7 Dec 2015

18 things about ISIS you need to know

The 18 key facts you need to understand the ongoing conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS used to be al-Qaeda in Iraq

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS, has claimed responsibility for the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. To really understand the group, the first thing you need to know about it is that it used to have a different name: al-Qaeda in Iraq.
US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2007 "surge" — but didn't destroy it. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, described the group in 2010 as down but "fundamentally the same." In 2011, the group began rebuilding, and in 2012 and 2013 it freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government, who then joined its ranks.
Meanwhile, the group saw an opportunity in Syria, where peaceful protests descended into violence in mid-2011 and 2012. It began establishing a presence in Syria in mid-2011 in order to participate in the fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime, a move that helped it gain fighters and valuable battlefield experience.
In 2013, the group once known as al-Qaeda in Iraq — now based in both Syria and Iraq — rebranded as ISIS.
Tension grew between ISIS and al-Qaeda, and they formally divorced in February 2014. "Over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between al Qaeda Central (AQC) and the group's strongest, most unruly franchise was strained," Barak Mendelsohn, a political scientist at Haverford College, writes. Their relationship "had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology."
According to Mendelsohn, disagreements over Syria pushed that relationship to the breaking point. ISIS claimed that it controlled Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda faction in Syria, and it defied orders from al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to back off. "This was the first time a leader of an al-Qaeda franchise had publicly disobeyed," he says. ISIS also defied repeated orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria, and the tensions led to al-Qaeda disavowing any connection with ISIS in a February communiqué.
Today, ISIS and al-Qaeda compete for influence over Islamist extremist groups around the world. Some experts believe ISIS may overtake al-Qaeda as the most influential group in this area globally.

ISIS wants to establish a caliphate

Since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group's goal has been remarkably consistent: to found a hard-line Sunni Islamic state in their Syrian and Iraqi holdings. As General Ray Odierno puts it: "They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq." Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in part because ISIS was too brutal even for al-Qaeda), ISIS's goal remained the same.
Today ISIS holds a fair amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria — a mass roughly the size of the United Kingdom. One ISIS map, from 2006, shows its ambitions stopping there — though, interestingly, overlapping with a lot of oil fields:
(ISIS/Aaron Zelin)
Another shows its ambitions stretching across the Middle East, and some have apparently even included territory in North Africa:
(Ali Soufan/ISIS)
Now, ISIS has no chance of accomplishing any of these things in the foreseeable future. It isn't even strong enough to topple the Syrian or Iraqi governments at present, and it's actually lost a fair amount of territory since its summer 2014 peak. But these maps do tell us something important about ISIS: It's incredibly ambitious, it thinks ahead, and it's quite serious about its expansionist Islamist ideology.

The conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias sustains ISIS

One of the single most important factors in ISIS's resurgence is the conflict between Iraq's largest two Arab religious groups: Shias and Sunnis. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS.
In the most basic theological terms, the Sunni-Shia split in Islam originated with a controversy over who would take power after the Prophet Mohammed's death. Today, of course, Iraq's sectarian problems aren't about relitigating seventh-century disputes; they're about modern political power and grievances. But those do tend to fall along Sunni-Shia lines.
(Hamdar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images)
A majority of Iraqi Arabs are Shias, but Sunnis ran the show when Saddam Hussein, himself Sunni, ruled Iraq. Saddam spread a false belief, still surprisingly persistent in the country today, that Sunnis were the real majority in Iraq. Thus, Sunnis felt, and still feel, entitled to larger shares of political power than might perhaps be warranted by their size.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi civil war sparked after the 2003 US-led invasion had a brutally sectarian cast to it, and the pseudo-democracy that emerged afterward empowered the Shia majority (with some heavy-handed help from Washington) at the expense of the Sunni minority. Today the two groups don't trust one another and so far have competed in what they see as a zero-sum game for control over Iraqi political institutions. In 2013, Shias used control over the police force to arbitrarily detain Sunni protestors demanding more representation in government.
So long as Shias control the government, and Sunnis don't feel that they're fairly represented, ISIS has an audience for its radical Sunni message. That's an important part of how the group built up support in Iraq's heavily Sunni northwest.

