PS21 Report: The ISIS War: Where Are We?


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  • Shortage of anti-tank  rockets  key to Iraqi defeat  at Ramadi
  • More broadly,  ISIS seen struggling  in Iraq, dominating in Syria
  • Little unity between regional powers amid their  own  broader struggles
  • Little or no  local appetite, enthusiasm for US troop deployment
  • “Iraq-first” strategy  best hope of undermining ISIS narrative
  • ISIS victories at Ramadi, in Syria major propaganda wins
  • Increased US politicization of Iraq issue could fuel  ISIS narrative


On Wednesday, May 27, 2014, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on the wall with Islamic State. The event took place in the Thomson Reuters offices in Washington DC.

Key takeaways from the discussion are below. 

A full transcript can be found here.

The event was live streamed, watch the full video here:



Milena Rodban (Moderator): Independent geopolitical risk consultant. PS21 global fellow.

Douglas Ollivant, former U.S. Army officer, Iraq director, US National Security Council 2008-9. Fellow, New America

Rasha Elass: PS21 global fellow. Formerly reporter for Reuters, NPR and others from Damascus.

Ahmed Ali: senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Centre (EPIC)

Key takeaways:

The ISIS victory in Ramadi was a serious local defeat but the general trend in Iraq might still have turned the group, at least within Iraq. 

“You cannot see what happened in Ramadi as the defining episode of the war,” said Ali. “This is a long-term battle… It’s a mixed picture.” 

One of the reasons ISIS focused so strongly on Ramadi was the need to reverse the narrative of its decline in Iraq. There were also notable local failings, particularly in the provision of anti-tank rockets.

ISIS is not winning,” said Ollivant. “ISIS is losing. In fact, it is losing decisively in Iraq. Syria is an entirely different story. It’s increasing number of affiliates is troubling… (but) when it loses large portions of Iraq, it will be very difficult to keep its narrative up.” 

In Syria, however, Isis remains clearly in the ascendant not least because its enemies — other rebel groups and the Assad government — remain more focused on each other.

ISIS in Syria is winning,” said Elass . “It’s controlling maybe 50% of the country. I think it’s really dangerous to underestimate ISIS..” 

 Deploying large numbers of US troops might not be the answer — and is not particularly wanted in Iraq, even less in Syria.

“I’m not against deploying US troops if it’s the right thing to do,” Ali said. “But strategically, at this moment, it will not help us. It will not work in the long term and Iraqis are capable of doing it and they really have to do it.”

“The important thing to remember about additional US troops in Iraq is that the US has not offered to send them an Iraq has not asked for them,” said Ollivant. “There are very significant actions within the Iraqi polity would see the return of US troops –, I believe, forward air controllers and special forces upfront with the troops — as the first step towards the reoccupation of Iraq. These are people who are currently fighting against ISIS.” 

 There is still a general lack of unity amongst those fighting ISIS with most members aside from the US and Iraq more focused on local regional rivalries.

Nothing is going to happen to make the Turks, for example, care more about ISIS than they do about Yasir regime and their own internal Kurdish problem,” said Ollivant. “Do the Saudis hate ISIS worse than they hate the Iranians? No. Do the Iranians hate ISIS worse than they hate the Saudis? No. It is a second-tier problem for almost everyone else in the region. 

That may be particularly important in Syria

“It’s always difficult to read but it’s important to realise that, to a great extent, Iran now runs the show in government from Syria,” said Elass. “It is not necessarily Assad’s call. It’s Iran’s.” 

The PR/social media battle remains key and hotly contested. While little can be done to stop some young men within those countries being drawn to the cause, more could be done to stop foreign fighters. 

“It’s not all about the military campaign, there clearly has to be a counter propaganda campaign,” said Ali. I’m not going to say it’s going to be 100% successful — I am less confident about it compare to the military campaign but it has to be part of the thinking.” 

Overall, the panel saw no significant risk of ultimate breakup of Iraq and Syria — neither was seen particularly workable. A final solution might  involve bringing together all parties in the region, either formally or informally.

“Iran and Russia need to be engaged just as much as Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” said Elass. “Otherwise  ISIS will simply continue to run amok.” 


Further quotes:

What happened in Ramadi? 

Ali: Up until Ramadi, Iraqis have stopped believing there was a common threat. They had moved on. It’s a wake-up call for all Iraqis. That has been, in some ways, good.

There clearly has to be an expedited delivery of weaponry to the Iraqis because one of the deficiencies that was apparent was that the Iraqi forces did not have anti-tank missiles which could have been very effective in dealing with 27-30 armoured car bombs. They demoralised the security forces. We have to focus on that effect.

