ISIL was ended not by Trump or Obama but by Muslims

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Raqqa, the capital of the ISIL phony “caliphate” in eastern Syria, has completely fallen, according to a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. It is just a matter of neutralizing a few remaining cells and defusing booby traps in the city.

The SDF is primarily made up of leftist Kurds of the YPG or People’s Protection Units, the paramilitary of the Democratic Union Party of northeast Syria. There are a few Arab adjuncts for appearances, since the US has enlisted the Kurds in taking primarily Arab areas under ISIL control.

In Iraq, ISIL has also lost almost all significant territory to the Iraqi Army, which was supported by Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Last month, 1000 militants surrendered at Hawija, a largely Sunni Arab town near Kirkuk.

Although it now cannot be called a territorial ‘state,’ ISIL hasn’t disappeared. It will devolve back into being a destructive terrorist organization. Still, it will have far fewer resources for committing terrorism.

Americans are arguing over whether Trump or president Barack Obama is responsible for the victory.

It is a self-absorbed and shameful debate, as though the whole world revolves around America’s broken two-party system. As for Trump’s egomania of the three-year-old sort, where everything that happens while he is alive derives from him, surely we need not take it seriously enough to argue with it.

ISIL was defeated by local Muslims, with air support and strategic advice from the United States and from Iran. But literally thousands of local Muslim troops died for this victory, and it is their’s.

Although Western journalists such as Graeme Wood argued that ISIL is ‘very very Islamic,’ most of the world’s Muslims beg to differ. They see it as a bloody and destructive cult, according to all the opinion polling.

The unpopularity of ISIL among all but a fringe of extremists explains its demise. Iran did not want it there. Iraq did not want it there. The Kurds did not want it there. The Syrian government did not want it there. Even if it wasn’t Turkey’s top priority, Turkey definitely did not want it there, especially after ISIL began setting off bombs in that country.

It is true that President Obama and his Secretary of Defense Ash Carter laid out the strategy. In Iraq, Obama reestablished the American military Iraq Command and sent in several thousand special forces personnel to retrain and reestablish the Iraqi army. At the same time, Iraq’s Shiite militias, some of which had become defunct, were revived. In part, they volunteered at the instance of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who issued a fatwa or considered legal opinion on the need to put down ISIL. In part, they received money, training a direction from the Jerusalem Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, headed by Qassem Soleimani. Since the Iraqi army had collapsed in June of 2014 when it ran away from ISIL in Mosul, the role of the Shiite militias in support of the army was key. The US de facto gave the Iran-backed militias air support, though neither Washington nor Tehran can admit it publicly. The Americans trained three counter-terrorism brigades in the Iraqi army, who spearheaded the fight against ISIL and took extremely heavy casualties.

Trump did not take those casualties. The Iraqi army did.

In Syria, Obama and Ash Carter allied with the YPG Kurds, giving them training and arms and and embedding hundreds of Special Ops troops among them. They renamed the YPG the Syrian Democratic Forces to allay Arab and Turkish fears (it did not work) and sent them against ISIL. Initially the SDF Kurds wanted only to go against ISIL in the West, so that they could establish a corridor linking the Jazeera in the northeast with Kobane to its west and to a third canton, Afrin. This move west was ultimately blocked by Turkey and its Arab guerrilla allies, most of them Kurd-hating fundamentalists. Then somehow the US at length persuaded the YPG Kurds to fight down south to Raqqa, giving them air support. It wasn’t only US fighter jets that supported the mission but also French and British (the French want revenge for the Paris attacks). Again, the heavy casualties were taken by YPG fighters.

ISIL split from al-Qaeda in 2013 and gained a nasty reputation as an opportunistic and bloody organization willing to stab its allies among the Arab rebels in Syria in the back for its own gain in loot or territory. Abu Bakr Baghdadi, the nom de guerre of Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, a minor professor of Islamics trained in an undistinguished department at Baghdad University, announced in 2014 that he was a “caliph,” a medieval office sort of like the papacy for Sunni Muslims. The claim was rejected by virtually all the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

Without Iran, the American plan would not have worked. Without the Shiite militias, the American plan would not have worked. Without the leftist Kurds, the American plan would not have worked.

