ISIS–Who Are the Players, and Where Do They Stand?

By Jay Holmes

This week, ISIS remains a major news item. For the sake of continuity, we will continue referring to them as ISIS, but be aware that, in recent weeks, they have acquired more aliases than the average Brooklyn mob goon.


ISIS logo public domain, wikimedia commons

ISIS logo
public domain, wikimedia commons


Since their defeat at the hands of the lightly armed but well organized Kurds of northern Iraq, ISIS has focused on training, recruiting, and re-establishing their local dominance in Syria. Even if ISIS were forced to retreat from all of Iraq, that would be of secondary importance to them as compared to maintaining their strongholds in Syria.

Where does Iraq stand?

The success of the Iraqi Kurds, with assistance from U.S. air support, was no surprise to anyone who knows or has studied the Kurds. It remains to be seen how well the Iraqi National Army will capitalize on the U.S. and allied airstrikes to recapture ISIS-held areas in their country. With Maliki no longer in charge in Iraq, and with so many Shia Iraqis rediscovering their long forgotten love of U.S. firepower, the ISIS offensive in Iraq is stalled for the moment.

If the new Iraqi government can deliver a closer approximation of “functioning government” than Maliki did, then Iraq should be able to eventually push ISIS forces out of their country. However, no amount of U.S. or anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes will push ISIS out of Iraq completely unless Iraqis take some responsibility for saving themselves by fielding a credible army and establishing and maintaining a functioning administration.


F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush image by U.S. Navy, public domain

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush
image by U.S. Navy, public domain


More recently, the U.A.E., Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar joined in coordinated airstrikes against ISIS bases and assets in their Syrian strongholds. Aircraft from Belgium and Denmark also joined in strikes in Iraq. Simultaneously, the U.S. stepped up aid to non-ISIS anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The trick is—and long has been—to assist the legitimate indigenous freedom fighters of Syria without accidentally funding and equipping ISIS or any “Ali come lately” ISIS wannabes.

What does ISIS mean to the Gulf States?

Fortunately, the Gulf States are now exercising more discretion in how they fund and arm anti-Assad groups in Syria. For most Gulf Sates, enemies of the Shia Iranians are their natural friends. In the case of ISIS, the supposed “friends” have become an even greater danger to their former benefactors in the Gulf than the danger presented by the Shia theocracy in Iran.

Even if all outside financing of ISIS were halted, and it pretty well has been, ISIS would not be bankrupt. For the last few months, they have skillfully built a strong economy based on violent tax collection, bank robbery, and oil sales. Note that the recent coalition airstrikes against ISIS included oil refineries as priority targets. Destroying ISIS oil export operations has the added advantage of making the Gulf States happy to participate in the air campaign. Anything that drives up oil prices is good news for the Gulf States.


Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries September 24, 2014 image by Department of Defense, public domain

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries
September 24, 2014
image by Department of Defense, public domain


How do the airstrikes benefit the coalition members?

While ISIS bases are being destroyed, ISIS is less able to plan and conduct effective terrorist strikes against its enemies. In the ISIS reality, its enemies, real or imagined, can be roughly defined as the non-ISIS segment of the human population. If nothing else, we can appreciate that ISIS is consistent and predictable. If it lives, and it is not ISIS, they want it dead.

Where is France in all of this?

During the last week, France made a moderate effort at conducting independent airstrikes against ISIS. It is not in the nature of French politicians to place their troops, ships, or planes under foreign control, so French efforts might remain independent and somewhat uncoordinated with US-led airstrikes. It’s possible that the French Air Force and Navy are quietly receiving refueling support, reconnaissance, and intelligence from U.S. forces. If that is so, it’s best that it happen quietly so that French voters can view French airstrikes as being a strictly French affair. Call it “Operation Les Belles Artes” if you like. As long as the bombs drop on suitable ISIS targets, it doesn’t much matter who dropped them or which national anthem they were humming at the time.

What are our allies in the U.K. doing?

