In June, the Islamic State in Iraq al-Sham, commonly known as ISIS, declared Raqqa the seat of a new caliphate, presided over by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a fierce preacher who was once an American prisoner in Iraq, and is now in hiding. The city has lost its splendor. Public executions are “a common spectacle” on Fridays in El Naim Square or at the Al Sa’a roundabout, a United Nations human-rights commission reported last month. ISIS fighters mount the dead on crucifixes, “as a warning to local residents.”
A decade ago they began as a small Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda that specialized in suicide bombings and inciting Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the country’s Shiite majority. The network regenerated after 2011 during Iraq’s growing violence and that of Syria’s civil war. This year,ISIS has conquered cities, oil fields, and swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq. The movement draws its strength from Sunni Arab communities bitterly opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus, led by Bashar al-Assad.
While President Obama has said that they are the “JV team [of terrorists]” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called ISIS “as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen . . . beyond anything we have seen.” The group has former military officers who can fly helicopters, spot artillery, and maneuver in battle. ISIS is increasingly a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah—part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.
ISIS has massacred religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, and American air strikes can prevent more wanton killing, the President has said. A second imperative is the defense of the Kurdistan Regional Government, a semi-autonomous, oil-endowed American ally in northern Iraq, which a few weeks ago was teetering under pressure from ISIS but has since recovered, with the aid of American air power. The third, and most resonant, reason that the President has given is self-defense: to disrupt ISIS before it tries to attack Americans in the region or inside the United States.
ISIS has attracted an estimated five hundred British volunteers, many more of other European passport holders, as well as some Americans to its fight; they might eventually turn toward London, Berlin, or New York. Last week, British authorities announced that the threat of a terrorist attack on its home soil was “severe,” given the rising number of British jihadis now among the militants in Iraq and Syria. Following the recent beheadings of American journalists accompanied by threats that America must stop interfering with ISIS affairs or face more beheadings the question about a resumption of war is not whether it is justified, but where it will lead.
Air strikes against a well-resourced guerrilla army will do little if they are not accompanied by action on the ground. It would be a catastrophic error for the United States to take on that role. But what other professional force will dislodge the self-proclaimedISIS caliphate and then control the population? American policy assumes that Iraq’s squabbling politicians will rally a Shiite-led army to fight ISIS in the country’s Sunni heartland. On recent evidence, this assessment looks unrealistic.
It is not yet clear that ISIS will endure as a menace. Fast-moving extremist conquerors sometimes have trouble holding their ground. ISIS has promised to govern as effectively as it intimidates, but its talent lies in extortion and ethnic cleansing, not in sanitation and job creation. It is vulnerable to revolt from within.
The restoration of human rights in the region first requires a renewed search for a tolerable—and, where possible, tolerant—path to stability. ISIS feasts above all on the suffering of Syria, and that appears to be unending. The war is in its fourth year, with almost two hundred thousand dead and nine million displaced, inside the country and out. The caliphate now seated in Raqqa is the sort of dark fantasy that can spring to life when people feel they are void of other plausible sources of security and justice.