Iraq’s former prime minister made the ISIS problem worse

ISIS would be able to recruit Sunni fighters by exploiting the Sunni-Shia tension even if it weren't for Iraqi government policy. But former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's treatment of the Sunni minority helped ISIS considerably.
Maliki, a Shia Muslim who was prime minister from 2006 to 2014, built a Shia-dominated sectarian state and refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis, who already felt disenfranchised by their loss of influence in 2003. Police killed peaceful Sunni protestors and used anti-terrorism laws to mass-arrest Sunni civilians. Maliki made political alliances with violent Shia militias, infuriating Sunnis. ISIS cannily exploited that brutality to recruit new fighters.
When ISIS reestablished itself, it put Sunni sectarianism at the heart of its identity and propaganda. The government persecution, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Michael Knights, "played right into their hands." Maliki "made all the ISIS propaganda real, accurate." That made it much, much easier for ISIS to replenish its fighting stock. 
That wasn't the only way the Iraqi government helped ISIS grow, according to Knights. The US and Iraqi governments released a huge number of al-Qaeda prisoners from jail, which Knights called "an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower — an infusion at a scale the world has never seen."
The prime minister who replaced Maliki and is now in charge, Haider al-Abadi, appears to have learned from his predecessor's mistakes and has made an effort to improve the situation. He has, among other things, fired Maliki's crony political appointees in the military and made a real effort to engage with the Sunni community.
But Abadi is seriously limited by the structure of Iraqi politics. He himself comes from a Shia Islamist political party, Dawa, part of the bigger State of Law political coalition. Many of the steps needed to address Sunni grievances — such as reforming laws limiting participation of former Saddam-era Ba'ath party members, who are largely Sunni, in government — are hard sells among Shia parties. Moreover, he can't really disband extremist Shia militias at this point, as they're a vital part of the war effort against ISIS.

ISIS also holds a huge amount of territory in Syria

The crisis in Syria has been one of the most important reasons ISIS has grown to be so strong — and that's part of why the US is bombing ISIS positions there. Take a look at this map of ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria from September 2015, from the Institute for the Study of War:
isis september
The ongoing civil war in Syria played a key role in ISIS's revival, allowing it to hold on to territory and to build up weaponry and money. "The war gave them a lot of access to heavy weaponry," Michael Knights said. ISIS also "has a funding stream available to them because of local businesses and the oil and gas sector."
It's also hugely important as a safe zone for the group. ISIS is currently being pressed by Iraqi forces and Syrian Kurds, so being able to shift supplies to different fronts and hide in safer parts of both countries is crucial. In Raqqa, its Syrian capital, and other Syrian holdings, ISIS actually governs according to hard-line Islamic law, helping support its claim to be the legitimate Islamic caliphate — a key part of its recruiting pitch and internal religious ideology.
The American-led bombing campaign is, in theory, designed to address this problem. In practice, however, it'll be harder to drive ISIS out of Syria than out of Iraq.
In Iraq, US planes have worked closely with local forces to push back ISIS. In Syria, by contrast, the US has no sufficiently powerful ally on the ground that can clear and hold territory in much of the country (the Kurdish allies are wary of going into majority-Arab territory held by ISIS).
The war between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's government and the different rebel groups has allowed ISIS to operate with relative impunity. Neither Assad nor most rebel groups see ISIS as one another's primary threat, so they focus on other enemies. That includes the moderate rebels that the US would like to support.