Ollivant: Clearly, there was a lack of anti-tank missiles at Ramaidi. Why? Despite all their objections about how they’d ” then, the Kurds have plenty up in the North. They stopped all the car bombs that came at them there because they had anti-tank missiles to shoot them. The Iraqi soldiers at Ramadi did not.

Was there a political decision not to supply them? Did the Iraqis say they didn’t want them? I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that there were no anti-tank missiles there when they need them.

Isis provided us with the pictures are armoured bulldozer that very slowly and deliberately moved all the concrete barriers out of the way so that the car bombs could come through. There was nothing the Iraqi soldiers could do to stop them.

They just had to watch as these car bombs came through and the (Iraqi) ten to one superiority became nineto one and then 8 to 1 and then seven to one as the car bombs started blowing up.

It doesn’t take very long when you’re getting these Timothy McVeigh-sized car bombs. They are dump trucks full of ammonium nitrate and we know what that big to… Oklahoma City. They had several of those hit in rapid succession in Ramadi.

The Iraqi “will to fight”

 Ollivant: I am a fan of the current Secretary of Defence. I’m on the record saying he was a great choice for the job. But you don’t ever, ever, get up and say a major ally of yours has an army with no will to fight. Even if it’s true, which I don’t believe it to be in this particular case.

You don’t let ISIS at a propaganda message that the Iraqi army cannot fight. It’s not helpful.

I think that kind of exemplifies a trend. I think there are many actors in the US political system we do not think about the impact that their message has its contoured for a US domestic audience, for domestic political purposes… but we don’t think about how it plays in the, how it might harm our allies and assist ISIS.

Ali: my concern with the messaging is that the US government did not get it right. This has resulted in negatively impacting the morale of the rocks security forces and we can avoid that. It’s very simple.

It’s a mistake to call out another ally. You can always have private channels to send those messages. My concern, given that this is Washington, is that you will have depolarisation of Iraq (as a US political issue issue).

Boots on the ground? 

Ollivant: Deploying American troops would be a bad idea. The immediate fight against ISIS is a necessary step but that’s probably the easiest to handle.

You can’t teach yourself away from the various Sadrists — not just Moqtada al-Sadr but the larger Sadrist tradition of groups — who would in a very traditional white just see this as an occupying army. On one respect, I kind of effect that. I’d like to think that if someone sent soldiers to occupy my country, I would shoot them too.

I feel like the football coach is saying this after his team was just interdicted and they ran a touchdown of that nonetheless, the strategy is working. The strategy is to essentially train, equip, provide air strikes and provide intelligence. We may have to look at improvements in all those areas.

The big picture

Ollivant: ISIS thrives under a very specific set of conditions. It thrives in Sunni Arab regions in which state institutions are weak or non-existent. When they run up against a place in which these do not hold — when they bump up against Sunni Arabs in the south of Iraq or… the Kurds in north-western Iraq or the Turks in the North or the Kurds in Syria or the functioning states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, they don’t spread.

The bad news is that this describes a whole lot of the region and we see these conditions in places like Egypt and Libya and the southern part of Tunisia. There are a lot of places that fit these conditions… but there does seem to be a limit to their spread.

Syria and North Africa — ISIS still dominant 

Elass:  Many in Syria, including the rebels, did not take ISIS seriously. They said “ISIS can’t take hold in a place like Syria. There’s no bread for them”. They said they can’t really thrive in Syria because they rely so much on foreign jihadists.

We can look outside Syria to, for example, Libya. ISIS has a small presence there but it is growing and also being underestimated by Europe. For example, Europe is suffering from the human trafficking of people across the Mediterranean and ISIS keeps saying “‘re putting sleeping cells amongst those migrants.”

ISIS claim they have put hundreds on those boats… it might be difficult to believe… but realistically all they need is a dozen or so to wreak havoc in Europe.

Ollivant: The Assad regime does care about fighting ISIS that it cares far more about fighting the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra which it sees, rightly, as threats to its immediate existence.

Of course, this administration has that certain red lines in place on Syria that, politically, it just can’t move off. A second piece of this is that we just have to punt this to the administration.

Coalition strategy

Ollivant : We have an Iraq-first strategy for two reasons. There are a lot of partner forces in Iraq that we can rely on to do the heavy lifting. There are the official Iraqi security forces, the army and police. They are the Shia militias, there’s the Peshmerga and there are some Sunni tribesmen. So that’s the positive reason we’re doing Iraq first.

