The Rise of ISIS
Jan 15, 2015

In the Spring of 2014, the West began hearing about the emerging dominance of an Al-Qaeda splinter group in the Syrian civil war. For many observers, the group – calling itself by ­geographic iterations of “Islamic State” (ISIL, ISIS, or IS) – appeared to be yet another jihadist group in the mosaic of anti-Assad fighters, and only confirmed in most people’s minds that it was all the more reason to not get involved in Syria’s troubles.


But in a matter of months, and a few name changes, this group vaulted from the backwater of people’s consciousness to the forefront of global fears – propelling CNN to call the rise and brutality of the so-called “Islamic State” as the number one international news story of 2014. The end of the year found UN Security Council resolutions passed in an attempt to stem its support and growth, and an aerial bombing campaign in place (in which Canada has participated in since October).

Although its lineage and provenance are not clear, the organization finds it roots in Sunni Iraq, a population that has undergone a tempestuous cyclical experience altering between being powerful to being marginalized – all dating back to the effects of the U.S. invasion on Iraq in 2003.

That invasion opened rifts in the somewhat fictitious nation state known as Iraq – a nation of artificially-drawn borders that mask the internal divides of three ethno-religious groups – the Kurds to the North, Sunnis to the West, and Shia to the South.

For North Americans schooled in secularism, multi-culturalism, and inclusiveness, with rule of law and equality as the basis of a state, states based on ethno-religious foundations are difficult to truly understand. Our interventions in fragile or failing states seek to create a non-sectarian replica of our system as a better way of governance. But clearly, for many states in the world, societal foundations are derived from their religion, colour, or ethnicity, either separately or in combination.

For the past decades, in both Iraq and Syria, divisions were held in check by a single powerful man (usually abetted by a loyal Army) and a state security structure that continually hunted and eliminated any outcroppings of resistance. The U.S. invasion opened those rifts in Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein and his Sunni power base. Not surprisingly, the long-oppressed Shia faction took advantage of the opportunity to avenge past injustices. This was not helped by the U.S., which had begun a process of removing the Ba’ath Party’s political influence (De-Ba’athification) and, in one fell swoop, disbanded the Iraqi Army, putting 200,000 out of work and, worst of all, destroying what might have been called Iraqi civil society, or at least its controlling mechanism, without something available to replace it.

As a consequence, a Sunni insurgency grew in intensity, however, the combination of aggressive military action, the U.S. surge, skilful negotiation, and an earnest effort to create a secular and capable Iraqi Army within a secular government, meant that by 2011 the Sunni insurgency had been defeated. In this way, the building blocks for a functioning Iraqi state had been laid by the U.S. prior to its withdrawal.

Unfortunately, the man chosen to lead the government, Nouri al-Maliki, was not up to the task, quickly reverting to his own ethno-religious roots. Key government posts were given to Shia leaders while prominent Sunnis (even ministers who were part of his government) were arrested. This pattern repeated itself within the newly formed Iraqi Army (purging commanders or favouring acolytes – eventually destroying it.

Two things occurred in the aftermath – Shia militias thrived, and Sunni protests were heavily put down.

In the meantime, the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, along with sympathetic followers from the Sunni resistance, migrated to Syria where the concentration of Assad’s civil war against his opposition in the western regions of Syria created a vacuum in the Northeastern and Eastern part of Syria (predominantly Sunni), where the displaced Sunni Iraqis would find a new home. The key thing to note is that many of these are battle-hardened and ­different from many other jihadi fighters as they come from a background of professional military training (either from the old or the new Iraqi Army).

Dec 2014 – The Honourable Rob Nicholson, then Minister of National Defence, meets with Kuwati Minister of Defence, Khaled Al Jarrah Al Sabah, in Kuwait during Operation Impact. (Photo: OP Impact, DND)

Stepping back, we can see that an unfortunate confluence of events created fertile conditions for the emergence of the Islamic State. Attempts to reverse the clock by “fixing Iraq” or the Iraqi Army, or to answer issues of Sunni marginalization, only address elements of what led to their rise. Hence, any strategy based on such objectives is bound to fail, as the symptoms have far outpaced the root causes.

While academically interesting, we must leave examination of the root causes of IS emergence for later generations, as the challenge of combatting these fighters in the present has become the immediate challenge of all Western governments.

The fact that these violent extremists have been successful at inciting home-grown, angry young men to bring terrorism to the West bears witness to a new dawn of violence and fear. The fact that representatives of Muslim organizations are now stepping up to condemn violence in the name of Islam means they too recognize the potential demise of hope for peace. People of all religions, including Muslims, crowded the streets of Paris in solidarity and defiance of violence and fear tactics on 11 January 2015.

Why ISIS is different
As befits its organizational background, the IS established a system of command and control of the towns and villages its fighters are found in; manifesting itself, reportedly, in the creation of a government – replete with ministries, financial objectives, masterful propaganda, codified governance and an extremist vision that has been able to draw adherents and recruits from far and wide. In doing so, and drawing lessons from its own emergence, the group does not see itself as terrorist. It does not seek to destabilize the state to enact concessions; it simply seeks to be the state.