ISIS funds itself through oil and an extortion racket

ISIS, unlike many other jihadist groups, doesn't depend on foreign funders to survive. In Syria, it's built up something like a mini state: collecting the equivalent of taxes, selling electricity, and exporting oil to fund its militant activities.
Max Fisher has a basic breakdown of how ISIS managed to do this, which includes extorting money from humanitarian workers and selling electricity to the Syrian government that it's currently fighting. There are two important takeaways here. As Fisher explains, these clever revenue bases have made ISIS much more effective on the battlefield than other militant groups:
This money goes a long way: it pays better salaries than moderate Syrian rebels or the Syrian and Iraqi professional militaries, both of which have suffered mass desertions.
Holding energy infrastructure has been a goal of ISIS. Check out this ISIS map from a few years ago showing the territory it had hoped to hold in Iraq and Syria:
(ISIS/Aaron Zelin)
Now, ISIS would probably have a harder time exporting Iraqi oil than the Syrian oil it's currently selling. The oil deposits in the area that ISIS holds aren't that extensive, and they're also not as developed as the current infrastructure ISIS controls in Syria.
In fact, the group's oil revenue appears to have slowed down fairly significantly as the conflict has gone on. Since it's hard to hide or move oil infrastructure, the United States and its allies have had a fairly easy time bombing ISIS-held infrastructure. Moreover, ISIS also doesn't have enough trained domestic technicians to keep the oil pumping at full capacity, and can't sell all of what it does produce, as it needs some oil to keep the lights on in its territory.

The global oil market was spooked by ISIS's initial advance, but now the effect is minimal

Iraq is home to the fifth largest oil deposits in the world and currently produces about 4 percent of global oil supply. So far, the ISIS conflict has yet to disrupt the big oil-producing areas in northeast and southeast Iraq. While the initial outbreak of fighting spooked oil markets, the ongoing effect today appears to be fairly minimal.
As Brad Plumer points out, the Brent crude oil price — a good metric for global prices — hit the highest levels they had seen since September 2013 in June 2014, when ISIS took Mosul and the current crisis really took off. But since then, the price has regularly declined, indicating a distinct ebb in ISIS panic.
The original spike happened because, as Plumer explains, the fighting had affected one major pipeline, and the market was concerned it could spread elsewhere:
But the fighting has threatened some of Iraq's other oil infrastructure, including a pipelinethat can deliver 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Kirkuk to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan. (That pipeline had been damaged by a 2013 attack and was offline receiving repairs — that work has now been halted.)
There's also potential for things to get a lot worse. If the conflict spreads further into the Kurdish regions, that could disrupt operations in the large Kirkuk oil field near the city of Mosul, which now produces around 260,000 barrels of oil per day — and accounts for one-sixth of the country's proven reserves. Iraq had plans to invest heavily in that oil field in the years ahead, and that's a lot harder now.
Interestingly, the fighting did spread to Kurdistan in August 2014, but oil markets didn't panic, suggesting that they never really believed ISIS would threaten the major oil-producing parts of the region. That appears to have been correct: ISIS is being pushed back in Iraq, and so probably won't threaten major oil-producing areas of the country. As such, oil prices aren't being dramatically affected by the conflict between Iraq's government and ISIS.

The conflict was a boon to Iraq's Kurds — at first

Kurds, who live in both Syria and Iraq, are mostly Sunnis, but they're ethnically distinct from Arabs. They control a swath of northeast Iraq where a lot of the oil fields lie. Early in the conflict, they were relatively uninvolved. But when ISIS pushed into Kurdish territory in August 2014, the Kurds struck back and have played a significant part in ISIS's defeats since.
Iraqi Kurdistan is governed semi-autonomously. The Kurdish security forces are partly integrated with the government, but there are somewhere between 80,000 and 240,000 Kurdish peshmerga (militias) that don't answer to Baghdad. They're well equipped and trained, and represent a serious military threat to ISIS.
The early crisis allowed Kurds to expand their territory of control at the government's expense.The Kurds took advantage of the chaos to occupy Kirkuk, a city near massive oil depositsthat they've wanted for some time. That means the crisis was, in a strange way, a boon to the Kurds. "This crisis is a lifeline for the Kurds," Iraqi politics expert Kirk Sowell said at the time.
But in August, ISIS launched a big push into Kurdish territory, which dramatically altered the course of the conflict. By August 7, ISIS forces had occupied several strategically valuable towns and were "minutes" from the Kurdish capital Erbil, where a number of American advisers were based.
This threat committed the peshmerga to the fight against ISIS. Moreover, it helped pull the US into the war: The threat to American personnel in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, was one of the key factors that initially prompted American intervention against ISIS.
Since then, it's become clear that ISIS's incursion into Kurdistan backfired. The Kurds pushed ISIS out of their territory, and Kurdish forces have played a key role in rolling back some of ISIS's gains across northern Iraq (for instance, the Mosul Dam and the strategically important town of Sinjar) with significant US support.