Having settled the critical question of Scottish secession, the U.K. government turned some attention back toward ISIS. David Cameron called for the U.K. to join in airstrikes against the group, and it has done so to a minimal degree.

How is Syria’s largest neighbor, Turkey, reacting to the “ISIS crisis”?

The Turkish position is somewhat complex. Turkish President Recep Erdogan can see both potential opportunities and potential disasters in the ISIS crisis, and Erdogan is highly skilled at envisioning potential disasters.

The potential benefit of ISIS to Turkey comes from the fact that ISIS hates Iran. The group has destabilized the already-pretty-unstable pro-Iranian Iraqi government.


Map of U.S. airstrike areas in Iraq image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

Map of airstrike areas in Iraq
image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0


One of the potential disasters is already manifesting itself in the form of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Turkey. Some of those refugees are Syrian Kurds, and Erdogan’s secret target number of Kurds in Turkey is zero. Rather than having more Kurds moving into Turkey, Erdogan would prefer to get rid of the independence-minded Kurds that are already there. And yet, these refugees are close cousins of the Iraqi Kurds that are willing to export oil to and through Turkey.

ISIS captured over forty Turkish diplomats during its summer blitzkrieg in Iraq. On most days in the ISIS universe, Turks are “filthy western lapdogs.” Yet, rather than staging the usual “ISIS entertainment hour” publicly broadcasted beheadings of their Turkish prisoners, ISIS released them. Why? Western observers are asking what deal Erdogan might have made with the devil to secure the safe return of his diplomats. My suspicion is that any deal was likely brokered through Erdogan’s friends in Qatar and might have involved oil. However, in truth, Turkey needs ISIS to be defeated nearly as urgently as Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria do.

The view from my kitchen window here in the U.S. is different from the view from Turkey. I cannot see ISIS from my house. Erdogan, on the other hand, sees ISIS standing right past his border crossings with Syria. He needs the Sunni fundamentalists vanquished far more than we do, but when we decide that ISIS has been suppressed enough for our liking, we will stop bombing them, and they will still be across the border from Turkey.

Given the basic ISIS tenet that everyone outside of their direct control is their mortal enemy, it’s likely that any deals that Erdogan might have made with the devil will be null and void once the bombs stop falling on ISIS heads. As he so often does, Erdogan missed the easy play. ISIS will never be a friend to Turkey. In the long run, Erdogan further damaged Turkey’s relationship with its supposed NATO allies without obtaining any long-term benefit for his country.


U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp image by Department of Defense, public domain

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp
image by Department of Defense, public domain


What is the Syrian point of view?

The Assad regime is grateful for the tactical windfall being delivered by its distant enemies against the closer and more immediately threatening ISIS forces in Syria and Lebanon. However, Assad and his gang cannot express any happiness with the U.S. or its allies. From the Syrian point of view, while ISIS is a threat to the Assad regime, once ISIS is substantially defeated, the Assad gang would be the next obvious target.

So what can we see in the crystal ball?

My best guess is that Gulf States will remain willing to cooperate just long enough to save themselves from ISIS. As the casualties mount for ISIS, the ISIS leaders will try to understand why their We Will Kill You All publicity campaign has failed them. If their current gangster-in-chief and/or enough of his closest pals are killed, ISIS might transform itself into a more publicity-friendly criminal enterprise and survive under some new name with a slightly less visible agenda of hate and destruction. When the dust from the bombs settles, the region will still be a hellish mess, but we in the West might succeed in avoiding or blunting major terrorist strikes by ISIS. If we can do so without investing more ground forces in the region, then we can declare a victory before moving on to the next “catastrophe du jour.”

9 comments on “ISIS–Who Are the Players, and Where Do They Stand?

  1. Don Royster says:

    Very informative. I find it interesting that the name ISIS was also the Egyptian goddess of fertility and marriage. Has anybody told these fundamentalists that? I do think that we have no choice but to go after ISIS. If it succeeded in any of its plans of a caliphate, it could endanger the whole Middle East. One lesson out of all this is that nature abhors a vacuum. The United States and its allies can no longer think they can disengage from the Middle East and everything will be A-OK.

