Iraq will not be able to defeat ISIS alone, professor says

As the Sunni militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria continues to wrest control of key Iraqi cities and border crossings, a number of important questions are being raised about the future of the country, the stability of the Middle East and the possible involvement of the United States.

Faedah M. Totah, Ph.D., an associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently addressed these questions, and discussed the historical context behind the crisis, including the role played by the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Who exactly is ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group that is taking control of parts of Iraq?

ISIS can be traced to an early al-Qaida affiliate that became active in Iraq during the post-2003 period. An extreme Sunni organization inspired by the mandate of Osama bin Laden, it fought the U.S. occupation in Iraq and after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq began in earnest to attack Shia targets in the country. When the civil war broke out in Syria, it was one of the many jihadist groups crossing the border to fight against the Syrian regime. Although in the beginning it was aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaida group fighting in Syria (that is when it added Syria to its name), it soon became apparent that both groups had fundamental differences. Al-Qaida has disassociated itself from ISIS not only due to its extreme acts of violence but also by the inability of al-Qaida to control the leadership of ISIS.

Today, ISIS is an independent group that may have surpassed al-Qaida in popularity among extreme jihadists or radical Muslim fighters around the world. They are popular in Turkey as well as in Indonesia. The group consists mainly of jihadists who want to see a Sunni Islamic nation. ISIS has been successful at recruiting fighters from Arab and Muslim countries as well as the West. They see themselves as … protecting Sunni interests in the region, especially from what they consider to be the Shia threat embodied in Iran and its allies. They also seek to unite the predominately Sunni countries under the banner of an Islamic state with a caliph in charge. The fact that ISIS is a non-state actor with no experience in establishing, running or managing a state seems inconsequential to their plan.

ISIS has a war chest estimated at $2 billion that has come from private donations – much of it from individuals and groups hostile to the Syrian regime. There seems to have been a spike in its fundraising activities with the Syrian civil war. Some of its most wealthy donors seem to be from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States where these countries are staunchly anti-Asad and anti-Iran. ISIS also attracts support from all over the world. As a matter of fact, most of its fighters in both Syria and Iraq tend to be veteran jihadists from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Iraq. It is difficult to surmise the exact number of fighters but ISIS does not seem to exceed 20,000 fighters in both Syria and Iraq. Some of the fighters in Iraq are Iraqi while in Syria [some are] Syrian but the leadership remains different nationalities.

There are reports that in Iraq ISIS has forged alliances with some of the tribes but that may be short-lived as ISIS does not tolerate dissent or difference in opinion. Though they appeal to an ideal Islamic past when they speak of the caliphate, they are very much the product of the modern globalized world. The ease of travel in and out of conflict-torn countries, the savvy use of social media, their sophisticated presence on the Web – all point to a globalized radical group that refuses to align itself with any one nation-state. The Internet makes it easy to solicit and collect donations as well as to spread their propaganda and recruit donors and fighters.

ISIS' name in Arabic is telling for the "S" stands for Al-Sham or the region that now encompasses the countries Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/Israel. Part of the ISIS program is to eliminate the artificial borders that were created by European colonial powers, France and Great Britain, at the end of WWI. It was through the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1917 that both Britain and France created these countries without consultation with the local people. ISIS sees itself as undoing Sykes-Picot and over the past year there have been many scenarios of what the future map of the Middle East will be.

It should be noted that the success of ISIS is proportional to the weakness of the nation-state in Iraq and other countries in the region. There have been demonstrations of support for ISIS in Jordan. It is also reported that they have a presence in northern Lebanon. Its success in Iraq will only increase its popularity not only in the region but around the world.

Can you give a bit of historical context about this current conflict in Iraq? What are its roots?

The current conflict in Iraq can be traced to the chaos that happened in Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion of 2003. The removal of Saddam and the elimination of the Ba'ath Party destroyed the infrastructure of the nation-state. The new Iraqi government has never been able to coalesce the different groups in the country nor has it been able to control the territory that Saddam once controlled. The chaos and the vacuum made it easy for various groups to establish a foothold in Iraq. The continued confusion of the nascent Iraqi government post-Saddam only strengthened these groups including what came to be known as ISI (Islamic State in Iraq). When the civil war broke out in Syria and fighters from outside the country joined in the fight against the Syrian regime, ISI crossed the border and joined in the fighting. That is when it added the second S (for al-Sham) to its name.

What role did the U.S.-led conflict in Iraq play in leading up to this current conflict? Do you think the U.S. has a responsibility to do something now to stop ISIS?

