantage. Two days later President Barack Obama ordered US jets to start “targeted air strikes” on ISIS artillery units.
The following month ISIS launched a full-scale assault on the Kurdish city of Kobani and, in ferocious fighting in September and October, captured most of it. But the Syrian Kurds fought hard and the US launched air strikes that reduced IS-held Kobani to rubble and may have killed as many as 2,000 ISIS fighters during the four-month siege. It was the movement’s first failure and it persuaded the White House and the Pentagon that in the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units they had at last found an effective ally on the ground in Syria. The US-Kurdish alliance forged in 2014 lasted for five years until the last strongholds of ISIS were over-run, when it was ruthlessly discarded by Donald Trump who gave the green light to a Turkish invasion.
ISIS military capacity always exceeded its political ability. Its assault on the Kurds may have been encouraged by Turkey, which was allowing volunteers and supplies to move freely across the Turkish-Syrian border. The Turkish consulate stayed in Mosul after ISIS stormed the city, though its diplomats came to regret this. Another explanation, though the two do not contradict each other, is arrogance and belief in divine support that had apparently been confirmed by miraculous victories in 2014. Cult-like military movements with a belief that they have a monopoly of truth and righteousness are a potent force on the battlefield because their members are willing to die for the cause. But because they divide the world into black and white, right and wrong, they have a self-defeating pattern of treating all the world as their enemies and are incapable of creating alliances: It may be that as a militarized Islamic cult, which saw the world in terms of friends and enemies, ISIS was ideologically incapable of the flexibility necessary to make even a temporary accommodation with anybody outside its camp.
A similar mistake was made by two movements that somewhat resemble IS: the Khmer Rouge, who took over in Cambodia in the 1970s despite being bombed by American B-52s, and the Shining Path movement in Peru in the 1980s. The Khmer Rouge won their war against government forces, but then turned on their former mentors in Vietnam, with disastrous consequences for themselves. The Shining Path came from nowhere, had few resources and no allies, but held a large part of the Peruvian highlands for years using unrelenting violence against all comers. ISIS was a similarly self-isolating fanatical movement that was ultimately overwhelmed by the sheer number of its enemies: Iraqi and Syrian governments, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, the US and Russia, Iran and Turkey.
ISIS went down but it did not go down without a fight. It developed a form of warfare which enabled it to withstand for a long time the attack of its better-equipped and far more numerous enemies. ISIS units were mobile light infantry specializing in irregular warfare of a type in which suicide bombers, snipers, and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) played a central role. “I cannot think of a single successful armed opposition attack in Syria that did not use suicide bombers,” a foreign military specialist in Damascus told me. The same was true of Iraq where, even after the Iraqi army was receiving close ground support from US air strikes, ISIS was able to capture the main government stronghold in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, on 17 May 2015, and, a few days later, seize the famed city of Palmyra in Syria.
Religious fanaticism wedded to military efficiency is a formidable weapon, but the two do not automatically come together. ISIS was the lineal descendent of al-Qaeda in Iraq established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004. It was notorious for its ferocity and sectarianism, but US officers did not rate its infantry skills very highly. This was to change after its resurrection on the back of what was essentially a Sunni Arab uprising starting in Syria and spreading to Iraq in 2012–13. Some commentators have argued that the military expertise of ISIS shows the influence of highly trained men who had once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard and Special Forces. ISIS doubtless benefited from their experience: the predominantly Sunni Arab city of Mosul was the main recruiting ground for the Iraqi officer corps under Saddam and his defense ministers normally came from Mosul and Nineveh province that surrounded it.
A more convincing explanation for the military effectiveness of ISIS is simply that it had experience. By the time a few thousand of its fighters took Mosul in June 2014, some of its commanders would have been fighting for a decade. Considering this, I was reminded of the reply of a UN military expert in Lebanon whom I had asked why the Hezbollah fighters were such good soldiers. He said: “If you have been fighting the Israeli army for a dozen years and you are still alive, you are probably pretty good at your job.”
The same was true of IS: It had fought the Americans and a chaotic but still numerous and well-armed Iraqi army and assorted militias. Its tactics were fluid and sophisticated: its motorized columns attacked unexpectedly from different directions at the same time, while its local commanders (emirs) were given objectives at the last moment, but would decide themselves on the best mode of attack. Fighting in the open became too costly in the face of US air superiority, so ISIS tactics changed accordingly. In the sieges of Mosul and Raqqa—main topics in this book—ISIS deployed swiftly moving squads in built up areas, sometimes with a guide on a motorcycle.
They would set up a sniping position in a house, break through its walls to enable quick entry and escape, and then, after opening fire, rapidly retreat before their position was identified and hit by a retaliatory air strike. Often, the only casualties were the civilians who lived in the house who had been locked in a room and could not get out in time. US and other western air forces boasted of the accuracy of their missiles and smart bombs, but this was beside the point if they did not know where ISIS fighters were hiding. Despite the vaunted concern about civilian casualties—and condemnation of the Russians and Syrian government for targeting civilians—the US air force turned Raqqa and the Old City of Mosul into heaps of ruins, much as the Russians and Syrian government had done in east Aleppo and Homs, along with Daraya, Barzeh, and eastern Ghouta in Damascus.
The military prowess of ISIS was flattered by the weaknesses and divisions of its enemies, particularly during the early years of its resurgence between 2011 and 2014. This was certainly true of Iraq, where the state was thoroughly criminalized and its army so corrupt that colonels would pay $200,000 and generals $1 million for their jobs. They paid so much because they knew that they could turn a profit by pocketing the pay of “ghost” battalions that never existed or half the salaries of soldiers who never went near a barracks. On top of that there was the flow of protection money from checkpoints which acted like customs posts and levied a charge on every passing vehicle.
I had written a series of articles about the state of Iraq in 2013, ten years after the US-led invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. I thought I was shockproof when it came to corruption in the Middle East, but, even so, I found that the kleptocracy in Iraq beggared belief: during my first days in Baghdad, while writing the series mentioned above, there was heavy rain. This led to streets in large parts of the city turning into a dirty grey lakes of flood water and sewage, though the authorities had supposedly spent $7 billion on building a new drainage system for the capital. It turned out not to exist and the money allocated to it had all been stolen.
At the end of the day, an ISIS blitzkrieg and a dysfunctional Iraqi military were not enough to give ISIS victory. Its use of mass terror, publicized by the internet, as a strategic weapon was successful in intimidating many people, but it made even more of them determined to fight to the death. For a fleeting moment after the fall of Mosul, ISIS might have generated enough panic to break into Baghdad, but the opportunity was soon gone and would never return.
From War in the Age of Trump by Patrick Cockburn. Copyright © 2020 by Patrick Cockburn. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, O/R Books.