ISIS, The Middle East and America: A Recipe for Disaster

Be advised: This post is much longer and in depth than typical blog posts. As mentioned in my August preview, this is an investigative piece. 

On June 10, 2014 the United States awoke to disturbing reports out of Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city. After four days of fighting, the U.S. trained Iraqi military abandoned their posts and government forces fled the city leaving control in the hands of Islamic State militants. Social media was billowing with images of discarded Iraqi army uniforms scattered along the roads amid striking videos of the insurgents capturing American military equipment including Humvees, tanks and artillery.

Abandoned Iraqi Army equipment along the Mosul roadside. Image courtesy of Middle East Monitor

Weeks later, President Obama deployed troops to advise and re-train the depleted Iraqi Army; and by August, the U.S. was engaged in a large-scale air campaign over the region. On Sept. 2, the world came face-to-face with this evil when the group released a video of American journalist Steven Sotloff’s beheading. The following week, Obama addressed the nation to officially declare war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (also referred to as ISIS, Islamic State and ISIL).

The American public’s introduction to the terrorist group was a baptism by fire. We managed to swing from a state of ignorance to a state of war in three swift months. And today, 16 months later, the mental whiplash has yet to cease. After a year long war, there is no verifiable proof of positive gains, and the administration has yet to devise an effective war strategy. The United States is setting up personalized war shops in the Holy Land with reckless disregard for the ethnic and sectarian divides therein. It is increasingly difficult to differentiate between an ally and a foe as we have injected our military might into battles that date back a millennia. Worst of all, there is no end in sight.

Lines in the Sand

Word of ISIS hit our homeland like a microburst, but the storm has been brewing inside the Middle East for nearly a century. When World War I came to an end and the Ottoman Empire crumbled, France and Britain negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement to generate effective trade routes. This dissolved Turkish-controlled Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine into the individual countries recognized today. Newly minted borderlines were drawn through the Holy Land transforming a region into a tossed salad of ethnicities and religious sects.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the sectarian and ethnic divides were, again, paid no mind. At that time, Saddam Hussein and his Sunni minority party controlled the country. Once we toppled the regime, chaos ensued.

The U.S. had no protocol for controlling the liberated groups, and was vastly ignorant of the religious demographics of the country. The region disintegrated into a freefall of warring factions vying for control. Before long, the U.S. was recruiting Sunni fighters to battle its new enemy: Al-Qaeda in Iraq — a Sunni faction that aligned with the remnants of Saddam’s baathist regime.

The American-led surge in 2007 was devised to defeat the Islamic State, but the militia wasn’t destroyed. By 2011, al-Qaeda in Iraq was picking up new members and establishing a presence in Syria to participate in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad. By 2013 — with a foothold in both Syria and Iraq — the group rebranded itself as ISIS and officially severed ties with al-Qaeda in 2014.

By the time Mosul fell, ISIS was adept in the art of propaganda. The fighters uploaded photos and videos of themselves seizing American weaponry onto social media; and flooded the Internet with footage of drive-by shootings, death marches, and mass graves. ISIS fortified their reign of terror by publishing the recorded beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers. Propaganda videos were proving highly effective in recruiting foreign fighters; and by November of last year, the regime employed an army of 40,000 along with fully armed convoys. Approximately 8 million people are living under Islamic State control. The regime is advancing with a singular goal:  Erase the lines drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement and return the region to a singular Arab kingdom governed by Sharia. 

“The Best-Funded Terrorist Organization”

ISIS has established itself as a well-oiled money making machine. Not only has the group been building and growing for years with aid from American allies; it has developed a proficient financial operation generated by crude oil, cash and contraband.  

Last November, Newsweek published a report on ISIS’ vast sources of funding including interviews with Iraqi, Kurdish, European, Syrian and American government officials, analysts and intelligence agents.