You can bomb a guerrilla group like ISIL from the air forever and make almost no impact. You need troops on the ground to take territory. Obama was stymied for a while in finding such troops. Turkey was more worried about the Kurds than ISIL. Saudi Arabia was more worried about Iran and al-Assad. It was the Iraqi army and the YPG that stepped up.

Since the air war of the US and its coalition partners would have failed without the ground troops, you have to say that the ground troops made the difference. Those were Muslims.

The US helped tremendously but it isn’t clear that the mission could not have been accomplished without Washington. Obama should get some credit for a winning strategy. Trump just piggy backed on that strategy, keeping it completely intact.

Extremism was defeated by the Muslims. That should be the headlines. That is what Americans have trouble getting their heads around.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

France 24: “Syria: US-backed forces clear Islamic state group from Raqqa”

27 Responses

  1. I am surprised in this blog you fail to mention the hugely important contribution by the Russians and the Russian air force. Had Russia not intervened and come in on the side of Assad there would almost certainly be a black ISIL flag on the parliament building in Damascus today. ISIL would not be on the run in Raqqa or anywhere else. Whilst I understand here you are referring only to Raqqa, never-the-less, the SDF and the Kurds would long since have been swamped or amalgamated into the ISIL forces had not the Syrian military together with Russian help from the air and ground got most of the country under control first. I assume the Assad forces are Muslim, if so, then Muslims made a major contribution the ending the war but they wouldn’t have without the help from their non Muslim partners, the Russians. One could say the same about the Kurds and the SDF etc. They too would not be on the winning side had it not been for the enormous help from the non Muslim Americans both on the ground and in the air. One thing is certain professor, its the Muslims who have done the most dying and suffering from terrible injuries as well as having their homes, towns and cities destroyed in this sorry affair.

    • Russians did almost nothing against ISIL — the concentrated on al-Qaeda/ Nusra & were crucial there.

      • Juan Cole, you are correct on Assad, but Assad is not Russia. I don’t think Russia has done nearly enough against ISIL and mostly agree with you. At the same time, Russia has done a lot against ISIL. Russia has supported Kurdish and some Arab militia other than Assad who in turn have fought ISIL. Russia has also given help to IMoD and the KRG Peshmerga. Some Russian air strikes in Syria have been deeply appreciated by IMoD, KRG, Kurdish Syrian militias, and elements of the Free Syrian Army. [The Free Syrian Army has condemned other Russian Air Strikes.]

        My hope is that Russian policy evolves in a better direction over time (where Russia provides long term economic and FID assistance to secular plural muslim majority institutions such as IMoD, Libyan security forces, Afghan MoD/MoI/NDS, a national unity Yemeni government security force, Palestinian National Security Forces (NSF), Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), NA (Nigerian Army) etc.

        Russian assistance to Assad is suboptimal. However my hope is that Russia heavily pressures Assad to agree to a national unity Syrian government; which would include a commitment by Assad to refrain from future atrocities. Russia is not Assad. Assad is not Russia.

        The world cannot effectively deal with [Muslim extremism] without substantial Russian participation.

    • SAA until recently largely ignored ISIL except at Palmyra. Hanging on in Deir al-Zor was minor until this summer-fall

  2. It’s an ancient tradition. Non-combatant Roman Emperors would take credit for military successes anywhere in the Empire, even award themselves triumphs. The notion was that since it all happened under their auspices, and they appointed the commanders who fought under imperial eagles, all successes were theirs. Only failure was considered the work of subordinates. It is the Iraqi army that ran away but Trump clears Raqqa. Plus ça change.

  3. You might add the Syrians of the Syrian Arab Army, who held Deir ez-Zor for four years against very ISIS assault, who held Kuweires airbase, who have fought from Aleppo to Mayadin and spent lives eliminating the ISIS threat to towns such as Salamiyah. Alawis, yes, but also Sunni, Shi’a, Druze (like the commander in Deir ez Zor) and Christian.

