Commentary Magazine


A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is certainly a growing menace–in fact the most immediate threat that we face in the Middle East. And a formidable threat it is, having taken control of an area the size of the United Kingdom in Syria and Iraq. Its fighters are estimated to number as many as 17,000, and, after having looted Iraqi stockpiles, they are well equipped both with weapons (many of them Made in America) and money. ISIS has just demonstrated its growing reach by seizing the Tabqa air base from Bashar Assad’s regime, thus giving it effective control of Raqqa province in Syria where its de facto capital is located. But let’s not exaggerate the power that they possess.

The Guardian quotes one “regional diplomat” (whoever that may be) as saying:

The Islamic State is now the most capable military power in the Middle East outside Israel. They can determine outcomes in a few days that the Syrian rebels took two years to influence. Their capacity is in sharp contrast to the Syrian regime, which is only able to fight one battle at a time and has to fight hard for every success.

In the first two months of its life, the so-called Caliphate has achieved unparalleled success. It is in the process of creating foundations for substantial financial, military and political growth. It is the best equipped and most capable terror group in the world. It is unlike anything we have ever seen.

It’s true that ISIS has become the most capable terror group in the world–and far from the “junior varsity” that President Obama labeled it. But let’s put that achievement into perspective. As I argued in my book, Invisible Armies, terrorist groups are generally less capable than guerrilla forces, which are generally less capable than conventional armies. (Possessing weapons of mass destruction can upend that hierarchy but ISIS thankfully doesn’t have any WMD–yet.) Pretty much all terrorist groups aspire to become guerrilla armies, which in turn aspire to become conventional armies. In other words, calling a group the most powerful terrorist force in the world is akin to saying that a baseball team is the best in the minor leagues–it’s not the same thing as suggesting that it can beat the New York Yankees.

True, ISIS has been trying to progress from being merely a terrorist group to being a guerrilla and even a conventional army that is capable of seizing and holding terrain. It is also trying to develop a rudimentary administrative capacity to administer all the territory it has seized. And it has been making some dismaying leaps in capability, but it also displays considerable weakness.

Look, for example, how easily it was driven away from Mosul Dam by Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers with the help of U.S. airpower. As I have previously argued, the beheading of James Foley was another act of desperation designed to show that the group is still relevant. So too of news that it has just executed its own intelligence chief in Aleppo on suspicion of being a British spy–whether the charge was true or not, it is a sign of ISIS’s weakness and the extent it is feeling the strain of even the very limited counteroffensive it has encountered in northern Iraq.

To speak of ISIS in the same breath as the IDF–one of the most professional and capable military forces in the world, with 176,000 active-duty personnel, nearly 4,000 tanks and 10,000 armed fighting vehicles, almost 700 aircraft, 110 navy ships, and, lest we forget, nuclear weapons–is laughable. As a fighting force ISIS doesn’t even stack up very well with the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia (although the latter is the weakest of the bunch): any one of those could crush ISIS if it were fighting on its home soil. The reason ISIS has looked so formidable is that it is operating in the territory of two states, Syria and Iraq, which have seen a calamitous breakdown in central government authority. Its gains to date are more a reflection of the weakness of Bashar Assad and Nouri al Maliki than of its intrinsic strength.

While ISIS is a clear and present danger to the U.S. and its allies, let’s not make these black-clad jihadist fanatics out to be ten-foot-tall supermen. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was soundly thrashed in Iraq in 2007-2008 and it could be again if the U.S. got serious about destroying it.

So far, alas, there is no such sign of seriousness coming from the White House, which continues to dither as ISIS gains new ground. The longer we wait to deal with ISIS, the more formidable it will get and the harder to dismantle.

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One Response to “A Clear-Eyed Assessment of ISIS”


    This is much needed balance. The only imbalance is ISIS’ resolve versus that of the West.
    The interviews on Sunday of the British ambassador to the US , wherein he said that they will not put boots on the ground, nor even provide lethal weapons, either in Iraq nor Ukraine is what is the most alarming. The response thus far has not matched what everyone argues is the magnitude of the threats. It’s dangers to which no nation will react adequately, even to “off ramps”.

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