This is part 4 of a 5 part report which attempts to detail a history of the rise of ISIS and to explain its true relations to the actors involved in the war theatre. It attempts to show how and why ISIS has been exploited while also answering the question: what has been the group’s ultimate purpose in relation to the dominant powers manipulating the proxy conflict. Given what is known historically, it hopes to shed light on what the motivations are behind the current actions against the group, as well as what purpose they serve.
The Purpose of ISIS
Awkwardly for those at the helm of the US-led bombing campaign, as time went on it became increasingly apparent that not only was the Islamic State not being “degraded and destroyed”, but, in fact, was growing and taking control of even more territory. This was further compounded by the groups’ relatively weak military capabilities, and the fact that the areas they occupied consisted mainly of open countryside with relatively few areas to hide their equipment and convoys.1 US war veterans have even remarked that the US could have turned the tide against the organization using only aircrafts from the WWII-era, while other academics explain that “an international force could defeat ISIS in a matter of months” if they wanted to.2 Despite all of this, after months of airstrikes, the Wall Street Journal noted that the US had “failed to prevent the Islamic State from expanding its control in Syria”, while the British press explained that “in both Syria and Iraq, Isis is expanding its control rather than contracting.”3
In fact, while the Pentagon paraded around statistics of killed ISIS fighters to showcase the campaign’s success, in reality by the summer of 2015 the Islamic State had seen a doubling in the number of its foreign fighters, more than replacing any of those claimed to have been killed.4 Maps were similarly published showing ISIS’ territorial losses, yet at the same time evidence showed that its other territorial gains had actually offset any sort of contraction.5 So while US aircraft patrolled the skies around the so-called caliphate, its fighters were more than free to roam throughout the territory they had claimed. Indeed, convoys consisting of upwards of hundreds of vehicles were mainly free to travel in long columns in wide-open desert terrain despite the ease with which such targets could be hit by US aircrafts.6
As this continued, it became increasingly difficult to conceal the truth, especially as Department of Defense analysts began to break ranks and complain that their superiors within senior levels of the intelligence command had deliberately been altering reports, downplaying the campaign’s failures and presenting it in a much more positive light.7 Furthermore, with the introduction of the Russian intervention, the insincerity of the US effort was even more laid bare. Not only had the Russians conducted more sorties against the group in one day than the US had in months, one of their first targets were its oil truck convoys which the US had deliberately refrained from hitting during their entire year-long campaign, despite it being one of the groups’ biggest sources of revenue.8 Awkwardly as well, it was becoming increasingly apparent that US fighter jets were being particularly careful about avoiding engagement whenever ISIS was fighting against US adversaries such as the Syrian army or Hezbollah, a situation which was not lost on the administrations in Tehran and Damascus.9
The motivations underlying all of this were quite clearly articulated by an Iraqi army officer who argued that the “Americans weren’t really that serious in hitting the Islamic State.” Getting even closer to the truth, a commander of a Shia militia fighting in Iraq as well explained “we believe the US does not want to resolve the crisis but rather wants to manage the crisis… it does not want to end the Islamic State. It wants to exploit the Islamic State to achieve its projects in Iraq and in the region.”10
Elaborating on the US’ calculation even further, international correspondent Elijah J. Magnier explained that “as long as ISIS was headed towards creating a serious danger to Assad in Syria”, then its presence could be tolerated. The strategy revolved around maintaining “the organizations continuing ability to fight for as long as necessary in the process [of] depleting Iran, Hezbollah and its Iraqi proxies in Syria… Its continuing presence was needed so as to exhaust Iran and its allies in both Iraq and Syria.”11
One of the more prominent examples of this was when ISIS began to expand its control over territories outside of Syria and led an offensive into Iraq.
