Countdown to the destruction of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

Ikuzo Kobayashi, President of the NPO Salaam-Kai

From the Summer Issue of the electronic “Salaam Quarterly Bulletin”, No.22, May 2017

Almost three years have transpired since the Islamic extremist group ISIS’ declaration of the Islamic State on June 29, 2014. In the current situation, the Islamic State can be considered to have virtually collapsed. However, ISIS’ strongholds located in the west of Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq, and Syrian city of Raqqa have not collapsed yet. ISIS resorted to “human shield” operations to desperately defend those strongholds. It is clear that the battle has come to the final countdown to the ultimate collapse of them although it may still take some time before that outcome in order to minimize civilian casualties.

Iraqi security forces advance during fighting against Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 6, 2017. Iraq’s military said Tuesday(March 7) its forces recaptured control of the main government buildings in western Mosul from Islamic State militants. (VOA News)

The impact of the Islamic State

The impact of the Islamic State’s emergence caused concern that borders in the Middle East may liquefy. This is because ISIS completely ignored borders that have been recognized by the international community through the World War I and the World War II and declared the vast territories encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq as a state.

ISIS-controlled territories encompassing parts of Iraq and Syria as of July, 2014 (pink-colored area on the map)

Both the Iraqi and Syrian governments lost control of vast territories within their borders where some people were abducted, abused and massacred while others became refugees. While the international community refused to recognize the Islamic State, the territories under ISIS’ effective control continued expanding. The nations in the surrounding area came to have strong concern that their borders may disappear like lines drawn on the sands of desert.

Egyptian President El-Sisi who was elected in the election held on May 26-28, 2014 (Second Egyptian revolution)

The Arab Spring movement which started in Tunisia at the end of 2010 caused collapse of a long-term dictatorship in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This gave rise to an optimism that the movement may pave the way to the emergence of Islamic-type democracies in the region. However, such an optimism failed to materialize. In reality, sovereign states weakened and created vacuum of power where confusion and civil war spread. Tunisia and Egypt barely brought the situation under control and stabilized domestic political situation. Libya remains divided and a government that can effectively govern the country has yet to emerge.

ISIS totally denies existing system of sovereign state

The extremist group ISIS exalted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (1) as the caliph and declared establishment of the Islamic State. ISIS strived for establishment of a state based on the Islamic Law and targeted all existing states as well as everyone who is against the original theocratic Islamic State in their jihad.

The Muslim Brotherhood aimed at establishing an Islamist regime in Egypt and the Jihad Group which was manifestation of the extreme ideology latent in the Brotherhood ideology assassinated then President Anwar el-Sadat in October, 1981. The assassination was an armed terrorist attack against someone who opposed Islamist ideology carried out in the name of jihad.

Osama bin Laden joined the Muslim Brotherhood when he was a student and was radicalized by the jihad ideology. He joined the Mujahideen struggle (2) against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and founded Al Qaeda in 1988 (3). During the decade until 1988, he reportedly nurtured his relationship with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who subsequently launched anti-American struggle in Iraq.

Zarqawi (4) who became a core member of Al Qaeda infiltrated into Fallujah in 2002 and engaged in intense anti-American struggle from the end of Iraq War in March, 2003 until June, 2006.

After he was killed by the US aerial bombardment in June, 2006, his Al Qaeda in Iraq attracted global jihad militants who participated in the Mujahideen struggle. The group promoted integration of jihad militants under the anti-American, anti-al-Maliki slogan and was renamed as the Islamic State of Iraq. The group shifted its strategy from being al qaeda (base) to controlling territory (5).

In October, 2010, the Islamic State of Iraq exalted Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as emir (commander). Based on this historical background, ISIS is a jihad militant group which deviated from the Muslim Brotherhood which aims at transformation within an existing state system. It is a terrorist group like Al Qaeda and split from Al Qaeda due to the difference in jihad methodology.

Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq focused on the strategy of controlling territory and adopted an anti-American, anti-al-Maliki and anti-Shiite slogan. The group claimed that “the democracy imposed by America and affiliated Shiite-dominated al-Maliki regime failed,” and absorbed Sunnis who were former Baath Party members, former Hussein regime senior officials, intelligence officers, military officers and bureaucrats.