The negative reason is the flipside of that. In Syria, we have somewhere neighbourhood of nobody who is willing to be a partner for us to help us fight against ISIS and even to the extent we try to generate forces to help us, it turns out they are far more interested in fighting against the regime… part of our problem with putting together this entire coalition is that — with the exception of the US in Baghdad that everyone else in the coalition is interested in fighting Isis but it’s no better than their number two priority.

Yes, we need to throw ISIS out of Iraq. We also need to make sure that a stable Iraq is left behind that can handle the reconstruction and re-assimilation. We also need to ensure that Iraq is more oriented towards the west, from a US perspective.

Then we need to figure out something about the Syrian civil war. Then, in the much broader sense, we need to figure out how to create legitimate parts for the Arab youth bulge to have both the economic and political participation.

Now, if I knew how to solve those, I get the Nobel Peace Prize, but those other things we need to do.

Ali: The US is the crucial player in the fight against ISIS. We have a 60 member coalition… but the US remains the most committed. Its most able to devote a lot of resources.

The US is capable of doing a great deal. One major line of effect is the S drives. When the US decided to deploy them effectively and widely, it made a huge difference on the battlefield.

If you look at Kobani, ISIS made it a priority. It became a priority for the US and Syrian Kurds as well and (they) came out on top. Same with Tikrit and other places.

ISIS is an adaptive group and we need to be adapted as well. We can’t stick to the same strategy as the situation unfolds.

Elass: It’s like the ongoing war on terrorism, drugs or poverty. You can’t fight a war like this using just one strategy.

Bombing ISIS is important in rolling back some of their territory but it can’t possibly be the only solution. ISIS thrives on chaos, it thrives on power vacuums and as long as Syria is deep in civil war, ISIS will continue to thrive.

There are partners that, I think, Washington can engage to curb the spread of ISIS inside Syria. Those partners may be controversial but Iran and Russia are definite partners in this. They have to be engaged, just as much as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Without this, ISIS will continue to run amok.

In Syria, there are no trustworthy sustainable long-term partners to work with. There’s also the fight for hearts and minds.


Iraq — looking beyond Ramadi

Ali: June-August 2014 was a terrible period for Iraq because ISIS was able to make a lot of advances and take control of many cities. It had all the momentum it needed throughout the country. Since then, you have noticed a change in the dynamic which has led to ISIS being on the defensive.

Now, it only has momentum in western Iraq. In northern Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga have done a good job containing ISIS. ISIS was kicked out decisively from Salah ad-Din province, not only from the capital Tikrit. It was not an easy operation. It required a lot of efforts and coordination between different force even if you look at Diyala in north-eastern Iraq, ISIS was also cleared from there.

The only place ISIS has shifted its resources is…Ramadi and Anbar. Anbar was the result of a recognition that it was on the defensive and was losing in other parts of the country. For ISIS… cannot be seen as a losing organisation, it has to be an organisation that is on the march.

Despite the fall of Ramadi, it is still have to look at the decisive factors that have led to this outcome. They’re actually capable forces fighting ISIS on the ground. We’re talking about 200,000 anti-ISIS members and many of them have shown a great will to fight despite what the secretary of defence has said.

But this is a long-term battle and it will keep changing back and forth. I’m more confident about what will happen to ISIS in Iraq than I am of Syria.

The battle for hearts and minds

Ali: A lot of people fall in love with bad guys. It’s as simple as that. We tend to lionise their games and minimise the gains of anti-ISIS forces. You not only have people who are ISIS adherents Tweeting and propagating their messages on social media but non-Isis supporters doing the same thing.

The social media war is crucial to beat ISIS… the way ISIS spreads its news is that whenever there’s an attack in an area, you’ll get a whole number of accounts tweeting the same thing and it gets propagated. ISIS has the capability and the governments do not have the same ability which makes it a big challenge.

It’s not about the social media, it’s about on the ground.

When ISIS was getting close to Erbil in August 2014, someone told me “my teenage daughter came to me and said “Dad, ISIS is getting close and I’ve seen what it does on You Tube and Twitter and I’m very afraid.

Elass:  Winning hearts and minds in Syria has not worked very well for America lately. Most Syrians wouldn’t trust America. Many rebel factions think that ISIS is some sort of (Western) conspiracy.

They say things like “the West is happy that ISIS is fighting here because it attracts all the jihadists here and… they get killed and never go back to America and Europe so that’s a good way to get rid of them.”

By the way, I have heard people from the intelligence community who do count on that.

But I have to say, I don’t think ISIS are winning the PR war. Brutality is not new to humankind. All the time, we have animal abusers and KKK and neo-Nazis in Europe who try to increase their platform online and they are suppressed. They don’t have that kind of money that comes to ISIS.