  4. While this is being portrayed as a big victory for the US — and Lord knows we’ll take whatever we can get these days — it looks like a big nothing to me. ISIL may be defeated, but the REASONS for ISIL — an oppressive Assad regime in Damascus and a Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad — remain the same. The most obvious immediate result of this “victory” is that two of our “allies” in the fight — the Baghdad government and the Kurdish pseudo-state — are now at war with each other. It didn’t even take 24 hours. Our “ally” Turkey and our “enemy” Iran will obviously both side with Baghdad. (The one seeming constant in Middle East history is the Kurds get screwed.) Which side are WE on? I guess the one benefit of the Trump brand of foreign policy is we can be on more than one side at once, depending on who you’re talking to and what time of day you’re talking to them.

    Meanwhile, while everyone is distracted by the events in Kurdistan, something will fill the vacuum left by ISIL’s defeat in the Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria. Let’s hope it’s something more civilized, but recent history suggests it will more likely be something even worse.

  5. I would add that muslims (the Iraqi Security Forces) defeated Al Qaeda (now ISIL) last time around in 2007 and 2008 too. Similarly a mixed muslim/non muslim Nigerian Army is defeating Islamic State in Nigeria. The muslim Afghans defeated that Taliban in 2001 and are fighting them hard now. Muslim Libyan security forces have mostly defeated ISIL and AQ.

    Its the same story all over the world. This is a war between decent Muslims and extremists all over the world. A global Muslim civil war; in which the 6 billion non-Muslims aren’t the main focus. The primary focus and priority of extremists is and has always been within the house of Islam.

    It is incredibly sad that so many non-Muslims all over the world don’t realize that decent Muslims are the best allies they have got; and provide little help to them.

      • I didn’t know about Robert Mercer until you just mentioned him and I Googled him. What does Mercer believe?

    • This isn’t just simplistic but unfounded. OBL certainly did not limit his 9/11 attack to the house of Islam, and neither did these radical variants like in France or elsewhere. The non-Muslim Iraqi Yazdis, unfortunately were focused on and even betrayed by people who they thought were their friendly neighbours. Religious and sectarian minorities have many times been easy targets in places like Pakistan.

      Why do we assume extremists didn’t have enablers that allowed them space to operate in some nations? Look at our politics and how religion is exploited in different nations in the East. Groups get discriminated by law and people are bullied to appease religious sentiments.

      Look at the similarities between Saudi Wahhabi state doctrine and many global Salafist groups. They have common threads and themes, like their prejudices and bigotries of other religious and sectarian groups. Do we call these states out for the propagation of their ideology or financing? No, we do business with them (which in truth is unavoidable considering they control the holy sites).

      How do you think the Afghan Taliban has survived for so long? Maybe the other Afghan Muslims, be they of other Pashtun tribes, Tajiks or Hazaras should probably ask their Pakistani Muslim brothers about that, who’ll probably then claim being victims themselves and call it all a foreign conspiracy, or everything else, rather admit a serious rethink of their own religious fundamentalism and state.

      I find it illogical and embarrassing that we even need help from other mostly non-Muslim nations for something that is being suggested as an attack on the house of Islam only, which it is not. Not against international cooperation or allies…just find the comment not based on facts on the ground and a sad commentary of the ‘decent’ Muslims’ situation in not being able to do their own house cleaning. It’s like we’ve never considered perhaps the Iranians or the Arab Gulf states and Turkey could have considered working things out together for the sake of Syria and Iraq or help each other out instead of being bailed out from elsewhere. It’s frustrating not to be represented well by such states.

      • Saf, your points are right of course. ISIS/AQ/Taliban and their allies have very conservatively killed over 200 K nonmuslims too.

        However the reason they kill nonmuslims is because of the Islamic civil war . . ,

        • Anan, your unscholarly talking point about a 1400 year civil war among Muslims is not welcome in these pages. Please argue more narrowly to the point.

  6. “The Americans trained three counter-terrorism brigades in the Iraqi army, who spearheaded the fight against ISIL and took extremely heavy casualties.”

    Technically the Golden Division reports to the Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) and National Security Advisor, albeit they have administrative links to IMoD. Golden Division doesn’t consider themselves to be Iraqi Army.

    Golden Divisions have more than 3 brigades now. They use to be the Iraqi Army Special Forces. They fought well in summer of 2014 during the ISIS offensive against Iraq, although they were too small to stop ISIS on their own.