Dangerous Shia militias are playing a huge role in the conflict

This conflict often gets portrayed as a fight between the Iraqi government and ISIS. That's overly simplistic on a number of levels: Aside from the Kurds, the Iraqi government has major assistance from Iran and Shia militias. And ISIS didn't take over a big chunk of Iraq alone.
The Shia militias have to come to play an important  —perhaps dangerously important — role in the war against ISIS. The mass defections that plagued the Iraqi army after ISIS's initial advance decimated its ranks; there are now about 48,000 troops in its official service. The Shia militia members filled the gap: There are now between 70,000 and 120,000 of them in the field.
On the plus side, these militias have been fairly effective against ISIS in front-line combat. "Everywhere [the Iraqi Army] has won a battle, it's been either a small-scale engagement ... or it's been an attack led by the Shia militias," Michael Knights, the Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in February 2015.
But they're also highly sectarian Shia organizations, and ones largely controlled by Iran, to boot. "Let's call a spade a spade here: The Iranians are running the show," Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher whose work focuses on Shia militias, explains.
They're accused of committing a number of atrocities in Sunni-populated territories they've helped liberate, and their very existence both alienates Sunnis from the Iraqi government and empowers Iran, which has an incentive to push Iraqi politics in an (even more) Shia sectarian direction. The more that happens, of course, the harder it will be to deal with one of the key root causes of ISIS's rise: Sunni grievances with the Shia government.

ISIS has made significant territorial gains in Iraq, but it's being pushed back

ISIS's major breakthrough was a victory in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city and the country's second most populous, in June 2014. Immediately after that, it made rapid advances, as this New York Times map of ISIS's progress details:
Combine that with ISIS territory in Syria, and it controls a snaking band of territory that's about the size of the United Kingdom. This updated map from the Institute for the Study of War is very clear; ISIS-controlled territory is in black, and ISIS has some military capability in the red areas and some room to operate in the pale red areas:
isis september
However, ISIS has lost significant amounts of territory in Iraq. The most important such victory was in April, when the Iraqi army and Shia militias pushed ISIS out of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and a major Sunni city. Now many Iraq experts think the group is on the road to losing control of all of its Iraqi possessions.
ISIS "will lose its battle to hold territory in Iraq. It may well take one to two years to reduce their defenses in cities like Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah, but the ultimate outcome is no longer in serious doubt," Douglas Ollivant, the National Security Council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and current managing partner at Mantid International, wrote in February.
This may take quite some time. In May, ISIS struck back by taking Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, indicating that it is very far from fully defeated. But in the long run, the trajectory for ISIS in Iraq is very grim.