They’re not necessarily winning the war. They’ve just gotten a lot of money through petrodollars and a lot of visibility for now.

They are also very tech-savvy because they recruit a lot of nerves. A lot of the twitter accounts are actually echo accounts.

Ollivant: They have been very clever in the way they’ve approached a lot of these accounts. The more prominent ones are only about 30-40 percent pro-Isis and 60% anti-Iranian.

They are very clever in finding ways to infiltrate certain communities and embedding themselves in those larger contexts. Being anti-Iranian has been a really interesting waiting for quite some media streams.

Their production values are extremely good. I was finished in the first issue of their English-language propaganda magazine. I give people at the think tanks and businesses I work out a hard time because some of the best layout on me that’s ever been done. In a technical sense is quite admirable.

Ali: With different crackdowns, ISIS resulted to other means. At some point they started using Russian servers and Russian website. Twitter goes on suspension binges every once in a while where shuts down thousands of ISIS accounts.

As long as you can keep them under pressure, those users who are sympathetic to ISIS, you can actually do something. There has to be a systemic effort but I don’t anticipate it to be seen.

ISIS recruitment 

Ollivant: There is no one profile of someone who joins ISIS but in general, there are two large pool

In the West, it is mostly teenage angst. Kids who would otherwise join the Goth community or run off to California and join some wacko sex or drug-based cult. There are always going to be looking for something, that demographic, so it’s hard to see them not finding a way to link themselves with someone like ISIS.

The other pool from a rational perspective is quite logical. Young men in the Arab world who are not just unemployed and unemployable. No possibility of ever joining society or having a family, we would never be able to accumulate money for a dowry so they can have a wife and children. You come and find someone who has no future, no prospects at 15 or 16, had a gun and a sense of belonging and a way to have access to money and goods and sex. What 16-year-old is not going to sign up to that. Let the ideology come later.

Ali: For the foreign fighters, it’s about being disillusioned. Joining ISIS to find purpose is attracted to folks who have difficulty of simulating into the UK or France or other countries. Some have tried in the US but the immigration and assimilation here is easier for Americans to have been born here.

You have to be realistic. There is an issue here with different Muslim communities around the world particularly those in Europe and even in the US. That’s why I believe one way is for parents to take a bigger role. There has to be a better understanding by the parents and better education by the parents.

Elass: I don’t think it stops there. I don’t think the real question is how to stop them recruiting online or putting out their ideology because that’s unstoppable. I don’t think it’s a good idea to push them underground and off twitter.

It’s an old strategy — encourage them to come to the surface. That way it’s easier to keep an eye on them.

The real challenge comes when the authorities, communities countries involved in stopping the flow of jihad as is. Turkey, for one, could be strict about monitoring its borders. Europe could be stricter.

Tunisia, which has become a major partner with Washington, can do a lot more about exporting jihadists to ISIS

The long-term future of Iraq — staying one country? 

Ollivant: Yes. The alternative is a civil war that would make serious look relatively calm. You can draw lines on the map and make your own plan but then you notice that these lines go through Baghdad. What happens to the 1.5 million Sunnis who lived there? Will that be peaceful? I suspect not.

What happens to the entire province of Diyala which is a mixed bowl of Sunni, Shia and Kurd?

Much as the Kurds like to talk of an independent Kurdistan, it’s not a viable entity. Sunnistan, as it might be cool, would become essentially an Arab Waziristan: no resources, no access to the sea, no particular reason for its existence as a political entity. Shiastan would get much richer because they have all the resources that they would lack the larger population and allows them to stand up to Iranian influence and I think they would become the Iranian proxy that they are falsely accused of being.

Ali: I’m willing to bet Iraqis going to remain united. It’s not because Iraqis like to get along. It’s because Iraqis need to get along.

As much as you see discussion… there is still an understanding that the country’s oil dependent and the oil is mostly in southern Iraq. As a result, it will be difficult for other parts to leave easily.

Plus, today’s Middle East is not the 1920s Middle East. It’s not easy to combine countries. ISIS is doing that at the moment but that doesn’t mean it has to be successful.

Long-term future of Syria 

Elass: There was a time, maybe a couple of years ago, when it was feasible to think that Syria might divide into two, one part rebel controlled and then regime-controlled from Damascus to Homs and the coastal provinces. Even regime insiders who were close to Assad conceded this.

Now, I think, it’s a lot more complicated, particularly with ISIS. Other country displayed, it needs to have at least two internally coherent but separate sections. That is no longer the case. There are now so many parts of Syria that it would look like something like polka dots, not to want three states. That makes it unlikely, if that makes sense.

Report by Peter Apps. Transcript by Christopher Stephens

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