“It’s a huge financial package to support 8 million people,” Luay al-Khatteeb, director of the Iraq energy Institute in Baghdad, said. “ISIS it is also supporting tens of thousands of militants who have been at war for months, with new recruits coming in every day. Yet it keeps all these people answerable to them, seems to have incredible cross-border mobility, and shows no signs of running out of money or fuel,” al-Khatteeb continued.

ISIS’ economy and fighters are predominantly reliant upon the production and sale of energy assets. According to data from the Iraq Energy Institute in Baghdad, ISIS’ oil empire covers a landmass roughly the size of the United Kingdom and contains around 300 oil wells in Iraq alone. Al-Khatteeb said ISIS is in control of energy assets in the cities of Sfaya, Quaiyara, Najma, Jawan, Qasab, Taza and West Tikrit.

“ISIS has amassed wealth at an unprecedented pace and its revenue sources have a different composition from those of many other terrorist organizations,” David Cohen, U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence said. “ISIS…obtains the vast majority of its revenues from local criminal and terrorist activities,” Cohen continued.

The regime grossed as much as $40 million or more in just two years, Newsweek reported.

By seizing towns such as Mosul, ISIS acquires money and supplies including American-made vehicles, arms and ammunition. The regime operates with an effective modus operandi: take over a town, and loot its bank. At the time of its report, Newsweek estimated ISIS had seized $1.5 billion from Iraqi banks.

Another primary source of funding for the organization hails from plundering ancient antiquities from palaces and archaeological sites. Newsweek reported more than one third of Iraq’s 12,000 important archaeological sites are under ISIS control. The group excavates and sells artifacts through intermediaries to collectors and dealers.

ISIS has also mastered the ransoms market. According to Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst at the London-based think tank Integrity, profits from kidnappings make up about 20 percent of the group’s revenue. The U.S. treasury estimated ISIS received upwards of $20 million in ransoms in 2014.

The most alarming source of funding is that which is acquired from American allies in the Gulf region — particularly Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. According to Newsweek, such funds are “routinely laundered through unregistered charities in the form of ‘humanitarian aid’.”

In June, VICE reported on a 2009 leaked classified cable from Sec. Clinton stating, “it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.” “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” the cable further stated.

From an American standpoint, it’s difficult to surmise how much pressure can actually be applied considering our addiction to Saudi oil.

The militants have also plundered the agriculture market. When ISIS seized towns in northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, they took control of farms and fields commandeering silos and grain stockpiles. According to a United Nations estimate, the Islamic State owns hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat constituting 40 percent of Iraq’s annual wheat production.

The U.S. Treasury has not divulged the extent of ISIS’ total assets and revenue, but Cohen has referred to it as “the best-funded terrorist organization the United States has ever confronted.”

Iraq First

Considering what we know now, it is implausible the Obama administration was unaware of ISIS’ malignancy. Nevertheless, we vacated Iraq in 2013… only to return one year later.

In his address to the nation on Sept. 10, 2014, President Obama presented a four- part comprehensive strategy for destroying ISIS. (1) The nucleus of America’s campaign would be an air war in both Iraq and Syria, which administration officials acknowledged, could last several years. (2) Obama requested congressional approval for $500 million to train and equip the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga and moderate Syrian rebels. (3) 475 troops would immediately be deployed to the region to advise Iraqi security forces. Obama promised his strategy “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” (4) The United States would be providing humanitarian relief to those displaced by ISIS.

The plan would come to be known as Operation Inherent Resolve, and was crafted to “destroy and ultimately defeat” the militia along with “a broad coalition of partners.” However, the plan was met with quick resistance.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the United Kingdom would not participate in airstrikes against targets in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned Obama’s plan citing such attacks without United Nations authorization would be an “act of aggression.” Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan and other Middle Eastern allies were hesitating to deploy troops to the region. Furthermore, Russia and China were supporting President Assad’s regime in Syria.

Despite allied resistance , the Obama administration remained resolute and plowed ahead.

