ISIS Forged A Coalition To Seize Much Of Iraq, How Solid Is It?

Steve Inskeep talks to counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen, a former adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq, and journalist Rania Abouzeid, who has tracked the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene in Miami.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington. Here's a basic thing to know about ISIS, that group that seized large parts of Iraq and Syria; it has only a few thousand fighters. That nearly is not enough to hold a series of large cities. Analyst David Kilcullen says ISIS has done it because they're not alone.

DAVID KILCULLEN: It's broader than just ISIS and you can see that in the fact that they've appointed two former Baath party generals to be the governors of Mosul and Tikrit after taking these citites.

INSKEEP: David Kilcullen advised the United States during its 2007 troop surge in Iraq. When he refers to Baath party generals he means members of Saddam Hussein's old government have joined the rebellion. We asked Kilcullen and journalist Rania Abouzeid to help us better understand ISIS.

RANIA ABOUZEID: They're very organized, they're very disciplined and we saw that in Syria as well, you know, before they sort of marched across Iraq. They can enforce that discipline via religious edicts, you know, when men join ISIS they offer a pledge or oath, which is a religious oath that they will follow their Emir or commander. So they're a very disciplined group which short of sets them apart from any of the other rag-tag militias that we've seen fighting across the Syrian-Iraqi border.

INSKEEP: Although it's very interesting when you talk about a religious oath and the ideology of this extremist organization, we also hear David Kilcullen talking about former generals from Saddam Hussein's army in Iraq signing up for this movement and Saddam Hussein's government for all its flaws was considered more secular than some. Not so overtly religious.

ABOUZEID: Yes, you know, they've been drawn together at the moment by their combined sort of feeling of persecution at the hands of the increasingly autocratic Shiite led government in Baghdad. However I think that in the long-term we're going to see a falling out. Remember that, you know, ISIS could not work with others in Syria for example. Ostensibly ISIS was supposed to be working with other groups to try to bring down the fall of the Assad regime, however it more often antagonist and intimidated other Salafai-jihadi groups until eventually they rose up against it. So I question how solid this new Sunni coalition in Iraq really is.

INSKEEP: David Kilcullen.

KILCULLEN: Yeah, I was just going to agree with that. Not only is it rather shaky but we've actually seen conflict breaking out over the last couple of weeks between some of the tribal groups in this confederation and ISIS, so it's actually happening.

INSKEEP: Is there some vulnerability here because they are attempting not just to do damage but to take and hold territory, which as Americans found in Iraq with far more troops some years ago, is much harder to do.

ABOUZEID: Yes I think so. I think that's going to be the real test of, you know, ISIS's staying power, if it can hold territory and more importantly keep the inhabitants of that area, you know, not antagonized them to the degree that they may do - what they did before in Iraq when we saw the formation of the Sahwa or the awakening councils, when Sunnis, with U.S. military assistance, rose up against the then al-Qaeda affiliate in its midst's to sort of, you know, root it out. And let's also not forget the ISIS has had a fighting out with al-Qaeda itself and, you know, this may also play into its vulnerabilities as well.

INSKEEP: David Kilcullen, Rania Abouzeid mentioned the Sunni awakening which the United States helped to organize some years ago to go against extremist groups and raise the possibility that the awakening could be awakened again. Is that possible though without U.S. troops on the ground to help organize it?

KILCULLEN: No it's certainly very possible and I think a lot of what happened in 2007 and some people forget this, was very much driven by a couple of different Anbari tribal groups. And this wasn't the first time these groups had tried to rise up against what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq, it was the fifth or sixth time. There was more successful because we in the United States military finally stopped ignoring them and started partnering with them. But that is also precisely the problem now because part of the deal that was made involved a relationship between the Iraqi central government and people in Anbar. Which was just not honored by the Maliki government after 2010 and so a lot of people feel like they were betrayed and they feel that, you know, there's really not a lot of options to go down that road again. But I agree fully with Rania, that we are going to see a contested space in this area that ISIS is controlling.

INSKEEP: But it sounds like you're not saying that ISIS is going to come collapse, merely that their advances may be stopped and they may be bogged down in a very long conflict in that part of Iraq for a long time.

KILCULLEN: I think that's true. And I think what we've seen in Syria since December suggests that ISIS is actually very good at maintaining itself. What we've seen particularly in the Aleppo and the areas around Raqqa in Syria since December is ISIS not really confronting the Assad regime, leaving the fighting against the government to other players and instead focusing on consolidating its control in rear areas. And in fact there's been a bit of a rumor in Syria that in fact ISIS might've been collaborating with the Assad regime because there's been so little fighting between the two. And I think the airstrikes in the last 48 hours by the Syrian regime against ISIS probably changed that narrative but there's still a pretty robust and as Rania said, pretty disciplined organization in ISIS. And I don't think they're going to go away anytime soon. On the other hand, they're probably not going to be able to control, govern and administer this area that they've succeeded in capturing.

INSKEEP: David Kilcullen is a former U.S. counterterrorism advisor and an author of "Out Of The Mountains." Rania Abouzeid is a journalist whose latest piece for Politico is called "The Jihad Next Door." Thanks to both of you.

KILCULLEN: Thanks, Steve.

ABOUZEID: Thank you.

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