2 books on the ISIS

Posted: August 3, 2014 in ISIS

The Islamic State: A Counter-Strategy for a Counter-State
Jessica D. Lewis
Institute for the Study of War

Many have asked what needs to be done about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the terrorist organization that recently took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Questions range from the acceptability of airstrikes and the viability of a national unity government in Iraq to the feasibility of a counter-offensive that depends upon the remaining capacity of the Iraq Security Forces. These are important and worthy questions, and timely, because ISIS is growing stronger. But these questions preempt the rigorous analysis that is required in order to determine what the U.S. should do about ISIS and why.

ISIS is no longer a mere terrorist organization, but one that operates like an army. It is no longer just an army, but one that is conquering land in Iraq and Syria to establish new ideological rule, in line with al-Qaeda’s endgame. This is no longer a war of ideas against an extremist group with sparse networks, flashy strategic messaging, and limited technical offensive capability. It is necessary to avoid framing a U.S. counter-terrorism strategy to defeat ISIS as if it were. It is particularly important to move beyond narratives of simple or piecemeal solutions. Individual actions are insufficient to dislodge what has become an entrenched strategic adversary.

ISIS draws strength from the complex circumstances that are independently causing Iraq and Syria to fail, including domestic civil and sectarian cleavages, authoritarian leadership, and polarizing regional stressors. Any counter-strategy to defeat ISIS also requires a nuanced strategy to preserve all U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Middle East that are deeply affected by the recent take-over of Iraq’s major cities by ISIS. And yet these considerations call for action rather than deterrence. The ISIS threat is growing, and it threatens the permanent destruction of Iraq and Syria, which will generate exponential threats to U.S. interests abroad.   

ISIS is already a threat to the United States. ISIS is not only dangerous in a regional context because it is overthrowing modern state boundaries in ways that incur massive ethno-sectarian killing and cleansing. ISIS is also a global jihadist organization that shares al-Qaeda’s ideology, such that its progress drives towards a post-state and apocalyptic vision that involves the destruction of the modern state system. ISIS already threatens to escalate violence between states in the Middle East that have been fighting proxy wars in Syria for several years such that ISIS military operations may cascade into a broader regional conflict. ISIS is now a direct threat to neighboring states in the Middle East, and ISIS is broadcasting the intent to attack Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West. The threat of attacks against the U.S. is present.

It is therefore necessary for the U.S. to consider ways to defeat ISIS, not only to preserve the integrity of the Iraqi state, but to preserve our own security. Defeating the Islamic State will, in fact, be very difficult. Developing a strategy to do so will be very hard. But hard is not the same as impossible. As pressure grows in Washington for a response to the crisis that has engulfed the region, policymakers must move beyond the assessment phase and begin building a comprehensive strategy. This effort must begin with a close examination of the sources of strength, intentions, and vulnerabilities of the Islamic Caliphate created by ISIS. Only then can a coherent counter-strategy emerge. First, we must understand the threat.

This report provides a strategic analysis of the sources of strength and weakness for ISIS. It adapts existing military frameworks to support the development of meaningful national security strategies to counter ISIS. This report does not attempt to formulate a comprehensive counter-strategy, but instead provides a way of conceptualizing such counter-strategies in light of how ISIS forms its own strategy for military and political gain. The frameworks in this study include an evaluation of the ISIS grand strategy and its military objectives in Iraq and Syria; a Center of Gravity analysis to identify the core sources of ISIS’s strength; and a rubric to understand how main efforts and supporting efforts can combine to bring out the strategic defeat of ISIS. 

This report finds that the defeat of ISIS must address two Centers of Gravity. The first is a classical military center of gravity that ISIS uses to wrest physical control from modern states and hold what it has gained. The second ISIS center of gravity is a political capacity to provide essential state functions within the territory that ISIS controls. ISIS strength emanates from the ability to translate military control into political control, and thereby to claim that the Caliphate is manifest. A strategy to defeat ISIS must break this synergy among the military and political operations of ISIS and its layered leadership. The U.S. must consider ways to accomplish this in order to propel the strategic defeat of ISIS. Destroying its Critical Capabilities, denying its Critical Opportunities and Critical Requirements, and exploiting its Critical Vulnerabilities are additional component effects that must be synchronized in order to achieve this strategic effect.