Very large demonstration in Homs, Syria against Al Assad regime in the Syrian Uprising (Wikimedia Commons) 18 April 2011

In March, 2011, the Arab Spring movement spread to Syria, giving rise to local anti-government movement. The Assad regime responded by severely suppressing it. As the tribal anti-government forces and the internationally-supported National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces failed to achieve unity, global jihad militants affiliated with Al Qaeda continued entering Syria from various Arab states. The Islamic State of Iraq took advantage of this situation, and dispatched one of its key Syrian members, al-Golani to Syria in August, 2011 to establish IS foothold there.

Al-Nusra Front, in August, 2011(Wikipedia)

However, after he formed al-Nusra Front in northern Syria, he refused to go under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and kept distance from it. He started to collaborate with local Syrian Islamic extremist groups (Islamic Front).

Because of this development, the Islamic State of Iraq seized control of Mosul in Iraq on June 20, 2014, and used that momentum to directly move into Syria, seizing Raqqa. The group was renamed as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Negative implication of total withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq

Former US President Obama was eager to finish the war on terrorism and carried out total withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq in December, 2011.

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the last commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq,joined family members of returning service members towelcome those final few troops home, Dec. 20, 2011, Joint Base Andrews, Md. DOD photo by Army 1st Sgt. Tyrone MarshallJr.

However, this sent a wrong signal to the Middle East region as a whole. The US move gave an impression that “the United States gave up on American-style democratization of Iraq” and heightened local sentiment to realize Islamic-type democracy. The Arab masses vaguely desired Islamic-style democracy which was easily shifted to anti-American democracy, fueling anti-American movement supported by the Islamists.

Furthermore, this wrong signal created an impression that Islamic radicals’ armed struggle caused retreat of the US forces from Iraq. This impression revived the past memory of the Mujahideen’s struggle against and defeat of the Soviet military forces which made Osama bin Laden a hero. This further created a sentiment among the masses to consider Jihadist militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as heroes. This not only energized anti-American extremists in Iraq but also helped the extremists to hijack the Arab Spring movement.

On July 6, 2013, Egypt protests after Morsi clashes involving gunfire between supporters and opponents of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has left several killed and scores injured across Egypt.

Inside Iraq, the failed politics of the second (Shiite-dominated) al-Maliki regime (6) drove former senior officials and other remnants of the Hussein regime to support the Islamic State of Iraq.

Iraqi Vice President al-Hashimi answering in the CNN interview: The US Department of State expressed concern about issuance of the arrest warrant against Iraqi Vice President al-Hashimi and said it will closely watch it. Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq was completed on the 18th. Vice President al-Hashimi warned against revival of sectarian conflicts, and increasingly criticized Prime Minister al-Maliki. (2012.01.31 Tue posted at 09.19 JST)

The Islamic State of Iraq rapidly expanded its controlled territories, seizing Fallujah located 60 kilometers from Baghdad in January, 2014 and seizing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. By that time, the territory effectively governed by the Al-Maliki regime had shrank by half which is not an exaggeration. Northern Iraqi area including Irbil was autonomous Kurdistan area and ISIS came to control northwestern and western Iraq from Mosul to Fallujah as well as transportation hubs which lead to Raqqa, Syria and Deir ez-Zor.

The Al-Maliki regime requested military assistance from the US to defeat ISIS. But then US President Obama only sent military advisors. Kurdish refugees who escaped persecution by ISIS traveled to Irbil almost on a daily basis.

Yazidis are fleeing from ISIS attack to Syria in August, 2014 (The Huffington Post)

Under such circumstance, it was reported that 50,000 Yazidis (Christians) were stranded in mountains in Sinjar near the Syrian border in northern Iraq who were pressured to be converted by ISIS. It was feared that they may be massacred if they refuse religious conversion. Then US President Obama started aerial bombardment to rescue them.

