“ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks,” By Balint Szlanko

ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks
By Balint Szlanko – @balintszlanko
For Syria Comment, Sept 13, 2014

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan—The extremist group known variously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or simply Islamic State, has maneuvered itself into a difficult situation over the last couple of months. Fanatical groups like this are prone to violent overreach and they often end up with everybody else ganging up on them. ISIS is no different and now it will pay the price. It may also be far weaker than it looks, for it’s only really been able to shine against much weaker enemies.

ISIS’ big gains in Iraq (they took Mosul in early June and the Sinjar region in early August) have led to a situation where most of the region’s players have allied themselves against it, including archenemies like Iran and the U.S.—and that was before the Obama administration started building a broad international coalition against them. The Iraqis have already got rid of their incompetent prime minister, Nour al Maliki, whose sectarian policies are largely responsible for driving many Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State. The new Iraqi government seems to have a broader political and sectarian basis, although whether that will have any effect on the ground remains to be seen. As it has been pointed out elsewhere, Iraqi governments usually have a broad confessional basis, the problem is that this doesn’t really get reflected in policy outputs.

More important is that the military cooperation between the Iraqis, the U.S. and the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government is already delivering results. The Kurds have got a much-needed morale boost from the American airstrikes against ISIS and the Western military aid that is already being flown into Kurdistan (so far small arms, ammunition and anti-tank weapons have arrived, ministry of peshmerga officials told me in Erbil, but heavy weapons have been promised as well). They pushed back ISIS forces around the Mosul Dam Lake, west of Erbil, and in the south of the KRG around Jalawla, though Jalawla itself remains under ISIS control.

The Iraqi Army, helped by Shiite militias, has also gained some ground (though it may be more accurate to say that Shiite militias, helped by the Iraqi Army, have gained ground, which is bound to cause big problems later). Even in Syria we are seeing some results by anti-ISIS forces: the militants have been stopped north of Aleppo by a coalition of moderate rebels who have even retaken some of the villages they lost in August. In the east, the Kurdish militia, the YPG, drove them all the way down to the south of Hasaka city. To be sure, these frontlines all have their own dynamic and developments there should be analysed more or less independently. But the fact remains that ISIS is now facing determined adversaries on several very long frontlines both in Iraq and Syria, clearly a big problem for any state or insurgent group. It will soon face more U.S. airstrikes too.

The bottom line is that while ISIS looks strong, it really isn’t as strong as its fearsome reputation suggests. It is an organised, highly motivated guerrilla group with lots of experienced fighters. It builds on the weaknesses of its enemies by sending its highly mobile, quick-moving forces to places where they are least expected, uses suicide bombers as just another battlefield tool, and it magnifies the fear created by its shocking brutality with effective publicity. And now it has also got a significant amount of heavy weapons and armour, captured from the Iraqis, plus an influx of men, some from disenchanted Syrian rebel groups, some from Sunni tribes and other Iraqi insurgent group. It also has a lot of money, some from robbery, some from kidnappings and some from protection rackets.

And yet ISIS have only really been successful in areas where it faced no serious resistance: in the political and military vacuum of the Sunni heartland, in eastern Syria and central and western Iraq. Its significant battlefield successes have really only been against disorganized and undermotivated enemies, such as the Iraqi Army or Syria’s disparate rebels, or isolated outposts of the Syrian Army, under siege for a very long time. Whenever it had to confront a determined and organised adversary, such as the Kurdish YPG in northeastern Syria, it has always been bested. Even Syria’s ragtag rebels managed to kick it out of northwestern Syria early this year, though that was before its big Iraqi victories and associated growth in strength. The same thing is likely to happen now, if only because launching surprise attacks against largely undefended cities is very different from defending the large geographic area it now controls against coordinated attacks (and the U.S. Air Force).