Iraqi forces are much stronger than ISIS, but the Iraqi army is kind of a mess

ISIS cannot challenge the Iraqi military for control over the country — and as such, it has slowly been losing territory in Iraq. But the Iraqi military is also weak and dependent on support from Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga, so its progress has been slower than one might hope.
The Iraqi government and its allies outnumber ISIS by a fair margin. Over the course of the conflict, Iraqi forces have adapted to ISIS's rapid offensive tactics, denying the group the element of surprise and allowing the Iraqis to start retaking ISIS territory. US airstrikes have also seriously hampered ISIS's ability to mass troops, a critical part of its early strategy.
These factors have combined to put ISIS in a bad place in Iraq. "The Islamic State has been on the defensive in Iraq for more than eight months and it has lost practically every battle it has fought," Iraq experts wrote in April 30, 2015 piece published in the Sentinel, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Perhaps the most notable of these defeats was in Tikrit, a largely Sunni city and Saddam Hussein's hometown. Iraqi forces retook the city in April.
But the Iraqi army is also a total mess, which explains why ISIS managed its dramatic initial successes despite always being seriously outnumbered. It also explains why ISIS has been able to counterattack very effectively in some places — as in Ramadi, which it took in May.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Take ISIS's initial victory in Mosul: 30,000 Iraqi troops ran from 800 ISIS fighters. Those were 40-to-1 odds. Yet Iraqi troops ran because they were poorly deployed and didn't want to fight and die for this government. There had been hundreds of desertions per month for months prior to the events of June 10, 2014. The escalation with ISIS is, of course, making it worse: At the time of ISIS's first major offensive, the Iraqi army's strength was estimated at 250,000 troops. In early 2015, that number was down to about 48,000.
The Iraqi army's shrinkage has forced the army to depend on Shia militias, sometimes called popular mobilization units or special groups, in its war with ISIS. The roughly 70,000 to 120,000 militiamen have played a huge role in the Iraqi army's push from the Shia-dominated south of the country into ISIS's mostly Sunni northern holdings. The sectarian nature of these militias, as well as reports of abuse, have raised serious questions about whether the Iraqi army's reliance on militia forces may end up undermining the country's fragile reconciliation.
Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq's north have also played an important role in the fighting, taking important targets like the Mosul Dam and the town of Sinjar, which sits on a key ISIS supply line from Syria.

Iran is fighting on the Iraqi government’s side

The Iranian government is Shia, and it has close ties with the Iraqi government. Much like in Syria, Iran doesn't want Sunni Islamist rebels to topple a friendly Shia government. So in both countries, Iran has gone to war.
Iran has been involved in at least three ways. First, and perhaps most importantly, Iran is the big backer behind Iraq's Shia militias, a major force in the battle against ISIS. "Let's call a spade a spade here: The Iranians are running the show," Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher whose work focuses on Shia militias, explained in MarchIran arms many of the groups; Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, is often said to be leading the overall militia strategy.
Suleimani's role actually may be broader than just directing militia strategy. A number of outlets have reported that he's playing a critical role in shaping Iraq's overall strategy in the fight against ISIS, one going so far as to call him the country's "chief tactician." This strategic guidance is Iran's second major contribution to the ISIS fight — and one that indicates just how deeply enmeshed Iranians are in Iraqi politics.
Finally, there's Iran's direct military involvement. Iran has openly conducted airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq, but usually denies that it has deployed any troops on the ground. That's a little hard to believe given Suleimani's role in the conflict: It's very hard to imagine the leader of the Quds Force is traveling without any accompaniment from Quds Force soldiers. And there have been numerous (unconfirmed) reports of Iranian troops fighting on the ground.
So Iran's involvement in the conflict is extensive. This creates something of a dilemma for the United States, which, in an ideal world, wants to limit Iranian influence in Iraq as much as possible.
Iranian involvement has played a critical role in helping beat back ISIS, but it's also strengthened Iran's political hand inside Iraq. That puts the United States in an awkward position of tacitly working with Iran against ISIS while nominally attempting to limit Iranian influence.