Many accounts suggest the group is organized and, although its governance is harsh, there seems to be little resistance. Success does not mean it is palatable, it simply means the group provides for its populations (that aren’t apostates) and keeps civil peace and adherence to its own laws. It is also well-financed (mostly through the sale of oil). It is a singular mistake to suggest that smuggling on the black market implies an ad hoc economic system. The organization required to pump, produce and transport oil, and in some cases refined product, to market (licit or illicit), indicates a sophistication of organization, industrial and economic processes as befits a state. The system, which kills, crucifies, beheads or enslaves adversaries – as hated and incomprehensible as this is to our psyche and mores – is entirely logical and rational in the view of adherents.

When a teenaged former hostage says “they don’t kill without reason, it is only when you have been ‘proven’ to be an apostate, do they kill” reveals a logic that is built on a completely different foundation than ours; as logical and codified for them as this was in the time of Salem and the witch-hunt trials, as logical and codified as it was for Hitler’s racial courts. So too is it for the “Islamic State” and explains, in part, why they are so utterly proud of what we would call atrocities.

Having dominion over vast swaths of land and population in Syria and Iraq, its state-like basis of thought seeks to establish and expand its borders. The geo-political stability threatened by the redrawing of borders is not to be taken lightly.

Therefore, to treat ISIS as “any other” terrorist group is to fundamentally misunderstand them. And if strategies employed in the destruction of the group are similar to those applied to other terrorist groups, they are bound to fail.

The Allied Strategy
Strategies in response to the “Islamic State” require an understanding of the world as the IS was emerging. Following close to 13 years at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, public opinion in the West clearly showed a war-weariness (in some cases bordering on neo-isolationism). A litany of frustrated effort – Iraq’s well-documented failures post-2011; a decade-long effort in Afghan­istan which, charitably, can be characterized as a ‘work in progress’ but which many saw as another example of the limits of foreign intervention; and the violence in Libya, which left the nation worse off after Gadhafi was deposed – led to a new axiom in western discourse, that of “no boots on the ground”.

A CP-140 Aurora aircraft crew member from Air Task Force-Iraq conducts a mission during Operation Impact. (Photo: OP Impact, DND)
Reflected in public polling, over 70% of citizens in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and France had concluded that nation-building begins at home. An equal number – soured by the past decade, though supportive of containment strategies – absolutely eschew any involvement overseas where the use of military force might become a possibility.

“No boots on the ground” has come to mean many things, depending on the audience. Literally, it means soldiers are not in place, ready to patrol or fight in a theatre of operations. Metaphorically, it indicates that some problems are intractable and that we should not be involved in other people’s problems (it’s their problem, they should fix it). It also reflects a fear of escalation – that once ground troops are introduced, the inevitable ending too often becomes an interminable engagement. And even when public attitudes are galvanized to agree that something must be done, the “no boots on the ground” stricture imposes limits on what strategies can be considered. It is in this context that the current strategy employed against ISIS must be considered.

In September 2014, President Obama announced the formation of a U.S.-led coalition to destroy ISIS in Iraq, and to degrade it in Syria. The means by which this was to be accomplished was three-fold. First, initiate a bombing campaign to halt IS advances, destroy its economic underpinnings, and slowly degrade its military potential. Second, provide advice and support to the IS opposition in Iraq by arming and assisting the Kurds, retraining the Iraqi Army, and fixing the sectarian damage caused by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reincorporate the Sunni’s and the Kurds into the Iraqi government. The third element is the training and establishment of a far more cohesive, but moderate, anti-Assad opposition.

It is a strategy borne of what is politically and publically palatable, not of what is militarily preferable to defeat a state-like violent opponent. It bisects the IS into two areas of operation – Iraq and Syria – based on internationally-recognized boundaries (which have little or no meaning on the ground), and compounds that error by assigning two different mission outcomes: defeat in Iraq, degradation in Syria.

The “no boots on the ground” axiom is also at play here, limiting western response to airpower until such time as an Iraqi Army can be re-constituted and assisted, and a “new army” created from scratch in Syria. It is a recipe for a long war, the very thing that soured Western publics to any overseas engagement in the first place, and what led President Obama and many of his advisors to say that success against IS would be measured in years not months.

Canada joined this coalition, on the margins, in late August by providing non-lethal assistance to the Kurds, transporting weapons, ammunition and humanitarian aid. In September, special forces advisors were dispatched to Kurdistan to aid the Peshmerga and, following a Parliamentary debate, Canada formally joined the anti-IS coalition by pledging two Aurora surveillance aircraft, a Polaris air-to-air refuelling aircraft, and six CF-18s to join the coalition.

