Hussein Ibish

Why is no one acting against ISIS?

The apathetic regional and international response to ISIS is mysterious and alarming

An image downloaded on June 9, 2014 from the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking position on a street in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Salahuddin)

The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) – now grandiosely renamed simply the Islamic State and declared a "caliphate" – raises a series of the most perplexing questions to have emerged in the Middle East in recent decades. At least as extreme as the most radical incarnations of Al Qaeda, this Salafist-jihadist group now controls a swath of territory approximately the size of Belgium across northeastern Syria and western Iraq. In the process, they have gained control of several key oil installations and major cities, including Mosul. Worse, their expansion appears virtually unchecked, and every setback they suffer seems offset by a new advance.

But who, exactly, are they? It's not a question of identifying the individual local and foreign fighters who have been drawn into their midst. The real question that is so pressing, yet few are asking, and even fewer trying to answer, is: who is backing this group? It's true that ISIS has effectively functioned as a well-oiled crime syndicate for many years. But it's hard to imagine that foreign backing – private if not governmental – hasn't been a key factor in their ascendance.

It might be argued that at this stage ISIS has achieved financial independence, given the resources they have commandeered, especially in petroleum. But it doesn't explain how they got to this stage in the first place, and who helped them do that and why. Anyone who believes that backing ISIS was a radical but either necessary or clever idea is bound to rue the day, if they haven't yet.

In Syria, they charged, in effect, to the rescue of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are one of the most important factors keeping him in power in those parts of the country he most values. After all, if the choice is between the rule of a monstrous gang of lunatics who smash Sunni mosques and shrines, as well as those of other faiths and denominations and ancient artifacts; chase religious minorities out of the areas under their control; impose the most misogynistic and draconian restrictions against women; and enforce barbaric systems of "justice," on the one hand, versus a vicious but well-understood mafia regime, the latter suddenly looks less intolerable.

In Iraq, anyone who thought using the black banner of ISIS to terrify Shiites and others was a brilliant strategy to get rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and reassert Sunni prerogatives in their own areas made a criminal mistake. Maliki will probably go, but given the behavior of ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere, two key illusions must have been shattered: first, that they are simply a front for many other groups who will dispose of them when they have achieved their aims, and second that their presence is an overall benefit for the Sunni cause in Iraq. In fact, they are quite out of control and are a catastrophe, as all the people under their rule are quickly discovering.

The landscape of history is littered with monsters whose creators hoped they would do some small service and go away, but who ultimately proved more dangerous to their authors than anyone else. Who those authors are, precisely, isn't clear. Syria and Iran have clearly benefited from ISIS's rise, but in the long run the group does pose a major threat to them. As for most of the Arab states and the state system, ISIS is a terminal cancer. It is starting to intrude into Lebanon and possibly Jordan. It lurks on the borders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

As Arab state disintegration and systemic failure continues to metastasize, ISIS and similar groups are a mortal peril. They not only bring death and destruction, mayhem and chaos, and the worst kind of vicious obscurantist rule imaginable, they threaten to replace the existing state system with substate actors that are autonomous criminal gangs ruling over little fiefdoms – the Hezbollah and Hamas model writ large and spreading fast, but in a much more savage and extreme form. The Arab world has entered into a growing phase of terrorist warlordism. It's a calamity hitherto unimaginable.

And, of course, it's a major threat to countries beyond the region, as well. ISIS has attracted countless foreign fighters, fanatical Muslims or converts from around the world, who have gathered in Syria and Iraq only to become even further radicalized, and worse, battle-trained and hardened. They can easily return to their home countries primed for mayhem, even though ISIS shows no interest at present in international terrorism. Instead, they have decided to seize and control territory and create their own de facto state. If anything, that's even more terrifying. And, in time and if they can consolidate their rule in those areas, international terrorism is potentially a logical move for them. Even if it isn't, there's nothing to prevent their protégés from turning to it.

So the deepest question is: why isn't anybody doing anything serious about this mind-boggling peril? At present only Kurdish fighters, with some Iraqi government support, are really taking on ISIS on the ground. They don't appear to be receiving much international or regional support. The Arab states purport to be alarmed, but in practice their response to the creation of the ISIS mini-, petro- and terrorist-state in their midst has been a shrug of the shoulders. If that's unfair, it is at least undeniable they haven't mobilized quickly to take action.


The latest ISIS advance apparently left them in control of Iraq's largest dam, with the ability to flood major cities, potentially including Baghdad. Meanwhile Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities flee for their lives. Tsk, tsk. Ho-hum. Oh well.

The international community appears equally inexplicably sanguine. The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they're crossing Iraqi airspace. That'll learn 'em! ISIS's successes are completely disproportionate to their size: an estimated 8,000-20,000 fighters in Iraq, as opposed to at least 30,000 other Iraqi Sunni insurgents, not to mention the Iraqi army (such as it is) or Kurdish guerrillas. This is simply not an overwhelming force. It may be driven, fanatical and well-organized, as well as well-funded whether from crime or foreign backers, but if it were confronted by a serious armed response it could certainly be broken.