The offensive was known to US intelligence long before it was launched. Indeed, far from being indecipherable, the Wall Street Journal explained that such an advance was “apparent to anyone paying attention to Middle Eastern events”, noting that it “wasn’t an intelligence failure. It was a failure by policy makers to act on events that were becoming so obvious that the Iraqis were asking for American help for months... Mr. Obama declined to offer more than token assistance.”12
The reasons for this lie in the continuing shift towards Iran that was being undertaken by then Prime Minister Maliki and the subsequent expansion of Iranian influence over the Iraqi government that resulted. By this time, Maliki had appointed the pro-Iranian Hadi al-Amiri as transport minister, and in doing so “had effectively given Tehran the green light to use Iraqi infrastructure to channel supplies and fighters through the country to fight in Syria.”13 Even more troubling, knowledgeable reports indicated that Maliki’s main objective was to prevent the establishment of any US military bases in the country, following an official request by Iran.14 Therefore, for those committed to toppling the increasingly Iranian-backed Nouri al-Maliki administration, the ISIS offensive represented an important opportunity.
In this sense, the failure of the US to respond was explained by Obama himself. He noted that the US “did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as ISIS came in” specifically because “that would have taken pressure off of al-Maliki.”15 Indeed, harkening back to the aforementioned strategy of utilizing radical Sunni’s to pressure and put “fear into the government of Prime Minister Maliki”,16 Obama said that a more forceful US response would have encouraged Maliki to think “We don’t actually have to make compromises. We don’t have to make any decisions. We don’t have to go through the difficult process of figuring out what we’ve done wrong in the past. All we have to do is let the Americans bail us out again. And we can go about business as usual.”17
Therefore, Al Rai newspaper’s Elijah J. Magnier explains that “as long as the aim of ISIS’s military activity and expansion was to occupy land in Iraq, governed by pro-Iranian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (creating a weak state and much confusion in the Iraq-Iran relationship)”, then “the ISIS presence in Iraq could be tolerated” by the US.18
The result of this offensive was the unprecedented capture of Mosul, shocking observers worldwide.
Despite having a fighting force of no less than 350,000 battle-hardened soldiers, the Iraqi security forces simply “disintegrated and fled” in the face of roughly 1,300 lightly-armed ISIS jihadists.19 This was later explained by analysts as being the result of corruption within the military, or due to indications that ISIS was welcomed by a significant portion of the population, or that it had in many ways already been operating a shadow government of sorts within the city.20 While indicative, ISIS’ uncontested walk-in to Mosul could have been more directly linked to the desire of outside powers to replace Prime Minister Maliki. Indeed, the Gulf states did little to hide their animosity towards Maliki or their desire to overthrow his regime. As professor Fouad Ajami pointed out, after the US invasion “the Gulf autocracies had hunkered down and done their best to thwart the new Iraqi project” and were hoping to turn Maliki’s Iraq into a “cautionary tale of the folly of unseating even the worst of despots.”21 At least from Maliki’s own perspective, it was Saudi Arabia and Qatar which were the main drivers of his overthrow.22
Whatever the case, it was the pressure exerted on Maliki from the loss of Mosul and the inability to halt the Islamic States’ advances that were the main catalysts which lead to his ouster. According to one Wall Street Journal reporter, “After the rout of the Iraqi military that year, combined pressure from Washington and Tehran led the Iraqi parliament to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seen in both capitals as responsible for the debacle, and to replace him with current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi."23
In this sense, the presence of the Islamic State had served a number of purposes for the outside powers involved within the region. Put in other words, University of Cincinnati professor emeritus Abraham Miller explains that “the Islamic State exists as a political structure whose function outweighs the political and military costs of defeating it, not just for the US but also for the Sunni sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf.” Functions which include providing “a direct check on the hegemonic interests of Iran to extend its reach from its eastern border into the Levant… The threat they [ISIS] pose is tolerated even by the Gulf sheikdoms as long as ISIS is focused on stopping Iranian hegemony.” Because of this, “Obama has no intention of destroying the Islamic State”, but rather “ISIS is a chain reaction. As long as it is controlled, its chaos is perceived to serve a multiplicity of purposes within and outside the region.”24
1.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 430-31.
