On Tuesday September 30, 2014 I appeared on a segment of Bloomberg TV’s “Bottom Line,” focusing on the U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliates. I was asked what the U.S. should have known when our troops left Iraq 2011. I noted that it opened the door to al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, but did not elaborate on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) which has undertaken numerous attacks against the Iraqi military and civilians.
In 2003 after the U.S.-led incursion into Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded a small militia group that subsequently morphed into the larger Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Al-Baghdadi was held at Camp Bucca, a U.S.-Iraqi detention center from 2005 to 2009, and released since he was not considered an enemy combatant. Al-Baghdadi resumed leadership of ISI in 2010, undertaking numerous attacks including a mosque in Baghdad, and killing a Sunni lawmaker. After Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 he retaliated with an attack south of Baghdad in which twenty-four policemen were killed. In 2012 he orchestrated a series of suicide attacks, car bombings and roadside bombings killing and wounding hundreds of people throughout Iraq.
In 2013 al-Baghdadi expanded his operations into Syria, rebranding his movement as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He wanted to merge al-Nusra Front into ISIS to expand his territorial ambitions, but al-Qaeda’s chief Ayman al-Zawahiri resisted, saying that ISIS should confine its activities to Iraq, while al-Nusra Front would operate in Syria. Al-Baghdadi instead took control of a large number of al-Nusra fighters, and soon they began clashing with each other for control of villages and towns in Syria. ISIS became the dominant Islamist force, which also overpowered several of the opposition rebel groups, taking control of large swaths of territory bordering Syria and Iraq. In the chaos many Syrian civilians were killed, and thousands fled to Turkey.
ISIS financial strength has came from sources mainly inside Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Large numbers of young recruits have also come from the neighboring Muslim countries to join the ranks. With ISIS taking control of the large border region, al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in June 2014. He has since urged Muslims from around the world to relocate to the Islamic State, and join in the jihad to expand the caliphate further. With new recruits continuing to join the fight, experts predict the ISIS ranks could swell to over 100,000. This will put Iraq and Syria at even more risk, and potentially encroach Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Oman which are in al-Baghdadi’s ‘cross-hairs.’ The Islamic State and al-Nusra Front didn’t just appear overnight. The U.S. had plenty of warnings that there was an eminent Islamist threat in Iraq beginning in 2003.
The U.S.-led aerial coalition consisting of France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain, has not been able to stop the ISIS forces from advancing to the outskirts of Baghdad or expanding their reach in Syria. Without ground support to strategically rout out the Islamist insurgents in a door-to-door campaign, continued airstrikes alone will turn many Iraqis and Syrians against the United States. Reliable intelligence for targeted airstrikes has been limited, mostly coming from the military and tribal clan fighters in Iraq, and opposition rebel groups in Syria.
President Obama this week announced that the U.S. would lead a “broad coalition of allies” to defeat the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria. However several coalition partners have not promised any contribution of military troops, leaving the task again to the United States. Without adequate ground support stopping the advance of Islamists in Iraq and Syria will be difficult. President Bashar al- Assad’s forces in Syria have been actively fighting IS, al-Qaeda linked Islamists and rebel groups. The U.S. plan is to train several thousand Syrian opposition rebels to fight the Islamists and ultimately the government troops, which will be a long endeavor, with a vetting process almost impossible. The decision is to allow the Islamists to possibly take control of Syria or keep al-Assad at the helm as a coalition partner. In Libya since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted, most of the country has been taken over by Islamists. I would think the U.S. would not want to have that outcome in Syria. “Dictators are not much fun, but neither are the Islamists.” Having exited Iraq in 2011, the U.S. again has over 2,000 troops there today serving as advisors–sooner or later they will come under fire.
The U.S. military is the best trained in the world, but sending in a large force is fraught with disaster, since it will be hard to determine who they are really fighting—the good guys or the bad guys. We cannot count on the military in Iraq or the disjointed opposition rebels in Syria to help our soldiers to defeat the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates. The most practical immediate solution is for the neighboring Muslim countries to provide their well-trained military forces to help defeat the embedded Islamists or they could run the risk of eventually also being overrun. Arab and Turkish autocrats need put their differences behind, and take an active role as a coalition, if for no other reason than their own security interests. Especially since several of these countries created the hydra-monster by financing their evil deeds.
The Sunni and Shia societies will need to reconcile their differences and work together, since the Islamists will continue to stand in the way of peace in the region. The current pressing issue is to stabilize Iraq and Syria. Focusing on the removal of al-Assad in Syria could ultimately open the door to Islamists, to take control of the country. Time is of the essence, if the Middle East is to be stabilized by stopping the Islamists from further expanding their reach, and creating a larger caliphate.
I believe the U.S. troops should not have totally been withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, leaving their military at different levels of expertise and readiness to protect the country against its enemies. Equipping an untrained army was not the answer either for long term security. We should have at least instituted credible intelligence gathering sources. After months of haggling, the signing of a U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement this week will allow us to further train the Afghan military, which will prove to be an insurance policy for the U.S. to prevent the Taliban from overrunning the new government, and creating an Islamic state. I wish we had the same opportunity in Iraq.