This means that ISIS can be contained, its abilities degraded, perhaps quite severely. It doesn’t mean it can be destroyed, not with these tools alone. For that, the dysfunctional policies of the Sunni heartland would have to be addressed, its institutions strengthened, so that their own moderate parties can contain the impulses that have led to ISIS’ emergence, without the need for American airstrikes and Kurdish or Shiite militias. Clearly this is the real challenge and there is no obvious solution in sight. ISIS’ brutality may or may not lead to local resistance—so far those who have tried paid dearly. The Sunni tribes, the heartland’s only visible institutions, are too weak, as are Syria’s moderate rebels. The Syrian and Iraqi states, or what has remained of them, are discredited. It is probably impossible to put these countries back together again. But that doesn’t mean ISIS cannot be contained in a manageable geographic area. My bet is that it’s likely to stick around for a while but in a much weakened form.

Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist who has covered Syria since early 2012 and has recently completed two trips to the Kurdish areas

Comments (29)

Michael Vasiliou said:

Hey Balint,

I definitely agree. It’s been portrayed as a monstrous force, but I haven’t heard anything about ISIS gaining more territory since it has been up against the Kurds and US airstrikes.

From the maps I’ve seen, it looks like ISIS really only has control over a few key cities and the roads connecting them. Everything else in between as ISIS territory appears to be mostly uninhabited. What do you think about this?

September 13th, 2014, 12:08 pm


Ghufran said:

I tend to agree with the author in general, however Isis and other Islamist terrorist groups are likely to succeed in recruiting more young unemployed and largely marginalized men as long as the region continues to suffer from conflicts and brutal and corrupt regimes.
Turkey , israel and the GCC in particular are not likely to help defeat Isis because they see Iran as a continuous threat and (in Israel’s case) refuse to give justice to Palestinians.
NATO, GCC and Israel three pillars of policies in the region are: opposition to Iran, support for Israel and the protection of goat states in the GCC, the well being of ordinary Muslims is not on their agenda .

September 13th, 2014, 1:14 pm


Jasmine said:

I just hope that the next article will not be titled “let’s negotiate with Isis”.
Kerry’s visit to SA was timed very badly,it was an insult for all the relatives of the Americans killed in 9/11,couldn’t he choose another day or is it a pilgrimage to his oily bosses to assure them that there is no hard feeling whatsoever,just please buy more arms from USA.

September 13th, 2014, 4:09 pm


Badr said:

IS won’t be destroyed without Syria change

By PJ Crowley
Former US Assistant Secretary of State

“until he has a political solution to Syria, he does not have a strategy to destroy IS”

September 13th, 2014, 4:24 pm


ALAN said:

I want to use this opportunity, and so, Mr. BALINT SZLANKO
you are also following the Ukrainian conflict, as we see here: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/BALINT-SZLANKO.ashx#axzz3DEUDeEGb
please tell me:
what the Polish insurgents private military company ASBS Othago (Analizy Systemowe Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz do in Ukraine?

According to reports, the Polish Private Military Company lost during the punitive operation in eastern Ukraine, 6 person (the other loss of foreign mercenaries from obeying junta Sonderkommanden fall to the share of the American private military companies Asademi and its “daughter» Greystone Limited Private Military Company – 50 and 14 militants, respectively, as well as the CIA and the FBI – 25 employees, of whom 13 were killed).

September 13th, 2014, 5:27 pm


ghufran said:

According to a member of Mosul city council, 3 out of 12 ISIS leaders in the city are from Syria, the man also said that ISIS has some Kurds and even few Yazidis (hard to believe I guess).
It is obvious now that the GCC is using ISIS to blackmail NATO about Iran, Iraq and Syria, I never bought the lie that the GCC will fight ISIS, they may be forced to pay money to finance NATO operations but they will not kill the baby they create.

September 13th, 2014, 7:13 pm


Syrialover said:

Good reminder. Balint Szlanko’s lead article above reinforces that Assad could have easily attacked and weakened ISIS but chose not to.

Instead the regime allowed ISIS to survive and thrive, building its strongest, most secure base in Raqqa without interference.

EXCERPT from “Assad has never fought ISIS before”:

“When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.

“Raqqa was saved the fate of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa. ISIS soon controlled the province, painted government buildings in black and turned them into bases. The group’s bases were easy to spot, for about a year and a half. Elsewhere, too, Assad allowed ISIS to grow and fester. The regime has been buying oil from it and other extremist groups after it lost control of most of the country’s oilfields and gas plants.