“The U.S. is at war with ISIL in the same way the U. S. is at war with al-Qaeda,” White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said two days after Obama’s address.

Administration officials touted the campaign as an “Iraq first” strategy. The U.S. would prevent the regime from gaining strength in Syria, all the while applying force to dismantle the group in Iraq. To properly execute the strategy, American advisers planned to work with security elements at the local level in addition to the Iraqi Army.

Still shot from the ISIS video of Steven Sotloff’s beheading. Image courtesy of SITE Intelligence Group

On the home front, the American public was surprisingly receptive to the president’s call to action. ISIS tapped into an unnatural fear with its strategic campaign and ubiquitous presence in our collective conscience. The insurgents set out to inflict mental torment upon us, and they succeeded. The man in black holding a knife to Steven Sotloff’s throat placed the nation on a threat level unreached since 9/11. ISIS proved unafraid of the West, daring Obama to come after them.

“Both the legitimate horrors ISIS has perpetuated and the infiltration of the threat that it poses to the U. S. have pushed the public from war-wariness to a position of broad support for more U.S. military action in the region,” journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote about the American psyche.

The Trouble with Turkey

One of the biggest variables in the U.S.-led coalition has been our alliance with Turkey. The Turkish government has refused to close off its borders until the U.S. contributes to its effort to defeat President Assad, allowing a sea of foreign fighters to flow into Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Turkey’s top priority is to suppress Kurdish nationalism and establish an Islamist-led government.

Syrian Kurds (PYD) have aligned themselves with Kurdish separatists in Turkey (PKK). In July, ISIS carried out a suicide attack on Turkish soil; and, in August, two Turkish troops were killed by a PKK suicide bomber. In recent months, Turkey has gone so far as to threaten to invade Syria to prevent Kurdish advancement.

In July, the United States announced its plan to create an “Islamic State-free zone” or “safe zone” along a 60 mile swath of land on the Syria-Turkey border, which is currently controlled by ISIS. The plan allows U.S. airstrikes against ISIS to be conducted from Turkish air bases in the cities of Incirlik and Diyarbakir. Moderate Syrian insurgents would be in charge of the new zone. 

Proposed safe zone on Syria-Turkey border. Image courtesy of The Study of War, Hurriyet Daily News

The zone was presented as a U.S. gain in the fight against ISIS; but in actuality, it was merely a transaction between business partners. The United States gained a couple of air bases and Turkey was able to further its war time agenda.

The eastern border of Syria is in control of the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG), which works closely with U. S. forces in the air to prevent ISIS advancement in Kurdish territory. The proposed safe zone is to the west, where the United States, Turkey and other allies could utilize air attacks to drive back ISIS. Land on either side of the safe zone is currently in Kurdish control. Turkey’s main interest is not to help the U.S. fight ISIS, but rather, prevent the Kurds from gaining control of the entire border. As far as Turkey is concerned, there is no difference between the PYD and the PKK. The Turks are on high alert to prevent the establishment of an Iraq-like presence in Syria. 

“We shouldn’t whitewash the fact that Turkish officials and Turkish government have been accomplices with the Islamic State. Financing, logistic, weapons, medical care or wounded ISIS in Turkish hospitals has been a norm,” author David Phillips told Charlie Rose. “(Turkey) has permeated the society,” he continued.

“The Middle East is Very Sick”

ISIS isn’t the only gang vying for territory in Syria. Groups such as al-Nusra Front, Free Men of the Levant, al-Tawhid Brigade and other small militias are also fighting for control of the tortured country.

Al-Nusra emerged in 2012 and quickly became dominant. The group practices the strict jihadist ideology of Salafism, and follows the teachings of Osama bin Laden. Al-Nusra’s ultimate goal is similar to ISIS’s:  Establish an Islamic caliphate in greater Syria including Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. Despite their common goal and common enemies, ISIS and al-Nusra have a fundamental difference — The latter does not kill Muslims. Some al-Nusra fighters have even mutinied to the Islamic State because of this.