This is a complicated question. What we do see is that weak or failed nation-states become fertile ground for radical groups to take root. They spread a message that appeals to the disenfranchised masses. The invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003 sealed the fate of the weakening Iraqi state under Saddam. With the removal of the Ba'ath regime a vacuum was created that was quickly filled by many players; some were from outside the region. Al-Qaida and other extreme groups did not exist in Iraq prior to the invasion. It could be said that the U.S. did not help matters when it encouraged a Shia-centric government to take control. The current leadership of Iraq by Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki has been controversial at best but he was supported by the U.S. and until recently praised by the U.S. for his governance, though his government was known to be corrupt and Shia-centric. It should be noted that al-Maliki was relatively unknown inside and outside Iraq prior to being chosen by the U.S. to lead the new Iraq. Therefore, it was likely he was unable to garner the support of the various factions to rule effectively even if that was the intent. Moreover, the disregard of the al-Maliki government for disgruntled Sunnis made it easier for ISIS to gain support in the marginalized regions of the country. However, this is not to say that all Sunnis support ISIS. ISIS considers the enemy [to be] anyone or any group regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation that does not agree with its political agenda. It is just as willing to fight against Sunnis as it is against Shia if these Sunnis do not support it. In addition, not all Shia are supporters of the al-Maliki government. There is division among the Shia in Iraq as there is among the Sunnis. Therefore, to simply say the conflict is Sunni versus Shia ignores a complex history and even the more complicated present in Iraq.

Do you think the Iraqi government can regain control of the territory it's lost to ISIS?

The Iraqi government is too fractured and disjointed to act in an effective manner. Its control does not extend beyond Baghdad if at all. It cannot control its borders; ISIS moves freely between Syria and Iraq. There is no national unity or a strong national identity among Iraqis today which makes falling back on tribal, ethnic or sectarian affiliation more appealing. The Iraqi army is not fighting for the homeland because there is no one Iraq. It is therefore not surprising that the Iraqi army caved before the ISIS offensive. ISIS fighters believe in their cause whereas Iraqi soldiers have no cause to believe in. The fact that the Iraqi government is appealing to both the U.S. and Iran for assistance indicates the lack of faith they have in their own armed forces.

We tend to think of Iraq as one country because that is how it appears on maps. However, it is fractured along ethnic and religious lines. The Kurds in the north have had autonomy since 1991 and are not going to willingly give it up. My prediction is that they will try and remain outside the conflict with ISIS while jealously guarding their border with the rest of Iraq. The Sunni enclave in the center of the country and where ISIS has been most effective has been disenfranchised and marginalized from the central government. They may not fully support ISIS but they prefer any alternative to the al-Maliki government. Again it should be noted that just because they are Sunni their support for ISIS is not automatic. If anything the conflict in Syria has taught us that the allies of today are the enemies of tomorrow. ISIS has a specific view of Islam that does not appeal to most people, especially when they have to live under their draconian laws. As mentioned above, even al-Qaida has issues with ISIS. In the south of Iraq with the predominately Shia population, it is also fractured along political alliances. Just because al-Maliki is Shia does not mean he has the support of all Shia. Then, of course, forgotten in the conflict are other minorities in Iraq such as Christians and Yazidis who become collateral damage in the conflict. Hence, the situation in Iraq does not indicate that ISIS can be defeated by Iraqi efforts alone.

What are some of the possible implications of this conflict for the Middle East? And the world?

This is another crisis that will further destabilize the region and will spill over into Lebanon and Jordan – both countries that are reeling from the effects of the ongoing civil war in Syria. The demonstrations in provincial cities in Jordan supporting ISIS are a harbinger of the unrest in that country. ISIS moves freely between Lebanon and Syria. In Lebanon there have been reports of several bombings that may not be the work of ISIS but do not help a fragile nation-state. It is interesting to note that the supposedly stable Iraqi government is more in danger of falling than the regime in Syria. It is also worth noting that ISIS is making more gains in Iraq then it did in Syria. In the many ironies of the Middle East, Iraq may become an ISIS state before Syria. But then in Syria ISIS has many enemies among the anti-regime forces and this should be indicative of how ISIS does not know how to forge and maintain alliances even with groups that are fighting for the same side. Nonetheless, the fall of major Iraqi cities to ISIS is another opportunity that works in the favor of both Iran and [Syria’s President Bashar] al-Asad, especially in their relation with the West.

Moreover since much of the support comes from private donors in the Gulf there will be ramifications for these countries as well. Not only do they have to control ISIS supporters and stem the flow of donations from their citizens, but these states also have to contend with the popularity of a non-state actor that has a radical political message that is not in the interest of these countries.

ISIS is able to recruit from all over the world but fighters from Western Europe and U.S. eventually go home after not only being further radicalized but where they see the gains of ISIS as a message of some kind of divine approval. Yet it is difficult to predict the ramification of training and fighting in Iraq and Syria will have on these countries, but it is enough to have several European countries worried about returning jihadists.


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Faedah M. Totah, Ph.D.
Faedah M. Totah, Ph.D.