“One might argue that Assad’s strategy was a cynical game and that once he is assured of his survival, he would be well-positioned to fight the group. But even that argument ignores basic dynamics: If Assad genuinely wants to fight ISIS today, he is as capable of doing that as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was when ISIS took over three Iraq provinces. ISIS controls large swathes in rebel-held Syria, areas that have been outside the regime’s control for one to three years.”


September 13th, 2014, 7:31 pm


Syrialover said:

A promising move by Qatar but still a long way to go.

Doha is starting to kick out the Muslim Brotherhood:


September 13th, 2014, 7:37 pm


ghufran said:

As expected, Turkey is guilty of aiding terrorists, what is different is that a US diplomat is publically speaking about it. This is from the Telegraph-UK:

Turkey has directly supported al-Qaeda’s wing in Syria in defiance of the United States, the former American ambassador to Ankara has said.
The Turkish authorities thought they could work with extremist Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war and at the same time push them to become more moderate, Francis Ricciardone, who was until late June the US ambassador to Ankara, told journalists in a briefing.
That led them to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch, as well as hardline Salafi Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham. Mr Ricciardone said that he tried to persuade the Turkish government to close its borders to the groups, but to no avail.
“We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” he said. “The Turks frankly worked with groups for a period, including al Nusra, whom we finally designated as we’re not willing to work with.”
Turkey allowed its borders to be used as a conduit for aid, weapons and volunteers heading for the Syrian rebel cause from the start of the uprising, and there have long been accusations that it did not do enough to distinguish between “moderate” groups and extremists.

Turkey and the fight against Islamist terrorism:
you can not make chicken soup out of chicken poop

September 13th, 2014, 8:23 pm


Syrialover said:

Pathetic but predictable.

I said on this forum two years ago that “holy warrior” fantasists rushing to Syria would end up bawling like babies wanting to be rescued by their home governments.

Reports now say dozens of British jihadists want to come home but are afraid of a 30 year jail sentence. They are desperately looking for ways to negotiate their return with the UK authorities.

But too late. Those wannabe returnees are being rounded up for ruthless punishment by their ISIS teammates.

Many foreign fighters in ISIS are increasingly under suspicion and danger from within as outside forces gather to strike ISIS. The fun’s over but they find they aren’t free to leave. And even if they escape, they are not welcome back home.

September 13th, 2014, 8:26 pm


ALAN said:

Remember! ISIS is acronym for the Official Israeli Mossad Intelligence:
300 Americans, CIA Agents Fighting Within ISIL Ranks in Syria and Iraq: US Political Commentator
the basis of the U.N. Charter, Article 2 , paragraph 4, “ “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
SO American fighter planes, which violate the Syrian airspace must shoot down.

September 14th, 2014, 7:08 am


ALAN said:

It is unreasonable to continue the KSA arrogance in prolong the suffering of the SUNNI people before the others in Syria and the shedding of SUNNI Syrian blood without any response to all of this quantum of criminality.
Every Saudi dollar causes killing the SUNNI Syrian people before the others. The ruling establishment in KSA painfully must be shaken in response !! Syrians must innovate in how to respond.

September 14th, 2014, 10:05 am


ALAN said:

Any explanation? Is it done by Saudi intelligence to conduct a series of assassinations of leaders of these various militias in order to be a subject for the Wahhabi-American agenda ?

September 14th, 2014, 10:35 am


Syrialover said:

ALAN you must be reading the wrong sources again.

Get your nose out of the “Conspiracy Gazette” look around and you’ll find plenty of better informed and more rational comments on the explosion that killed Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders.

Why do you give ‘Saudi intelligence’ magical powers and competencies they have never had?

Probably the same reason you give Vladimir Putin all sorts of imaginary qualities and achievements that are the opposite of truth and reality.

You’ve read it in the “Conspiracy Gazette”.