  7. Several points –
    (1) I wonder how the US military felt about fighting alongside the social anarchists of the YPG.
    (2) It seems to me that “social anarchists” is a better descriptive term than “leftist”; makes me want to get out my old political philosophy readers.
    (3) The YPG was joined by significant numbers of international volunteers (see Rolling Stone article). Why is this off the radar of almost all the news media? After, all they cover international volunteers for ISIS – why not the YPG too?

      • Sure, but social anarchists are left, and many are athiests.
        And the way YPG are portrayed in the Rolling Stone article, they did not seem much motivated by religion – so is it correct to say that ISIS was beaten by Muslims, or was it athiests?
        (Please don’t trash me too badly – I’m a contributor)

  8. Jim Muir of the BBC also made a similar argument in the middle of his article, citing 2 Muslim experts (though unclear if Sunni or Shia), that Graeme Wood did about Daish being Islamic.

    link to

    I guess it is the narrative that one believes or interprets which needs to be challenged, which I think is an issue. The same way Western white folks can’t be complacent against white supremacist extremists and what they spout and do, this holds true for Muslims too. I honestly would give credit to only a certain set of local Muslims (spearheaded by Shiites, who are probably now going to be renewed as the Islamist threat to initiate the war against Iran) and local non-Muslims, or maybe just most Iraqi or Syrians, rather than the global Muslim community or the Americans-the guys who initiated aggression and created instability in Iraq.

    I honestly believe ISIL, which were being seen as ‘winners’ amongst some global religio-political leaning Sunni Muslims early on, and saviours amongst many local Sunni Arab Iraqis (and unfortunately tormentors to non-Sunni Iraqis as Yazidis and Turkmen can attest in being betrayed by their fellow countrymen), unfortunately could have had more global approval and recruits had Baghdadi not named himself Caliph. Honestly what was the difference between them or the Salafist groups that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the other Gulf Sunni states backed in Syria, except for the fact that they were willing to be a bit more PR conscious and pragmatic in their totalitarian and violent methods? But still that romantic, delusional and mythical notion persists, appealed to thousands of foreign non-Iraqi/non-Syrian men and fewer women from mainstream Sunni populations who probably weren’t necessarily practising Muslims in the first place or part of the Salafi cult, except that they identified with the suffering of Sunni Muslims of the region, faced off against what they perceived as the all evil Shias allied with the hated Israelis and the West, true or not. Be it actual humanitarianism, religious conviction, adventurism, the violence or the slave sex fantasy/reality that they were selling to those who were already prone to criminality (many didn’t have criminal records though), the conflicts in Syria and Iraq with it’s religious or sectarian tones resonated with them, while not large, but considerable problematic size, in the mainstream populations.

    • Both by political behavior and according to polling only a tiny number of Muslims thought well of ISIL, and some of those who did were not well informed about it.

    • “. . . they identified with the suffering of Sunni Muslims of the region, faced off against what they perceived as the all evil Shias allied with the hated Israelis and the West, true or not.”

      And so isn’t it ironic that probably the closest and most stable alliance in the region is the unspoken one between hated Israel and Sunni Wahabist Saudi Arabia? They have the same arch-enemy — Iran — and they have the same permanent protector — the United States. And Palestinians in exile provide excellent household labor for the many thousands of members of the Royal House of Saud. (Bangla Deshis are plentiful too, but they don’t speak the language.) Their national interests are identical.

      When enough people finally put two and two together, I have to think Saudi Arabia will be the most unstable regime in the Middle East.

  9. Mr. Cole,

    How long ago was there an option of using secular humanist (YPG/J, etc) as a fighting force? I ask this because I have a theory that they were there for a while but wouldn’t get previous administrations help because of their “evil” socialist belief. This in opposition to arming the house of Saud which as far as I can tell is ISIS with US oil contracts. My belief is that it took the Obama admin to look beyond arming religious radicals to fight religious radicals. Was our bias against anyone who might nationalize local energy resources (oil) and for religious extremist who would deal oil cheaply? Thank you for your response.

    • there was no reason for US to hook up with YPG until ISIL took al-Raqqa, so the whole problematic is recent. In the Cold War, PKK and YPG would have been coded as evil communists in Washington.

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