How Far Can ISIS Go?

Guest Post by Mark N. Katz

The Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has overrun most of the Sunni Arab region of Iraq in an amazingly short period of time. It is not clear which is more amazing: that the relatively small number of fighters in this group could do this or that the much larger Iraqi Army (which the U.S. had done so much to arm and train) proved to be utterly incapable of resisting them. Perhaps my 2012 JHU Press book on the War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan should not have been entitled Leaving without Losing, but Leaving and then Losing instead.

I certainly did not predict that ISIS (which, in its earlier guise as Al Qaeda in Iraq, had been severely weakened by the time U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011) would succeed to the degree it has recently. Its rapid expansion, though, has resulted in the equally rapid rise of three problems for it that are commonly encountered by increasingly powerful revolutionary movements which I wrote about in my book. These are: 1.) regional opposition; 2.) reaction to repression; and 3.) rifts among the radicals.

However ineffective Iraqi government forces and however hesitant the Obama Administration have proved to be in response to the ISIS challenge, an extraordinary number of regional forces have been aroused that seek to stop it. These include the Kurdish Regional Government’s forces, Iraq’s Arab Shi’a militias, Iran (which has reportedly aided the Baghdad government as well as the Shi’a militias), Syria (whose air force has bombed ISIS positions in Iraq), and Russia (which has sent both fighter aircraft and even pilots to Baghdad). Despite their fear of rising Iranian influence in Baghdad, Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan—are also aware now that ISIS is a threat to them. For all these actors which are so often opposed to one another to agree on seeing ISIS as a threat is quite an accomplishment!

Further, ISIS—which is really a fairly small group—has not expanded so rapidly by its own efforts alone, but with the support of other Arab Sunnis in Iraq who side with it in opposing Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated authoritarian regime. They did not, however, want to trade repression by the Shi’a regime for repression by ISIS. But ISIS could not wait to behave repressively when the opportunity arose, and so is beginning to face opposition from Iraqi Sunni Arabs on whose behalf it claims to rule.

Finally, ISIS has not been able to avoid the problem of rifts among the radicals. The central Al Qaeda leadership has already denounced it. So far, of course, this has not exactly served to hamper ISIS, but to demonstrate how weak the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s organization has become. Still, it appears that ISIS is not immune to opposition from similar radical Sunni Islamist movements.

I, for one, cannot foretell whether or not ISIS will seize even more of Iraq and perhaps other countries. What I can say, though, is that its actions have aroused significant opposition from regional actors, many of the people it has come to rule over, and even other fellow radicals. All these forces will serve to limit how far ISIS can extend its sway—and even its ability to maintain it in the territory it has so recently captured.


Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He is the author of Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.