September 14th, 2014, 3:54 pm


Syrialover said:


# Syrian rebels can’t be blamed if refuse to be used as cannon fodder against IS while Asad’s barrel-bombs keep falling. Need to fix this

– Thomas Pierret (https://twitter.com/ThomasPierret)

September 14th, 2014, 4:17 pm


Ghufran said:

For Syria’s war to end and for terrorists to be defeated a cease fire has to be reached even if it keeps rebels in control of certain areas as long as they stop shelling cities and attacking the Syrian army. This war should not have started in the first place and Bashar should not have been crowned a king in 2000 .
There was a Syria before this war and there will be a Syria after.
Look at Qatar , ksa and Turkey and tell me how good their involvement in Syria has been, then direct your attention to Iran and try to tell me how helpful that country has been in ending the war or convincing the regime to compromise.
Most of those who died were Syrian, all of the refugees are Syrian and those who paid the highest price for this war were Syrian.
You shall forgive but never forget ..

September 14th, 2014, 4:36 pm


Syrialover said:

GHUFRAN, ALAN might read and quote the “Conspiracy Gazette” but your words smell like you write for it.

I am still feeling disgusted at your post in the last thread where you urge people to write the following lying, silly comment to US congress members:

“According to CIA officers testimonies and numerous western accounts from the battle field and video testimonies from previous FSA leaders, there are no moderate rebels in Syria”.

OMEN correctly remarked, exposing your game:

.”[Ghufran’s] “no moderates” charge is a crude way of discounting all syrians, also meant to dissuade against intervention and acts as a sort of psychic salve meant to give us comfort for ignoring assad wage mass murder (we’re not supposed to care if all the dead are terrorists)….”

He’s right. You should squirm in shame. At least others here are clear and honest about which side they are on.

September 14th, 2014, 4:44 pm


Syrialover said:

GHUFRAN your post in #15 above is a typical attempt to speak out of both sides of your mouth.

Do you realize that your hypocritical words about all those poor Syrians who have paid a price and the failure of the Iranians to end the Syrian crisis (you are right there!) still read like coded support and excuses for Assad?

September 14th, 2014, 5:04 pm



Let´s say it simple, fuxxx the sadistic Assads, the corrupt tainted Baathists, the crazy Al Qaeda Jihadists and the anti-Allah Teocratic Iranian Jihadists.

September 14th, 2014, 5:35 pm


ALAN said:

Remember: about (moderates!)- One of the classic definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, in precisely the same way, yet expecting a different outcome.

September 14th, 2014, 5:56 pm


ghufran said:

Hadi Al-Bahra of the SNC claimed that his party and the FSA will be ready to take over areas currently occupied by ISIS if the US led coalition manages to kick the terrorists out, Bahra did not mention whether any rebel group gives a chicken behind about what he says, he also ignored the fact that the Nusra terrorist group and a number of Islamist militias are now the dominating fighting forces in Syria, and none of them recognizes Mr.Bahra and his friends.
Dear Thawrajiyyeh: do not blame others for the failure of rebels to win and topple the regime, only blame yourselves and your leaders, the history of this war is full of stories and incidents that explain why Syrians decided to hate the regime but not fall in love with the rebels who turned out to be thieves and religious zealots who outdid the regime thugs and made a bad situation much worse.

September 14th, 2014, 7:05 pm


Syrialover said:

GHUFRAN issues more conflicting messages, pouring out of both sides of the mouth…

Some of it is toxic and outrageous.

GHUFRAN states in #20 that all Syrians who fought Assad are thieves and religious extremists.

He then tells us they “outdid the regime thugs” (a regime proudly carrying out aerial and chemical warfare, starvation sieges against civilians, physical destruction of Syria’s housing and infrastructure, industrial scale torture centres, and mass displacement of half the country’s population through mass bombing and state terror campaigns against civilians.)

Then, amazingly, he sneers and blames those who rebelled against Assad for failing to “win and topple the regime”. The regime of a failed and desperate dictator who hijacked and used Syria’s military resources to burn the country and keep himself in power. BUT THEN STILL only survived because of full-on military and financial assistance of outside power Iran and the sponsorship of Russia.

Really, what is the game, what is the aim behind statements like GHUFRAN’s?