When ISIS isn’t fighting al-Nusra, it is warring with its main enemy, The Free Syrian Army (FSA). However, the primary foe of the FSA is the Assad regime. Throw in the agenda of the United States — allied with the FSA against ISIS and Assad — this region becomes a schizophrenic jigsaw puzzle.

“ISIS is like a virus. It thrives because the host is sick, and right now, the Middle East is very sick,” Richard Engel said in an NBC News report.

While coalition forces agree on what should happen in Iraq, there is no consensus on how to combat ISIS in Syria, where the group is headquartered. The Saudis and Turks want Assad removed, but the Iraqis support Iran’s view of keeping Assad in power.

The greatest stain on the civil unrest is the mob of citizens emigrating from their war-torn cities and towns. The United Nations describes the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crisis as, “The worst migration crisis since World War II,” with 11 million having been displaced, and 300,000 Syrian children going without education. This current crisis of humanity has only begun, and shows no signs of slowing down.

“This conflict didn’t just begin a year ago when ISIS marched into the Iraqi city of Mosul. ISIS is realistically a product of a vacuum that was created because of this impotence, because of this unwillingness and because of a lack of consensus among the parties in the international community on how to deal with Syria,” journalist Clarissa Ward said on Charlie Rose.

No Strategy

Back in September 2014, during a White House news briefing, Obama was pressed by reporters to define his plans to combat ISIS. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” the president said. “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

At the time, the threat was still relatively new and Obama was just a week away from unveiling his four part strategy. But on June 8, 2015 — nine months into the bombing campaign — he said it again.

“We don’t yet have a complete strategy,” the president told reporters at a G7 Summit of leading industrial nations in Germany.

This time the nation took pause. Tensions were beginning to simmer about the justification for war; and the bombing campaign was not producing a verifiable rate of success. Furthermore, ISIS was continuing to advance, including the recent capture of Ramadi, amid rumors of continual U.S. troop deployment. To add insult to injury, Congress hadn’t even voted to authorize war.

Obama explains his strategy to ‘dismantle’ and ‘destroy’ ISIS. Image Courtesy of Photographer Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Tensions were elevated later that week when the administration announced it would be reopening military bases in Anbar Province and deploying 400 troops to train the moderate Syrian opposition. Half the troops were being sent to tribal engagement, the others would be working to train the Iraqi Army. The latest deployment numbers brought the total the U.S. “non-combat” troops to approximately 3,500.

Finally, on June 19 — following a resolution brought to the house floor by Rep. Jim McGovern — Congress debated the war against ISIS for the first time; and there was a defined level of angst.

“Enough is enough. This is how we got started in Vietnam and no one can say these kids aren’t being put in harm’s way,” Rep. Charlie Rangel said.

“We continue to fight the terrorists with one hand tied behind our back…The world has watched for the last several years our lack of a foreign-policy plan,” Rep. Elijah Cummings said.  “We are waging a war that is probably unconstitutional.”

While Obama said he would “welcome” Congress’s input on his strategy, he maintains he does not need explicit authorization for the war due to the authority granted to the White House in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force.

“I’ve Never Heard Testimony Like This”

By summer’s end, ISIS was a hot button issue as war weariness sullied national unity on the subject; and Republican politicians and presidential candidates began calling for boots on the ground in Syria. Nevertheless, the Obama administration remained resolute to its “slow” and “steady” campaign — regardless of discouraging reports from the ground.

On September 15, commander of U.S. Central Command, Lloyd Austin and Under Secretary for Policy, Christine Wormuth, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the ongoing U. S. military operations to counter ISIS. In Syria, the priority has been training and equipping rebels for a “New Syrian Force” to fight on the ground aided by American airstrikes on ISIS weaponry, facilities and leaders. The program also incorporates a social media campaign to counter ISIS propaganda.