US President Obama switching to the strategy of “aerial bombardment and international encirclement against ISIS”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in Baghdad, Iraq on September 10, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

US President Obama considered the Muslim Brotherhood as a non-violent (democratic) social movement and expected it to help transition of Iraq to an Islamic-type democracy. However, he was faced with emergence of ISIS and forced to review his strategy. Aerial bombardment to rescue the Yazidis which lasted for 5 days triggered the review.

Then US President Obama demanded Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki to step down to take responsibility for failed politics. He made Prime Minister al-Abadi (Shiite) who succeeded al-Maliki promise to form a national-unity cabinet and switched to air bombardment strategy.

Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 11, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain

On the other hand, in Syria where civil war continued, the Assad regime was unlikely to follow demands from the United States, especially a demand for resignation of President Assad because of its pro-Russia foreign policy which was inherited from former President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad. The US took the same position as EU to support sanctions against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, so it was unthinkable for the Obama administration to cooperate with the Assad regime to destroy ISIS. After all, the strategy for international encirclement against ISIS was only realistic strategy for Obama.

The US forces started military action by launching 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers deployed in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf on September 23, 2014

Starting from September, 2014, then US President Obama visited European states to “dismantle and destroy ISIS.” Then US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Persian Gulf states to gain support for the strategy. Upon his return from the trip, President Obama launched aerial bombardment against Syria. The US forces and the Joint Arab Forces together carried out bombardment against Syria. Then US President Obama appealed to the international community to join the Coalition of the Willing in his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 24.

US-lead Coalition of the Willing vs Islamic State

Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr. speaks at Pentagon about the Syrian bombing campaign September 23, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mayville talked about the U.S. and Arab air strikes in Syria against the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The US military and the Joint Arab forces carried out aerial bombardment against IS military facilities in
Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria.Tomahawk missiles were launched from the destroyer deployed in the Persian Gulf and F18 fighters were launched from the aircraft carrier George Bush supported by B1 strategic bombers, F16 fighters and drone Predators.

60 nation states participated in the US-led Coalition of the Willing but the degree of their commitment varied. France did not initially participate in the aerial bombardment. This is because France believed that attacking ISIS which was fighting against the Assad regime would benefit Assad. Subsequently, as Syrian refugees in overwhelming number migrated to Europe, France changed its policy and launched aerial bombardment against Syria on September 27, 2015.

France announced that it carried out first aerial bombardment in Syria and destroyed ISIS training camps in eastern Syria on September 27, 2015. The photo shows the same type of French fighter jet Rafale (provided by the US Navy)

Turkey initially limited its participation to allowing use of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey for aerial bombardment operations. However, Turkey subsequently suffered repeated suicide terrorist bombings by ISIS militants who crossed the border from Syria. As the result, Turkey carried out its first aerial bombing against ISIS stronghold near the Syrian border on July 24, 2015.

Two large Russian transport aircraft arrived at the Latakia Air Base controlled by the Assad regime on September 12, 2015. The Sekai Nippo September 16 issue.

Russia initially condemned the aerial bombardments by the Coalition of the Willing as violation of the international law. Russia maintains the only Mediterranean military port in Tartus, Syria and seemed to have looked for an opportunity to get involved in the Syrian situation. The Assad regime sought support from Russia to overcome the difficulties. In response, Russia made a decision to start aerial bombing campaign on September 30, 2015 and bombed Raqqa.

Russian participation was distinctly different from that of the Coalition of the Willing. Although Russia get involved under the name of battle against ISIS, its true purpose was to support the Assad regime. Russian participation in the aerial bombardment campaign complicated the Syrian situation.

Collapse of ISIS

The Iraqi forces supported by the Coalition of the Willing seized Ramadi, strategic transportation hub which connects Iraq and Syria, from ISIS on December 28, 2015, and Fallujah at the end of June, 2016.

