The Emergence of ISIS: Operations and Counter Policy

Posted on Posted in Analyses, International Developments, Middle East, Strategy & Defence, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Dimitris Raptis, Junior Analyst KEDISA

The civil war in Syria has attracted the attention of other non-state actors in the region which took advantage of the hostile and tense situation and joined the fray to represent their own interests and people. The rise of these non-state actors has added a further dimension to the issue and made things more complicated to resolve.

By 2011 one of the most militant Sunni extremist groups named Al-Qaeda (AQL) based in Iraq started to rebuild and reorganize. It saw the rising conflict in Syria as an opportunity to gain weapons, bases and more supporters. In August 2011 the extremist group established a new branch of the organization in Syria named Jabhat al-Nusra. Assad’s goal was to win over the conflict by promoting Sunni extremists in the opposing groups so that Alawites and Christians rally to the regime and deter international intervention on behalf of the rebels. Assad achieved his goal by releasing some extremists from Syrian prisons so that they mix up with the opposing group. By the end of 2012 Al-Nusra’s fighters had linked up with many other anti-government rebels. Al-Nusra was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department on December 11, 2012.

In April 2013, Al-Qaeda’s chapter in Syria changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, due to long tensions with Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan. On April 9 2013 an ISIS leader named Baghdadi declared that al-Nusra was part of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but al-Nusra’s leader Jowlani refuted such a claim. ISIS then came out as an autonomous actor within the Syrian conflict and absorbed territory and supporters from al-Nusra in eastern and northern Syria. In February 2014, ISIS formally split from Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra making both of them enemies. This situation made the Syrian conflict even more complex not only because it turned out to be a proxy war but because more non-state actors had joined in. Two powerful jihadist groups were fighting in Syria each for its own purposes. ISIS concentrated its powers to fight other opposition groups and organizations in order to gain more land and resources. The split between Al-Qaeda and ISIS marked the beginning of a new, darker “era” in the Syrian conflict, making it even more difficult to resolve and unsustainable for the people inhabiting these areas.

This is how ISIS was born and shapes as an independent actor in the international chessboard. By 2013, the Islamic State had become a great threat, but little attention was given to it as, at first, it was considered to be one of the many Syrian rebel opposition groups. Before its fighters began to attack Iraq, they comfortably took over some cities in Syria in which opposing rebel groups were disorganized.[1] ISIS attracted international attention after it has captured a significant part of northern Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014. Particularly, Islamic State fighters managed to capture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in on June 10, 2014. After capturing Mosul, Tikrit and parts of a refinery in Baiji, ISIS fighters attacked Samarra, where Shiite militias helped pro-government forces. Then, they seized Jalawla and Sadiyah but were forced back by government troops backed by Kurdish forces.


They continued their moves south by Ishaki and Dujail. It’s pretty amazing how ISIS fighters attacked seven cities in just four days, from June 10 to June 14.[2]

On the background of the aforementioned attacks and territorial gains of the ISIS insurgents against both opposition and government forces, they provoked an international turmoil that led to the ongoing series of airstrikes from the United States and its allies. On 13 September 2014 the ISIS launched an attack in order to capture the Kobani Canton and its main city of Kobani, a strategically important town on the Syrian-Turkish border. The President of the United States, Barak Obama, after the invasion of ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is a close US partner, declared a plan to “ultimately destroy and degrade ISIS” on September 10, 2014.[3] The idea of the coalition was that countries involved in it will battle ISIS with the United States of America leading them. The U.S. confirmed this way that they won’t be the only country fighting the ISIS and won’t take full responsibility of the counter terrorism strategy of the coalition, with an eye to avoid international criticism since the memories from the bombing in Iraq are still fresh. Many regional countries are engaged in the coalition, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and Bahrain. Western support is also very significant for the future of the military operations. The western countries who support the coalition apart from the U.S. are the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands.[4] The aforementioned countries intervened militarily by carrying out airstrikes in key targets.