Some have derided the Canadian contribution as minimal or marginal but, though small in overall number, it is nevertheless significant. Canada has a substantial breadth of capability, it just doesn’t have a lot of depth. Few countries our size have aerial refuelling capability, surveillance capability and both tactical (short range) and strategic (long range) transport ability. Nor do other militaries our size have such a well developed and combat-capable Special Forces component. Canada’s contributions play out in five ways:

Surveillance – The Aurora CP-140 is an extremely valuable coalition asset. It is believed that only three countries have deployed aerial surveillance capability to the theatre, and so these Canadian assets service the needs of multiple coalition partners. If required, an Aurora can loiter over Iraq for up to 14 hours, looking down on the landscape with optical, radar and electronic warfare sensors that can detect IS activity. If an IS target presents itself, the crew can vector any coalition fighter to it. If no fighters are available, or the information does not need to be acted on immediately, Aurora-sourced data is fed into the coalition targeting cycle which produces missions for every allied Air Force flying missions over Iraqi airspace.

Refueling – The Polaris CC-150 refuelling aircraft is also a vital coalition asset. Fighters can conceivably fly from Kuwait to Northern Iraq and back, but to engage targets or loiter, it will need to be refuelled. Likewise, coalition fighters launching from the Persian Gulf, or coalition aircraft based as far as Qatar cannot complete a round trip mission without refuelling. And unless based in Jordan, coalition aircraft engaging the IS in Syria equally must also refuel due to the distances involved. According to publicly available information, refuelling aircraft have been available above a safe area near Baghdad, and any coalition fighter requiring fuel en route to distant targets obtains it. Based on information released by DND in November, many dozens of coalition aircraft have benefited from this capability.

Airpower – With half of the territory controlled by the IS in Syria (including Ragga, its notional capital), and with France, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada deciding to not engage targets in Syria, the onus has fallen on the U.S. and several Gulf states, plus Jordan, to attack targets in Syria – including up until now defending Kobani to which two-thirds of all airstrikes were committed. Every allied fighter committed to Iraq frees up coalition aircraft to attack the IS in Syria. Also, with fighter missions typically lasting four to six hours, and given the distances involved (the size of the United Kingdom) Canada’s contribution of six fighters, seen in the context of the overall coalition effort, is significant.

January 2015 – CF-18 Hornet fighter jet pauses to refuel while conducting a night mission over Iraq during Operation Impact. (Photo: OP Impact, DND)

Special Forces – Though the actual JTF-2 role is shrouded in official secrecy (of course), it is probably training Peshmerga fighters – in small unit tactics, how to call and direct allied airpower; and how to use some of the new weapons it has received.

Transport – Though not a formally declared contribution, Canadian transport aircraft did deliver supplies to the Kurds early in the anti-IS campaign, and are also able to provide sustainment flights to the Canadian contingent in Kuwait and, if needed, to coalition partners.

While important contributions, it must be recognized that Canada is a consumer of strategy rather than a producer. Canada’s choices are almost always where, when and whether it chooses to contribute to a wider alliance or coalition effort.

In the overall context of the coalition effort, the value of Canada’s contribution is somewhat beyond debate – Parliamentary debate should instead focus on whether the overall U.S.-driven strategy will bear fruit; what the limits of the Canadian contribution will be; and the time and costs to be borne by Canada.

The following example underlines the difficulties ahead: The coalition assumes that two to three divisions (48,000-60,000 troops) will be required to dislodge the IS from Iraq. At present some 5,000 Iraqis are in the training pipeline. The contributions of trainers to advise and assist Iraqi forces will have to increase exponentially in order to turn the Iraqi Army to the offensive.

This will require additional trainers, but will also require time – paradoxically time permits the IS to continue to grow, through recruitment and through the indoctrination of youth in the lands it presently controls. The more time it takes, the more difficult the coalition’s task will be. If the world is exposed to yet another bestial killing, like that of the Jordanian fighter pilot in early February, the more acute the pressure to decisively act against the IS will be.

It took four months and 700 airstrikes, to force IS fighters to withdraw from the town of Kobani – leaving some 50 percent of the town destroyed. Mosul, 10 times the size of Kobani will be a far more difficult battle and test of western tolerance, as airpower inevitably will be used in an urban setting to assist the Iraqi Army.

Based on the plan to degrade IS control in Syria, Canada can expect at some point to be asked to expand its area of operations into that airspace.

Smoke billows from Syrian town of Kobani, also known as Ain al-Arab, in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar, Sanliurfa province, on 15 October 2014. U.S. warplanes hit Islamic State jihadists with 18 bombing raids near the Syrian town of Kobani on October 14 and October 15, to support besieged Kurdish militia there, Central Command said. The latest raids targeted several IS positions and 16 buildings occupied by the group, the military said. (AFP Photo: Aris Messinisi)

Turkey, ostensibly an ally, watches from just across the border and does little militarily to assist, though it does help assuage the humanitarian cost with the establishment of refugee camps on its soil. The pressures on Turkey will increase even on the humanitarian front, as the campaign to expel IS from Iraq takes shape.

There are simply not enough planes, not enough ground troops, and not enough trainers to achieve what the Obama strategy has laid out. These are the issues that our Parliamentarians must debate – not the ultimately irrelevant semantics of whether a few shots fired in self-defence constitute combat. The issues are far greater, and far more serious than that.

George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada which was rated in the top 40 best policy papers in the world by this years’ Think Tank Index. He served with NATO, in Bosnia, and Afghanistan and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders and two Canadian Chiefs of Defence Staff.
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