Spotlight on the Islamic State

by Wayne White

The extraordinarily gruesome execution of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh generated intense regional backlash against the self-anointed Islamic State (ISIS or IS). However, aside from Jordan, this affair may not translate into a major increase in military contributions from nearby states. IS already feels the pressure militarily, and is now mainly in a defensive posture. Disappointingly, Kurdish and Iraqi efforts to address this menace remain troubled. The humanitarian aid flowing into IS-held areas also helps sustain IS’s trumped up “caliphate.”


The group now calling itself IS employs sheer barbarism as a means of intimidating its enemies: mass executions of Muslim prisoners, crucifixions, and beheadings. A UN report released this week also alleged that the group has been killing children in Iraq, including by burying them alive. The tactics worked well during IS’s stunning early advances, causing more powerful forces such as the Iraqi Army in Mosul last June to flee. The tactics are also likely, in part, responsible for NATO ally Turkey’s reluctance to actively support the anti-IS coalition, sharing such an extensive border with this brutal entity. Not to mention the United Arab Emirates (UAE) withdrawal in December from combat missions for fear that one of its pilots might also be captured.

The same was true of a lot of Jordanian opinion before the execution of Kasasbeh. Though a large majority of Jordanians disapproved of IS, the country was split over active participation in the military effort against the group. IS leaders probably hoped opposition would mushroom in response to the Kasasbeh ordeal, and some opposition to King Abdullah’s involvement did, in fact, surface more dramatically.

Kasasbeh’s execution in a dreadfully forbidden manner plus indications he was executed a month earlier (Jordanian Foreign Minister Nassar Judeh said yesterday Amman did not know for sure) sent many Jordanians in the opposite direction. Prominent Jordanian jihadi cleric Mohammed al-Maqdesi, who was involved in talks with IS for Kasasbeh’s release, said today they “lied.” were “evasive,” and burning Kasasbeh was “not acceptable by any religion.” In the end, IS leaders seem more interested in the propaganda value of sensational executions than release deals.

Escalating barbarism typically only goes so far before it fuels more determined pushback. IS’s fanatical leadership probably is making much the same mistake other arrogant brutes have made in underestimating the mettle of their foes. A classic example of ultimately self-destructive hubris was an insular, advice averse Saddam Hussein’s belief during the pre-Gulf War standoff in 1990-91 that even the vast UN-backed coalition did not have the stomach to take on his military.

Still, the more tangible bottom line stemming from the Kasasbeh execution will be known only after the initial burst of regional outrage dies down—even concerning Jordan’s long term posture. King Abdullah began Jordan’s “relentless” and “harsh” response yesterday with a wave of air strikes, expanding them today into Iraq as well as Syria. The scope of the Jordanian campaign, however, is not yet clear.

View from Raqqa

Despite IS’s swagger, leaders in its capital of Raqqa most likely hoped to knock Jordan out of the coalition and intimidate its other enemies more generally in a bold attempt to reverse an increasingly difficult situation. Several news outlets gave accounts of IS attacks against the Kurds last week implying IS posed a threat to the large northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. In fact, a small number of IS fighters seized an abandoned building in Kirkuk, briefly placing snipers on the roof (an isolated terrorist attack). Simultaneously, a small IS force seized a tiny oilfield 12 miles from the city. Engaged in far heavier fighting elsewhere, IS seems to have merely launched a so-called “spoiling” attack aimed at drawing Kurdish attention away from more critical areas; it is not in a position to seize a vast target like Kirkuk.

Elsewhere, IS fell back even farther from bloody Kobani in northern Syria, abandoning positions some miles from the city. Iraqi forces in Ramadi on January 30 repelled an IS attack killing 20 attackers. Recently, IS lost more than 1,000 square miles of territory across northern Iraq containing important lines of communication and much of the mainly Yazidi town of Sinjar to Kurdish forces. Meanwhile, airstrikes continue to hammer IS (in support of Iraqi/Kurdish military operations or other targets inside IS-controlled territory).

The punishing combat in which IS has been embroiled continues to grind away at its manpower and undermine the morale of some combatants. There are reports IS has resorted to conscription in an area of Syria. And IS may have just executed 3 foreign fighters from China’s largely Muslim Xinjiang Province who tried to flee. Two other Chinese along with 11 foreign fighters from other countries apparently were beheaded in late December for “treason” and desertion.