The above map shows the confirmed air strikes the US-led Coalition has carried out from the period of September 2014 to 10 March 2015 around and in towns which the Islamic State controls. The air strikes have been proven an effective measure of countering the ISIS, considering that they have helped the Kurdish forces to recapture the city of Kobani. However, the conflict cannot be solved only with the use of airstrikes. Military intervention with ground forces are needed in order to battle the fighters of the ISIS. President Obama created a program for training and equipping “U.S. friendly” Syrian rebels (since the U.S.A. has no allies in Syria and declared that they will not intervene in the region), but the program failed in practice. Only 60 Syrian rebels have been trained by the U.S., which have been defeated immediately after they have been attacked by Al-Qaeda fighters. The causes that led the program to fail were the rebels’ disoriented goals. This means that the American-trained rebels were concentrated on how to battle Assad’s forces, while ISIS was a sideshow and al-Nusra’s fighters were often allies. Evidently, U.S. and rebel priorities don’t line up. Apart from this, as stated above, rebels are all mixed up with jihadist groups so there is no clear line on which of them the U.S. could trust.[5]

ISIS’s defeats in Syria have been mainly due to Kurdish fighters, with the most important defeat being the one of Kobani in February 2015. Kurdish fighters consist of the Kurdish militia in Syria, known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish parties in Turkey (PKK) and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq. Kurdish fighters have proved really effective in battling ISIS due to their resilience and knowledge of the terrain and the Middle Eastern region.[6] With the support of the US-led coalition airstrikes, they attacked ISIS’s forces and reached the outskirts of the Islamic State’s capital city of Raqqa. Kurdish forces are seeking to work with other moderate Syrian rebel groups in the region to establish a common resistance group concentrated in the fight against ISIS. However, the problem Syrian rebel groups face is that they have to conduct their fight in-between two opposed forces: ISIS’s forces and Assad’s forces. Rebels are not trained for such situations and have difficulties in fighting a two-front war.[7]

Countering the extremists-jihadists is not an easy task and cannot be achieved from only one nation. The draft proposed to the Congress of the United States by President Obama for a three year Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS on the 11th of February 2015 was not accepted. The AUMF against the Islamic State would have allowed the U.S. to carry out attacks with the use of drones and airstrikes, rescue missions of citizens by the U.S. Special Forces and other missions targeted to the ISIS’s leadership. Since it wasn’t accepted, further collaboration with regional states, but not limited to them, is needed. Countries who haven’t joined yet the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State should take part. Any decision taken by countries and maybe the North Atlantic Council (if NATO intervenes in the conflict), should be targeted to the core of the problem and needs to be taken after thorough examination and understanding of the complexity of the issue. The methods ISIS uses are based on new technology. ISIS’s tactics include highly skilled propaganda promoted with the use of social media platforms; as a result, they recruit every day more and more people. ISIS abuses not only the borders of states, but also, and crucially, human rights. This terrorist-extremist organization is more organized and more brutal than any other in the world.[8] Countries need to battle it with modern technology and weaponry. In fact, that is not an easy task as there are many interests in the region from both state and non-state groups. A single strategy and cooperation from all countries is necessary in order to combat the Islamic State effectively.



[1] Reuter, Christoph. “Masked Army: Jihadist Group Expands Rapidly in Syria”. Spiegel Online. December 18, 2013. http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/isis-shadowy-jihadist-group-expands-rapidly-in-syria-a-939561.html (accessed October 2015).

[2] “Iraqi Army Retakes Government Complex in Central Ramadi”. The New York Times. December 28, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/06/12/world/middleeast/the-iraq-isis-conflict-in-maps-photos-and-video.html?_r=0 (accessed October 2015).

[3] Beauchamp, Zack. “Syria’s Civil War: a Brief History”. Vox. October 2, 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/9/14/9319293/syrian-refugees-civil-war (accessed October 2015).

[4] Fantz, Ashley. “Who’s Doing What in The Coalition Battle Against ISIS”. CNN. October 9, 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/09/world/meast/isis-coalition-nations/ (accessed October 2015).


[5] Beauchamp, Zack. ”Obama’s Failed Plan to Train the Syrian Rebels, in One Brutal Timeline”. Vox. August 4, 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/8/3/9089569/syria-rebels-timeline (accessed October 2015).

[6] Yildiz, Guney. “Kobane Fighting: IS Meets Its Match in Syrian Kurdish Forces”. BBC News. October 9, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29556005 (accessed October 2015).

[7] “We Can’t Fight Assad and ISIS, Syrian Rebels Warn”. Newsweek. March 12, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/we-cant-fight-assad-and-isis-syrian-rebels-warn-313276 (accessed October 2015).

[8] Lister, Tim. ”Al Qaeda Battles ISIS for Global Jihadist Leadership”. CNN. September 10, 2015. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/10/world/meast/isis-vs-al-qaeda/ (accessed October 2015).