The biggest question now, therefore, is: why is no one, either regionally or internationally, moving to do that? Is everyone – or anyone, for that matter – content with the growing power of ISIS? Do governments really believe there is nothing to be done? Don't they understand that they could be next, in one way or another? Perhaps even more mysterious than the genesis and support-base of ISIS is the lackadaisical response to it. It's as if no one is really all that bothered by it in practice, no matter what they say. And that might be the scariest thing of all. Will a small but determined and well-organized band of crazed terrorists really be allowed to reshape the Arab world largely unopposed? Because that's exactly what's happening now.

ISIS's expansion has gone virtually unchecked. (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Salahuddin)

The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they're crossing Iraqi airspace. That'll learn 'em!"

  • Yup

    @VERONICA.DARRAGH That's not a humane kindness. It's the opposite of humane. There's no good vs evil in war or killing, only evil. A necessary evil, but not humane kindness. The choice before human beings, is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let ISIS rule the world: that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.

    January 12, 2015

  • marini

    unite to defeat isis now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    September 3, 2014

  • al_cpn

    I am originally from Iran and know from experience that the Iranian regime won't respond to ISIS. I clearly recall when Taliban in Afghanistan took over the Iranian embassy and executed all the staff and a few Iranian journalists. People in Iran were outraged, and the only response we got from the leader was a crappy speech! I am afraid no one in the region has the determination to stand up to this evil group. The other issue is that if any of the countries with a Kurdish population support the Iraq's Kurds it will be taken as a willingness to give their own Kurds more autonomy, and I don't see that ever happen. In the absence of a unified West, and with the weak Iraqi response, I don't see how this cancer can be contained anytime soon.

    September 2, 2014

  • PATRIOT777

    There are quite a few possible scenarios that I can think of. 1. ISIS is Sunni and kill mostly Shiite, soon Shiite-Iran will oppose them as their Caliphate is clearly a threat to Iran that is home to more that half the entire Shiite population. If the world intervenes now, there will be no reason for Iran to fight ISIS. If Iran gets involved on a big scale it will probably fire up the whole mid-east Sunni vs Shiite and weaken Iran. If this is the case... The west is playing a very deadly game that can turn into a World War or at least a war that is fought all over the world! 2. All the so-called allies of the West are predominantly Sunni. Saudi, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan etc are all Sunni and obviously supporting their Sunni brothers ISIS. This is why there is silence throughout the Middle east and the West. Maybe why Israel had to bomb Gaza now? To take some focus of ISIS. 3. If Nato attacks ISIS, it would put Turkey in direct conflict with their Sunni religion brothers and I don't think the US would want to go at this alone. So it just all adds up. Europeans are being outbred by Muslims and should have 50+ million Muslims by now... 4. The US and Europe would experience terror attacks, beheadings in their streets... By the way its not long before this will happen in any way but it would create chaos now. What is scary is the amount of support ISIS gets from Muslim protestors in USA, Britain and many other European countries. Also the fact that over 100 ISIS fighters that returned to US that are being monitored... (...)??

    August 11, 2014

  • Vlad Tepes

    Nobody is acting right now because they don't know who should act first. They are all sitting around sitting on their hands and saying "well, what about this or that"?. The biggest deterrent to ISIS will be Shia militias and peshmerga fighters and not any government forces.I'm also very sure that Zionists are loving this and having a hand in ISIS's rise. Deaths of Arabs is something they rather enjoy and they, nor their Zionist allies have suffered during the onslaught. Only known Zionist enemies in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon have felt the destruction. I have never heard these jihadists once even speak on the situation in Gaza and support for the Palestinian cause. What I see happening is what is happening in Libya. Years of fighting, unstable government, and territories controlled by one militia or another. Even IS can't keep it together as they will be infighting as well. Oh well, those are my thoughts on the matter.

    August 10, 2014

  • Joniboy

    @MANJAROLA I sniff an internet Zionist troll, take the cupcakes that your sugar daddy Benji gave you elsewhere. What your missing is that your the real terrorist. You are the teacher to people like ISIS.

    August 8, 2014

  • Khatchen

    It seems that ISIS is US's Frankenstein as this country is the most benefiting from the situation. Saudi Arabia could well be US's Igor. We can ask more witty questions: How much time between the US withdrawal from Iraq and Syria's Spring? How much time between the return of Bandar ben Sultan to the saudi government (from where he was removed "at his request") and the Daech move in Iraq? Bonus question: Have you heard about the Kissinger plan set out in the 70s? (and which encountered some tiny amendments)...