2.) Ibid., p. 433. Citing Fox News, “Cruz fires up conservatives, says bomb Islamic State back to the Stone Age”, 31 August 2014.; Daily Caller, “Understanding The Function Of The Islamic State”, 19 June 2015.
3.) Ibid., p. 431. Citing Wall Street Journal, “US-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, 5 October 2014, Wall Street Journal, “Months of Airstrikes Fail to Slow Islamic State in Syria”, 15 January 2015. The Independent, “War against Isis: US air strategy in tatters as militants march on”, 11 October 2014.
4.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 432. Citing New York Times, “Thousands Enter Syria to Join ISIS Despite Global Efforts”, 26 September 2015.
5.) Ibid., p. 442. Citing Daily Beast, “Exclusive: Pentagon Map Hides ISIS Gains”, 22 April 2015.
6.) McClatchy, “Rebels call for U.S. airstrikes as Islamic State advances near Aleppo”, 1 June 2015.; C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 432-33.; Huffington Post, “If Syria and Iraq Become Fractured, So Too Will Tripoli and North Lebanon.” 1 June 2015.
7.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 441-42. Citing New York Times, “Analysts Detail Claims That Reports on ISIS Were Distorted”, 15 September 2015.; Daily Beast, “Exclusive: Pentagon Map Hides ISIS Gains”, 22 April 2015.
8.) Moon of Alabama, “Russia Finds - Shaming The U.S. Government Into Action Can Work”, 3 October 2016.; C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 443. Citing The Independent, “War in Syria: Russia’s rustbucket military delivers a hi-tech shock to West and Israel”, 30 January 2016.
9.) Alrai Media Group (Arabic), “Obama has the upper hand over Iran and Russia in Syria and Iraq, And without major ground forces”, 17 August 2016. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/obama-has-the-upper-hand-over-iran-and-russia-in-syria-and-iraq-and-without-major-ground-forces/.
10.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 438-39. Citing Rudaw (Kurdish), “The stunning story of the fall of Ramadi”, 24 May 2015. Quotes made by Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iran-backed paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Reuters, “Iraqi militia leader says US not serious about fighting Islamic State”, 28 July 2015.
11.) Alrai Media Group (Arabic), “Obama has the upper hand over Iran and Russia”, 17 August 2016. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/obama-has-the-upper-hand-over-iran-and-russia-in-syria-and-iraq-and-without-major-ground-forces/.
12.) Wall Street Journal, “Obama on Faulty Intelligence”, 30 September 2014.
13.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 385.
14.) Alrai Media Group (Arabic), “Obama has the upper hand over Iran and Russia”, 17 August 2016. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/obama-has-the-upper-hand-over-iran-and-russia-in-syria-and-iraq-and-without-major-ground-forces/.
15.) New York Times, “Obama on the World”, 8 August 2014.
16.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 367. Citing The New Yorker, “The Redirection”, 5 March 2007. Remarks made by Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
17.) Ibid., p. 367. Citing The New Yorker, “The Redirection”, 5 March 2007. Remarks made by Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
18.) Alrai Media Group (Arabic), “Obama has the upper hand over Iran and Russia”, 17 August 2016. Translated at https://elijahjm.wordpress.com/2016/08/17/obama-has-the-upper-hand-over-iran-and-russia-in-syria-and-iraq-and-without-major-ground-forces/.
19.) P. Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State, p. 15.
20.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, pp. 385-86.
21.) Ibid., p. 384. Citing Ajami, “The Arab Spring at One”.
22.) Ibid., p. 388. Citing Press TV (Iran), “Exclusive: Maliki says Iran has important role in territorial integrity of regional countries”, 23 November 2014.
23.) Wall Street Journal, “After Mosul, Will U.S.-Iran Rivalry Undermine Iraq?”, 16 March 2017.
24.) C. Davidson, Shadow Wars, p. 444. Citing Daily Caller, “Understanding The Function Of The Islamic State”, 19 June 2015.