The US and Iran are tacitly cooperating in Iraq

The US and Iran have been at odds for decades in the Middle East over issues like the Iranian nuclear program, the second Iraq War, Syria, and Israel. Yet both the United States and Iran want the Iraqi government to beat back ISIS, and both countries are playing a role in the military campaign against ISIS. So the two traditional enemies find themselves unofficially cooperating, even as they remain at odds over the future of Iraq.
(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
The Obama administration has long maintained that it isn't cooperating with Iran in Iraq. But we know there's a more tacit sort of cooperation going on. "American war planners have been closely monitoring Iran's parallel war against the Islamic State ... through a range of channels, including conversations on radio frequencies that each side knows the other is monitoring,"The New York Times's Helene Cooper reports. "The two militaries frequently seek to avoid conflict in their activities by using Iraqi command centers as an intermediary."
This had to happen. Considering that both Iran and the United States are directly supporting and advising the Iraqi military, there needed to be some way to coordinate their efforts. That's especially true given the critical role that Iranian-backed Shia militias are playing in the fight against ISIS: One way or another, US airstrikes supporting Iraqi advances will end up helping those militias.
Nevertheless, US-Iranian cooperation is hugely controversial: Critics of the Obama administration's strategy derisively refer to US warplanes acting as "Iran's air force" in Iraq. Iranian has long opposed the US in Iraq, and many of the militias the US is now relying on used to kill Americans during the US occupation of Iraq and ensuing civil war.
And empowering Iran and its militias now may backfire in the long run. Both Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and US policymakers believe Iraq needs to deal with Sunni-Shia divisions if it wants to address the roots of ISIS's rise and prevent another Sunni insurgency in the future.
But Iran and Iranian-backed militias have an incentive to push Shia sectarianism, as that's the core of the political appeal of the political parties attached to the militias. Working with Iran now will help defeat ISIS in the short run, but it might undermine Iraqi stability in the long run.

The US is waging a campaign to destroy ISIS

On September 10, 2014, the United States announced a comprehensive strategy for destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The campaign centers on an air war against ISIS in both countries and the provision of arms and training to local allies on the ground — the Iraqi army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and "moderate" Syrian rebels. Iraq has generally been the priority, but that's been shifting as Kurdish forces made advances against ISIS in Syria.
This didn't come out of nowhere. On August 7, President Obama announced he had authorized the US military to launch airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq if they threatened the Kurdish capital of Erbil or the thousands of civilians who were trapped on Mount Sinjar, both in northern Iraq.
The ISIS militants had pushed into once-secure Kurdish territory and surrounded thousands of civilians, who are members of an ethno-religious minority known as Yazidis, on a mountain where they lacked food and water. The siege of Mount Sinjar has since been broken, and US-Kurdish-Iraqi cooperation has pushed ISIS back significantly from its early-August high point.
Obama's September strategy dramatically expanded the original air war. The airstrikes in Iraq are no longer restricted to limiting risks to US citizens or ending a humanitarian crisis: They're all over Iraq, wherever the US wants to hit ISIS. Since then, the airstrikes have played an important role in the Iraqi military strategy against ISIS, disrupting ISIS's ability to coordinate large offensives and helping facilitate Iraqi advances in places such as Tikrit.
In addition to airstrikes, the American strategy now involves a fairly sizable ground deployment. About 3,000 US troops are in Iraq, helping to train Iraqi forces and coordinate intelligence. Ideally, this should counter the discipline and effectiveness problems that the Iraqi army saw in places like Mosul. The US has also sent a number of new weapons to Kurdish peshmerga, who often have been outgunned by the advanced American weaponry ISIS captured from the Iraqi army.
The US also began bombing ISIS positions in Syria in September. While the US plan to help arm the moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS has been an unmitigated disaster, it has found some success supporting Kurdish fighters pressing ISIS in the country's north. US airpower helped Kurds break ISIS's hold on Kobane, a city on the Turkish border, capture the strategically important town of Tal Afar, and even come within 30 miles of ISIS's de facto capital city, Raqqa.
These developments have shifted America's counter-ISIS strategy from a model that focused on "Iraq first" to something called the "three R's": Raqqa, the Iraqi city of Ramadi, and special forces raids on ISIS. The key priorities now are pushing ISIS out of Ramadi, which it took in May, seizing ISIS's capital city, and amping up the pressure with occasional raids by US special forces. This isn't a fundamental change in strategy — the basic idea is still to support local ground forces with airpower, supplies, and training — but more of a shift in emphasis and priorities.