September 14th, 2014, 7:58 pm


Ghufran said:

It is not surprising that the proposed coalition to defeat Isis is limping already especially after key regional and international players were either left out or did not seem interested.
At the core is the fact that governments that funded and supported Islamist terrorists like the GCC and Turkish regimes were given a free pass and have not been confronted yet, another problem is the lack of any vision of how to fill the void if the troubled coalition surprises everybody and takes serious military actions to degrade Isis.
Relying on a fractured and unreliable group of ” moderate rebels” reflects either an utter ignorance about the situation in Syria or an alarming level of indifference, I tend to believe the latter possibility.
NATO boneheads keep talking about a political solution but they seem to be talking to themselves and their puppet regimes, if you want to make peace you speak with people you do not necessarily like, otherwise what you are actually doing is pretending and prolonging the suffering of Syrians.

September 14th, 2014, 11:30 pm


ALAN said:

(a regime proudly carrying out aerial and chemical warfare, starvation sieges against civilians, physical destruction of Syria’s housing and infrastructure, industrial scale torture centres, and mass displacement of half the country’s population through mass bombing and state terror campaigns against civilians.)

How advises others (Get your nose out of the “Conspiracy Gazette”) and you yourself speak the language of John McCain and neocons?

I commented on the subject of demonization the others previously. No one has demonized George W.Bush or Tony Blair. Are they find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

September 15th, 2014, 6:17 am


ALAN said:

Every American President in the past quarter century has decided to bomb Iraq


“Just two hours ago, allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait.” —President George H. W. Bush

—President George H. W. Bush
January 16, 1991

“Good evening. Earlier today, I ordered America’s armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq.”

—President Bill Clinton
December 16, 1998

“My fellow citizens. At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”

—President George W. Bush
March 19, 2003

“My fellow Americans. Tonight, I want to speak to you about what the United States will do with our friends and allies to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.”

—President Barack Obama
September 10, 2014

Every American President in the past quarter century has now gone on television during prime time to tell the nation and the world that he has decided to bomb Iraq.

21. SYRIALOVER said:
(Get your nose out of the “Conspiracy Gazette”)



September 15th, 2014, 4:15 pm


ALAN said:

Someone’s Already Fighting ISIS: The Syrian Arab Army
First appeared: http://journal-neo.org/2014/09/15/someone-s-already-fighting-isis-the-syrian-arab-army/
Since 2011, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has waged a relentless war within Syrian territory against what it has said from the very beginning was an invasion of heavily armed, foreign-backed sectarian extremists. In retrospect, the transparently ludicrous nature of articles like the Guardian’s “Syria’s rebels unite to oust Assad and push for democracy” is self-evident. The article would lay out Syria’s claims side by side with the West’s narrative by stating:

In one of the fiercest clashes of the insurrection, Syrian troops finally took control of the town of Rastan after five days of intense fighting with army defectors who sided with protesters. Syrian authorities said they were fighting armed terrorist gangs.

At the request of Mr. Syria Lover will try to be out of the “Conspiracy Gazette”

September 15th, 2014, 4:46 pm


Ghufran said:

Islamist rebels are in bed with Turkey and Israel.. Erdugang refused to join the war against Isis because he helped Isis terrororists get in and he bought oil from them at special prices then he sold the oil through Jihan port. Iraqi and Kurdish forces found Turkish made ammunition at position evacuated bu Isis. Now Erdugang is considering establishing a buffer zone in southern turkey to solidify his gains and probably annex land from both countries. Rebels in the south are working with Israel to establish a similar zone in Qnaitra in southern Syria, in return rebels are receiving accommodations and medical and logistical help from Israel, that is why you will not see a single shot fired at Israel by rebels, instead those terrorists kidnapped UN peace keepers to justify receiving $ 20 million from Qatar to finance their war efforts while helping qatar look like a peace maker. It takes a fool to miss the obvious connection between rebels and the two countries with territorial ambitions, Israel and Turkey.

September 15th, 2014, 10:03 pm



one disappears for three months, one come back for a visit, one finds Alan still in lala land and the other one still trying to be secularian but keeps failing miserably.

September 16th, 2014, 9:19 pm


Austin Michael Bodetti said:

I hope that what you say proves true.

September 18th, 2014, 5:38 pm


Post a comment

Neoprofit AI Immediate Venture Instant Prosperity