Iraqi and Kurdish Forces Still Struggling

Despite limited successes, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have not been putting in a consistent military performance. Around embattled Sinjar, bickering between fiercely disciplined Syrian Kurdish fighters and better armed but more reticent Iraqi Peshmerga has hindered driving IS from the city. Iraqi Kurds accuse their Syrian rivals of recklessness while Syrian Kurds regard Iraqi Peshmerga as less courageous—although planning to seize the city for themselves. Meanwhile, IS still holds a portion of the city.

Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has received arms and ammunition from abroad since last year’s IS offensive. Yet, distribution seems haphazard or based on party or local favoritism. While some Peshmerga units like those at Sinjar are well equipped, other fighters have to share rifles. Notorious for corruption and smuggling, some Kurds could be hoarding arms or selling some to an array of possible recipients.

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has still not implemented robust measures to lure back Sunni Arab tribes, along with former military and “Awakening” cadres either siding with IS or remaining relatively passive under its occupation. Abadi’s cabinet sent to parliament a law on February 3 to create a provincial “National Guard” that Sunni Arabs could join to fight IS. Another measure aimed at reforming a wholesale ban of former Ba’th Party members from government and military service was sufficiently flawed to cause Sunni Arab cabinet members to boycott the vote. And among parliamentarians both proposed laws are controversial; passage is not guaranteed.

Equally distressing, an Iraq Army struggling to reform after its massive defeats last year continues to rely on Shi’a militias to fill gaps. Media reports and Amnesty International claim these ruthless militias are committing atrocities against Sunni Arabs. I highlighted this problem last year pointing out how it profoundly complicates winning back Sunni Arabs. “Liberation” from IS by Shi’a militias remains a fate far worse for most Sunni Arabs than continued rule by IS.

Humanitarian Aid

A sensitive issue in a conflict against IS that should be as comprehensive as possible is IS’s receipt of humanitarian assistance. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) said this week it was “extremely concerned” about evidence IS was replacing “WFP” with its own labels on food containers. Another NGO said it stopped providing IS with supplies when IS fighters tried to take control of distribution, and IS may have raided a warehouse of another donor, the Syrian Red Crescent.

A larger question is whether any such assistance should be sent to IS-occupied areas. In major 20th Century conflicts, it was standard practice to block any and all supplies reaching enemy territory. IS clearly views its struggle as what could be called a “total war,” while using food and medicine to perpetuate the myth that its “caliphate” is a functioning state. And it would be naïve to assume IS has not manipulated distribution to supply its own fighters amidst starvation among locals in some areas.

Dumping the “Islamic State” Brand

To avoid the misleading name, Islamic State, France has abandoned it for “Daesh,” viewed by many as pejorative; Secretary of State John Kerry did likewise in December. Although Daesh is close to the Arabic verb “daes” (to crush, as under foot), it is nonetheless a fairly straightforward Arabic acronym for “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). To dissociate this vile group from the faith it has so distorted, those beyond its sway should consider formulating something more appropriate like “Raqqa Armed-Group,” “Raqqa Based Barbarians,” or some such nomenclature other than IS, ISIL, ISIS or even Daesh.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. And who was it that created this latest brand? The Saudis, the CIA, The Israelis, the French, the Turks, the U.S.? All the so-called freedom fighters created as proxies for the west and the Arab leaders involved in the drive to regime change, have all taken the road that has destroyed the countries they fight in. Looking at the M.E. to date, death & destruction is the forte of these actions, nothing short there of. These war ravaged countries will require rebuilding, but the amounts of money involved, wont see the light of day.

  2. I agree with all of the points made in this article. I would like to mention two things: I am very concerned about the US role in this situation. We don’t seem to have learned anything from our 8 years in Iraq and seem to be making the same mistakes all over again. No “boots on the ground” and yet we keep increasing the number of advisers in Iraq. Some of them have already come under fire. It is my opinion that it will take decades for the Iraqi military to be reformed or become any sort of a capable fighting force. The Shi militias seem to be doing all the work and they will be a huge problem for the future. And, why should Sunni tribes become a new addition of an “Awakening” force. They were never given what they were promised the last time around and the Shi’i militias are probably as much of a menace as ISIL.
    Bravo to the idea of giving ISIL a new and horrible name. It would also be useful if we could only get the press to give them less coverage. I admit I have no idea how to do that.

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