In her testimony, Wormuth reported on the dismal training program we have in place. She underscored the administration’s difficulty in recruiting willing soldiers. The recruits — who trained in Turkey – proved unreliable and noncommittal. A handful left without even completing the course; and in July, shortly after their return to Syria, nearly half of the programs 54 graduates were captured or killed by al-Nusra militants. Many rebels fled, leaving about a half dozen fighters to execute Operation Inherent Resolve on the ground.

According to Central Command data, the U.S. coalition has carried out more than 2,500 air strikes on Syria, and 4,000 in Iraq. Last month, the Pentagon confirmed the cost of all U. S. military operations against the Islamic State, in both countries, has reached approximately $4 billion, or more than $10 million a day.

“I’ve been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never heard testimony like this… Never,” Sen. John McCain said. “One year into this campaign, it seems impossible to assert that ISIL is losing and we are winning.”

This Shouldn’t Be A Surprise

When the Obama administration decided to close the combat chapter of the Iraq war in 2011, and all troops were ordered to return home, we abandoned our obligations. We had occupied that region of the Holy Land for eight years after destroying its government and shutting down its existing military. As reconciliation, we attempted to design a newly minted Iraqi army. However, our swift withdrawal occurred at the genesis of the training, leaving the Iraqis high and dry… Except for an arsenal of the world’s finest made armament, which is now largely in the hands of ISIS.

At the time of our departure, the Army was being trained for internal security duties. Time-consuming tasks such as the development of an Air Force and the provision of an air defense network were put on the back burner. After all, in the case of a major foreign threat, it was assumed the United States would come to the rescue.

Iraqi troops in training, May 2015

Iraqi troops in training, May 2015

Even before U.S. troops left the region, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was applying patronage when it came to filling key command positions. When the Americans left, this method accelerated as Iraqi command positions were decided on the basis of sectarian or familial lines. Democracy was not spreading because democracy was as foreign to Iraqis as totalitarianism is to Americans. 

The United States had high expectations of manufacturing a more westernized Iraqi Army in terms of doctrine and behavior. With the right manpower and training, we thought we could erect a military in our own likeness. But we left out a crucial component:  The type of boot camp that sculpts warriors fueled by morale and harnessed by the camaraderie of brotherhood. Instead, we recruited common villagers tempered by a way of life we never bothered to understand or incorporate. Yes, we removed a tyrannical madman who was oppressing the entire nation… But it was a nation under control. And now it is not. And that is because of us.

Survival of the Fittest

The United States has been dropping bombs on Islamic State targets for one year. However, instead of depleting its resources, we have emboldened its cause. ISIS has remained vigilant in its calls for jihad, which are being answered by terrorists from around the globe. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance. Terrorist groups in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have done the same. Foreign fighters who have joined Isis admitted to VICE News reporters that US airstrikes have bolstered ISIS’  recruiting numbers. According to the fighters, Muslims from Western countries have become disgusted with the United States for killing Muslims and choose to join jihad against us. The militant’s propaganda machine is recruiting 2,000-2,500 fighters from across the globe each month. And as the weeks and months tick by, the Islamic State becomes more resolute in its defined strategy.

The bottom line is thus:  ISIS will not be defeated until there is a global consensus on how to deal with Syria, but there are far too many cooks in that kitchen to devise a recipe for success. Instead, the United States has put forth a feeble “Iraq first” strategy, which has served as a loose Band-Aid on a gaping wound. We are throwing money we don’t have at a problem we can’t solve by sprinkling military bases over some areas, setting up a “safe zone” in another region and flying drones over specified destinations. Such executions have not destroyed or dismantled the Islamic State.

The best we can do now is admit fault, take responsibility, vacate the region and allow Darwinism to run its course. It will be swift and painful; but if we bow out, the armies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar will be forced to rise up and defend their land. Our lingering presence gives false hope to the weak, and provides comfort to the mighty. Naturally, the feeble will die in vain; and the blood will be on our hands, but American occupancy is a toxic remedy to this disgraceful conflict. 

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