    Another lesson is that Saudi Arabia should get it through their head that funding these jihadist groups and their schools in Pakistan will ultimately lead to their destruction. You cannot pay these fundamentalist off. And the same goes for Iran.

    Ultimately there is the need for an overall strategy for the Middle East that isn’t just Israel-centric. Israel must settle with the West Bank Palestinians and remove their settlements from Palestinian territory. If they did that, the new Palestinian state could be a buffer zone against any attacks from ISIS and its allies. Also the Gaza Palestinian would begin to see that prosperity only comes from working with Israel.

    The real quandary is what about Iraq, Syria and Lebanon? I think Joe Biden had the right idea years ago when he suggested partitioning Iraq into Kurdistan, a Sunni Iraq and a Shia Iraq. I think the only strategy for Syria is to negotiate with the Syrian government and get an agreement that states that Assad must go and that the Syrian government will negotiate with its moderate opposition. Because ultimately ISIS is as dangerous to Syria as it is to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Hi Don. Thank you for your comment. Holmes is not able to respond at present, but he will get back to you as soon as possible.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Don.

      Thank you for your very thoughtful response. I agree with most of what you wrote, but I am not certain that: “Israel must settle with the West Bank Palestinians and remove their settlements from Palestinian territory. If they did that, the new Palestinian state could be a buffer zone against any attacks from ISIS and its allies.”

      In my opinion, the Palestinian territories are controlled by gangsters posing as “government.” Fatah is a poorly organized secular gang. Some of their members undoubtedly sincerely want a functioning socialist government for the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, corruption within Fatah has rendered them ineffective. Hamas is a theocratic gang of criminals and treats the average Palestinian far worse than Israel does. The future is not bright for Palestinian children. I cannot at the present envision any treaty between Israel and the Palestinian authorities that would bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians. I hope that I am wrong, but so far things don’t look promising there.

  2. The whole ISIS thing puts me in mind of the Thirty Years War of the early seventeenth century when supposed national armies roamed Europe. They were not, of course. In reality they were gangs of criminals and mercenaries making a career out of pillage. They were not representative of the organised nations. Looking around today, I can’t but help thinking that history is repeating. Back then it took three decades to sort the mess out. I hope it won’t take so long today.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Hi Matthew. Holmes is a bit occupied at the moment and can’t get to a computer, but he will answer your comment as soon as possible. Thank you.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Matthew. The thirty years war is a good comparison. The ISIS chapter might not last that long, but for the foreseeable future, there will be no shortage of hopeless jihadists with little to lose. When ISIS is gone, some other skilled organizer of ignorant, violent thugs will come along and do the same thing under a new name.

      If we manage to contain them and keep them from bringing their homicidal mass hysteria to our shores, then we can consider ourselves successful. Until Syria and other nations in the region develop decent societies for themselves, the problems will continue.

  3. “Ali come latelies” is brilliant! This was a very good rundown of a very bad situation. Isis is nobody’s friend, not even its own. I like what Don Royster had to add. Saudi funding of jihadists is going to net them nothing but trouble. There is no reasoning with or rationale to the “We hate everyone who isn’t us” credo espoused by these groups. I hate to be a war monger but when dealing with a roach infestation, you need to bring in the exterminators and eliminate the problem. And for Isis that means boots on the ground along with air strikes. Great writing by you both!

    • Piper Bayard says:

      Hi Cheryl. Thanks so much for your comment. Holmes is not able to answer at the moment, but he will get back to you as soon as he can.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Cheryl. Thank you for your kind words.

      The house of Saud came to power by riding a tiger. They have never dared to get off of that tiger. They have yet to figure out how to.

      I remain hopeful that we can contain and degrade ISIS without sending more troops to the area. There is no lack of suitable military recruits in the Mideast. There is rather an endemic lack of leadership.

      If, with Western airpower, Western supplied weapons, and Western military advisors Iraq can not save itself from ISIS, then we probably should not send in thousands of young Americans to do it for them.

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