On the other hand, in Syria, opposition forces centered on Kurdish militias supported by the US forces formed encirclement around Raqqa connecting surrounding villeges. Turkey gained control over the Syrian border area militarily and expelled ISIS forces. Sinjar, strategic city near the Syrian Iraqi border was regained from ISIS. ISIS was cornered with escape routes blocked, and lost freedom of crossing the Syrian Iraqi borders as well as supply routes for smuggling or procurement of crude oil, arms and volunteer fighters. As the result, ISIS was fragmented and virtually collapsed.

In 2017, the encirclement against Mosul got further tightened and only the west of Mosul remains in ISIS control.

The Syrian government forces regained eastern Deir ez-Zor and the encirclement against Raqqa is also getting tightened. In other words, ISIS is isolated and under seize in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and it is a matter of time before those strongholds fall.

Once those strongholds in Iraq and Syria fall, the central axis of ISIS will collapse. With collapse of the ISIS command and control center, their chain of command will be destroyed and their IT communication strategy will be greatly undermined. ISIS’ strategy to control territories was pushed back to a few scattered bases (Al Qaeda).

Future of Iraq and Syrian peace

After the fall of ISIS in Mosul, the biggest challenge that the al-Abadi regime will face in Iraq will be whether it can establish a national unity cabinet which is fair to the Sunnis.

On the other hand, the priority challenge that Syria will face will be to eliminate global jihad fighters from other countries as well as Al Qaeda and IS militants and expose latent jihad extremists. Another challenge will be to reach cease-fire agreement supported by the Assad regime, opposition groups, the UN, surrounding Arab states, Turkey, European states and the United States and Russia. Upon this foundation, it is desired to initiate consultations on the status of the Assad regime and establishment of the new government.

ISIS is currently relocating and dispersing its strongholds to the areas with vacuum of power and territories beyond the control of national governing authorities. Those areas include Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sahel region of Africa, Pakistan, Indonesia, and southern Philippines. Iraqi and the new Syria governments will be responsible for containing ISIS fighters within Syria and Iraq and prevent ISIS’ efforts to disperse.


  1. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: The image of his speech during Friday worshipping which took place at a mosque (the Great Mosque of al-Nuri) in Mosul, second largest city in Iraq on July 4, 2014. Al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself to be Caliph Ibrahim.
  2. Mujahideen struggle: generally, it refers to the guerilla struggle against the Soviet forces which lasted for about 10 years from 1979 to 1989, from the Soviet invasion on Afghanistan to the Soviet defeat and retreatment. The struggle was called Mujahideen struggle because those who carried out jihad under the cause of Islam participated in it.
  3. founded Al Qaeda in 1988: Osama bin Laden sponsored Mujahideens with his own fund and funding from the Saudi Arabia General Intelligence Agency. With his mentor Abdullah Azzam when he was a student, he established “Service Bureau” and recruited mujahideens from Egypt and Sudan. He split with Azzam and his followers who promote activities in Afghanistan as a priority around 1988. In August, 1988, Bin Laden and some members of the Jihad Group founded Al Qaeda. (from Wikipedia)
  4. Zarqawi: His real name is Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh. Jordanian. He aimed at dethroning the Jordanian King, and he reportedly pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. He included the Shiites in his targets of jihad, and pulled Iraq into a civil war. Although he was reported to be connected to the regime of Saddam Hussein, this was found baseless after research. He was killed by the US bombing in June, 2006.
  5. Shifted its strategy from being al qaeda (base) to controlling territory:
    It is believed that the strategy advocated by al-Suri, Al Qaeda theorist, was adopted. According to Tokyo University Associate Professor Satoshi Ikeuchi, the strategy of al-Suri (whose real name was Abu Musab al-Suri) advocated “A single terrorist attack is a public propaganda war which brings fear to the international community. After confusion spread in Arab states and Islamic states, we control territories through large-scale organization and armament.”
  6. Failed politics of the second (Shiite-dominated) al-Maliki regime:
    Iraqi judiciary authority issued an arrest warrant to criminally prosecute Vice President Hashimi who is a Sunni. Vice President Hashimi ended up in exile overseas, but the anti-al-Maliki movement by the Sunnis rapidly spead and led to the expansion of the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq.

More contents available in the electronic “Salaam Quarterly Bulletin”, No.22, May 2017.