Some Americans blame Obama for ISIS's growth

There's a lively political debate over whether the Obama administration deserves blame for the rise of ISIS.
The controversy centers on the fact that President Obama did not succeed in extending the Bush-era status of forces agreement with Iraq, which stipulated that all US troops had to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. The administration tried and failed to negotiate provisions that would have allowed the United States to leave a number of troops there.
Conservative critics blame this Obama failure for the current crisis. They say Obama didn't try very hard to negotiate terms with then–Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But if he had, they suggest, then US forces could have severely degraded ISIS and prevented this crisis from coming to a head.
"A military presence gives the U.S. leverage to shape political outcomes," Reihan Salam, in one of the clearest articulations of this line of criticism, argues. "The fundamental question is whether even a small contingent of U.S. troops might have reassured members of Iraq's minority communities by shielding them from the worst excesses of a Shia-dominated government, thus undermining those calling for its violent overthrow."
The administration's defenders counter that major factions in the Iraqi government were dead set on the US leaving zero troops behind. No plausible amount of persuasion, they say, could have convinced key Iraqi players to back a US presence. What's more, they say, it probably doesn't matter. The US couldn't stamp out ISIS even when it had a huge presence in Iraq during the war, so why should anyone believe a small residual force would have mattered?

Iraq's Sunnis and minorities will probably suffer the most

In terms of an endgame, experts see ISIS eventually losing control over its territory and the Kurds potentially coming out as big winners.
ISIS's military defeats by the Iraqi government, Shia militias, and Kurdish fighters have convinced most experts that the group can't hold on to its territory forever. "The Islamic State ... will lose its battle to hold territory in Iraq," Douglas Ollivant, the National Security Council director for Iraq from 2008 to 2009 and current managing partner at Mantid International, wrote at War on the Rocks in February. "The outcome in Iraq is now clear to most serious analysts."
In the months or years it takes for Iraq to roll back ISIS, however, the people living under its rule will suffer: both under ISIS's tyrannical, theocratic legal rules, as well as economically.
"The regions [ISIS controls] are not viable entities," Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and expert on Iraqi politics, says. "Anbar [an insurgent-contested Sunni province] is totally dependent; over 95 percent of their money comes from Baghdad … Nineveh [another insurgent-contested province containing Mosul] is going to suffer a complete economic collapse." So the Sunnis who live in these provinces and elsewhere "will suffer more from this than anyone," Sowell concludes.
Except, perhaps, Iraqi minority groups. After ISIS took Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town, in August 2014, the town of 50,000 found its access to food, power, and water restricted, and some Christians were given the "choice" to convert to Islam or be killed.
The Yazidis, another minority group, are also being brutalized by ISIS's advance. The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority with about 600,000 adherents worldwide. The largest concentration by far is in northern Iraq, where ISIS  made significant inroads in 2014 — including into a heavily Yazidi town called Sinjar. ISIS captured Sinjar on August 3, sending most of its 200,000 residents on the road for fear of being killed by ISIS fighters who are massacring Yazidis for their faith. In fleeing ISIS, between 10,000 and 40,000 Yazidis from Sinjar and nearby environs took refuge on Mount Sinjar, an adjacent mountain. The Yazidis who were trapped on the mountain had no regular access to water, sticking them between thirst and ISIS's guns. Kurdish troops liberated Mount Sinjar in December 2014 and the town of Sinjar in November 2015.
The Kurds had been on the brink of insolvency due to a dispute with the central Iraqi government over oil exports, but now they've de facto annexed Kirkuk, a major oil city. They can export freely to Turkey and make lots of cash. "This crisis is a lifeline for the Kurds," Sowell said in June 2014. If they manage to hold on to Kirkuk after the war, that could still end up being true despite their heavy engagement in direct combat with ISIS forces.
As for the Shias, they "will suffer, but not as much" as the Sunnis, Sowell says. Aside from front-line troops, much of the Shia population has been free from threat from ISIS, as Shias mainly live in the country's south, far from ISIS's operational reach.


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