    August 7, 2014

  • manjarola

    Twisted morality: Every day more than 600 people are killed in Syria, hundreds in Irak ( ISIS) mostly christians, the same in Nigeria. Even some in Lebanon or Lybia or Sudan or Pakistan ( more than 1.200 dead so far in the latests "offensive" of the pakistani army.). But no rallies in Paris or London or Washington or Berlin. But many rallies when Israel goes for the rocket launchers and tunnels into Israel. Therefore, is not because of civilian people getting killed, or why they are killed, is just and plain antisemitism. No more, no less. The UN personnel was OK to allow to store rockets in its facilities in Gaza? Does the UN started an inquiry about that? Or the use of UN ambulances to carry armed terrorists? Am I missing something?

    August 7, 2014

  • veronica.darragh

    These ISIS are like rabid animals which must be destroyed for everyone's safety and as a humane kindness to them because they could never re-enter civil society. After viewing the brutal execution and beheading videos they have posted as homages to their power and greatness, I would consent to any tactics used to effect their destruction---chemical weapons surgically targeted at their camps and even a small scale nuclear attack. Of course no one in power would ever agree to such extremes. Meanwhile, the weak and vulnerable communities of Shia and Christians will be snuffed out in the wake of this nihilistic abomination.

    August 7, 2014

  • CertifiedMrLuke

    #wakeupnow people #WUN you think they would share the priceless oil from dry land for an exchange of good soil? The desert is a rough place to live i wouldn't want to suffer because of bad decisions made from greed. Money talks so there isn't a problem unless they are really a threat to my family and friends. Keep jealously and greed for another human being what ever shape or size from a different galaxy or world and lets make a deal. haha get it. Sharing is caring and i got what you want but you got what i need.So why not trade goodies

    August 7, 2014

  • onlinecolumnist

    Brilliantly written and well-reasoned piece begging the real question about the reasons for inaction. Syria's civil war and Iraq's incompetent government opened a unique opportunity for another Islamic criminal gang to seize land in ungoverned areas. U.S. President Barack Obama will have blood on his hands if he doesn't do something to evict the Islamic State from Mosul and other Kurdish territories. Whatever eventually happens in Baghdad, the White House should at least help the Kurds.

    August 7, 2014

  • astaris

    I think he did mean Sunni, ISIS detest shrines, suffiism etc. Shia is stating the obvious, but ISIS are so fanatical that they even destroy Sunni shrines.

    August 7, 2014

  • majed.zeidan

    for the same reason that nobody acted against the Syrian regime.

    August 7, 2014

  • koert.tijdens

    ISIS is the resistance against the tyranny from Iran. As long as Iran behaves the way they do, ISIS wont be stopped.

    August 6, 2014

  • Singlpayer

    Threatening 40 000 Yazidis with death is an act of "resistance"? You're not just a moron, you're a vicious terrorist-lover with genocidal intentions. ........

    August 6, 2014

  • lachlan.odea.98

    Surely you mean "lunatics who smash *Shia* mosques and shrines". But you're right, how this is not the most urgent geopolitical matter in the world is beyond me.

    August 6, 2014

  • kamalfarhii

    Attacking ISIS will most likely result in terror attacks on European and American soil, which is I think why nobody (especially Obama) is rushing to intervene.

    August 6, 2014

  • Singlpayer

    Two answers: 1) ISIS is made up of fanatical Sunni Muslims and their victims are chiefly Shiite, Christian and Yazidi. Public opinion in the West ONLY cares about massacres when they are perpetrated by Jews, and public opinion in the Middle East ONLY cares when massacres are perpetrated by Jews or Westerners. Muslim of muslim violence or muslim on non-muslim violence is routinely ignored, downplayed or relativized (the "Israel is doing the same or worse" deflection) by the media. 2) ISIS is getting arms, money and manpower from NATO ally and "democracy" Turkey and is being backrolled by highly placed figures in Qatar (I'm very surprised you didn't see fit to mention these two important backers). Since the US is at present under the delusion that Turkey and Qatar are reponsible, peace-seeking partners in the Middle East, and since the US recently signed a lucrative arms deal with Qatar, no diplomatic pressure is being exerted on these two rogue regimes to stop pumping steroids into the cancer.

    August 5, 2014

  • floris.debonneville

    What does represent this picture. It seems it is back to Jesus time.. Nothing has changed excpet the baby carriage..

    August 5, 2014

  • TylerDurden

    You just cant bring yourself to admit it. Assad warned you all and the SAA is the only secular force that is effectively standing up to these savages. Lets here some more hilarious quips from (...) Michael Weiss about the SAA and ISIS being allies.

    August 5, 2014

  • totof

    It will be an Islamic winter that will sink all Arab States in the dark for years. It will be the needed transition for Islamic civil society to raise against thousands of years of economic and political manipulation by religious men covering political actors, both feeding from each others. It will force arabs to become truly more secular/democratic and moslems to organize, control and punish their religious men who trespass certain limits and exploit religion for hatred and wars. In other words, muslim civil society will follow the christian civil society of the 18th century as it tamed/punished religious men and transitioned to secularism. But from now and until then, hundreds of thousands of innocents will die.

    August 5, 2014