A strategy whereby ISIS remains in control of Mosul, Raqqa, and other urban centers in Iraq and Syria will fall short of the desired outcome. Settling for lesser aims or resolving to do nothing are equal. The threat of ISIS is real and expanding, but ISIS is also vulnerable at its present political formation stage. It is vital to design a cogent counter-strategy, and soon, or this door will close.


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ISIS Governance in Syria
Charles C. Caris & Samuel Reynolds
Institute for the Study of War

The Islamic State’s June 2014 announcement of a “caliphate” is not empty rhetoric. In fact, the idea of the caliphate that rests within a controlled territory is a core part of ISIS’s political vision. The ISIS grand strategy to realize this vision involves first establishing control of terrain through military conquest and then reinforcing this control through governance. This grand strategy proceeds in phases that have been laid out by ISIS itself in its publications, and elaborates a vision that it hopes will attract both fighters and citizens to its nascent state. The declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, however, raises the question: can ISIS govern?

Available evidence indicates that ISIS has indeed demonstrated the capacity to govern both rural and urban areas in Syria that it controls. Through the integration of military and political campaigns, particularly in the provincial capital of Raqqa, ISIS has built a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian, and infrastructure projects, among others. Raqqa is the central city in ISIS’s territorial network and thus it offers the most fully developed example of ISIS’s Caliphate vision. However, Raqqa is not the only striking example of ISIS governance. Towns in Aleppo province, in particular al-Bab and Manbij, are also host to a number of governance programs, as are select towns in other provinces to varying degrees.

ISIS divides governance into two broad categories: administrative and service-oriented. Administrative offices are responsible for managing religious outreach and enforcement, courts and punishments, educational programming, and public relations. ISIS begins by establishing outreach centers and rudimentary court systems first because these are less resource-intensive and less controversial among the Syrian population. After consolidating militarily, ISIS generally progresses towards religious police, stricter punishments, and a concerted educational system. These types of programs require more dedicated personnel, resource investments, and greater support from the population. 

ISIS’s service-oriented offices manage humanitarian aid, bakeries, and key infrastructure such as water and electricity lines. In a similar fashion to its administrative offices, ISIS begins by offering humanitarian aid, particularly during Ramadan, and coordinates with religious outreach events to provide food aid to attendees. This is seen as less threatening and requires little personnel or resources from ISIS. As ISIS takes sole control over territory, it expands to provide more services, often operating the heavy equipment needed to repair sewer and electricity lines. ISIS has also attempted to manage large industrial facilities, such as dams and a thermal power plant in Aleppo province. 

In conjunction with these governance projects, ISIS has worked to legitimate its vision for a caliphate as laid out in publications such as the English-language magazine Dabiq. ISIS has argued that it has the duty to govern both the religious and political lives of Muslims. Under this model, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is both ISIS’s chief religious official and its senior statesman. ISIS sees itself as an all-encompassing entity, one that eventually is meant to shoulder all the responsibilities of a traditional state. Though maintaining some practical state functions that derive from effective urban management may not be within his capacity. 

ISIS’s sweeping yet exclusionary method of governance is potentially one of the organization’s greatest strengths, but it may also become one of ISIS’s greatest weaknesses. ISIS maintains social control by eliminating resistance, but this in turn places technical skills that are essential to run modern cities in shorter supply. In the process of establishing its governance project, ISIS has dismantled state institutions without replacing them with sustainable alternatives. The immediate provision of aid and electricity, for example, does not translate into the creation of a durable economy. The consequence of ISIS’s failure, however, may not be the dismantling of the Caliphate, but rather the devastation of the cities and systems that comprise Iraq and Syria such that they never recover.

Thus far in Syria, ISIS has provided a relative measure of organization in a chaotic environment. This may prompt assessments which overstate ISIS’s efficacy in conducting state functions. Though ISIS certainly has demonstrated intent to commit resources to governance activities, it is yet to demonstrate the capacity for the long-term planning of state institutions and processes. Translating broad military expansions from the summer of 2013 into a well-governed contiguous zone will be ISIS’s most daunting task yet, and may prove to be a critical vulnerability.


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