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How We Have Failed to Learn the Lessons of the Rise and Fall of ISIS
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It is always pleasing for authors to find out that they have readers in far flung places. It was therefore surprising but gratifying to see a picture of a battered copy of a French translation of a book I wrote called The Jihadis Return abandoned by Isis fighters, along with suicide vests and homemade explosive devices, as they retreat from their last enclaves in Deir ez-Zor province in eastern Syria.

The book was written in 2014 when Isis was at the height of its success after capturing Mosul, and was sweeping through western Iraq and eastern Syria. I described the Isis victories and tried to explain how the movement had apparently emerged from nowhere to shock the world by establishing the Islamic State, an entity which at its height ruled 8 million people and stretched from the the outskirts of Baghdad to the Mediterranean.

A picture of the book, Le Retour des Djihadistes, was tweeted by Quentin Sommerville, the intrepid BBC Middle East correspondent, who is travelling through the deserts of Deir ez-Zor and reporting what may be the last pitched battles fought by Isis. The book had presumably belonged a French-speaking Isis fighter: many Isis volunteers came from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, as well as from France itself, and may now be trapped in this corner of Syria.

But is this truly the last round for Isis? The Islamic State no longer controls territory, but will it live on as an ideology inspiring a core of fanatical believers who will seek to rise again? They know that the US wrongly declared that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor of Isis, was dead and buried in 2007-08. Isis hopes to repeat its previous resurrection by waiting for its many enemies to relax their pressure and to fall out among themselves.

The book found in Deir ez-Zor tried to explain how Isis had escaped decisive defeat last time around, so an Isis fighter might have been interested in reading it in the hope of finding out how his movement might survive today. I wrote that al-Qaeda in Iraq was never quite as dead as people imagined: I had Iraqi business friends who were forced to pay it protection money in Mosul even when it was at the nadir of its fortunes. It was notorious that the Iraqi army of the day was a corrupt money-making racket with “ghost” battalions,from which money for non-existent soldiers, their fuel and supplies was siphoned off by crooked officers. I thought that Iraqi politicians were exaggerating when they told me that the army was never going to fight but they turned out to be right.

The most important factor reopening the door to Isis was the civil war in Syria after 2011, where the armed opposition was rapidly taken over by jihadis directed by battle-hardened commanders sent by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Well-organised fanatics willing to die for a cause and experienced in warfare will always dominate their own side when serious fighting gets under way. I portrayed Isis as an Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge and, like their Cambodian counterparts, they systematically committed atrocities to terrify and demoralise their opponents.

Could all this happen again, or are we looking at the final chapter of the Isis nightmare as the group is cornered in Syria and driven into the desert wastes of Iraq? Perhaps they will survive in small numbers, depending what resources in men and materials they preserve in their hideouts. Occupying armies almost invariably alienate local populations and a resurgent Isis might be able to exploit this. Their reputation for savagery was such that they can give the impression that they are still in business by carrying out a few limited attacks.

I was in Baghdad last year when there were some gruesome killings and kidnappings on the main road north to Kirkuk. These were pinpricks compared to the massacres of 2014, but they were enough to produce extreme nervousness in the capital, where people spoke with real fear of Isis being reborn.

I do not believe that this is going to happen because Isis no longer has the advantage of surprise as it did in the past. The surprise in 2014 was greater than it should have been because Isis had been winning local battles and taking territory for some time. I had made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader, the Independent Middle East man of the year for 2013. But a consequence of the unexpected emergence of Isis five years ago is that nobody is ever again going to underestimate them. The Iraqi army of today is very different from the old and recaptured Mosul after overcoming ferocious Isis resistance.

Isis could and probably will revert to guerrilla warfare and high-profile terror attacks to show that it is still an enemy to be feared. The pictures of the suicide vests studded with ball bearings from Deir ez-Zor show that suicide bombing is still an essential part of their tactics. But Isis no longer has the resources of the well-organised Islamic State to recruit, train and finance suicide bombers on the industrial scale of the past.

An invasion of northeast Syria by Turkey, which denounces the Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting Isis with American support as terrorists, could relieve the pressure on the jihadis. Another danger is that former Isis and al-Qaeda fighters will be absorbed into the Arab militia units allied to Turkey, which have already carried out ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Yazidis from the Kurdish majority Syrian province of Afrin that Turkish-led forces captured last year.


Governments have by-and-large learned about the threat posed by Isis and are not going to allow it to rise again. But, in another important sense, the US, UK and allied governments have learned nothing from their disastrous actions in the Middle East and North Africa over the past 20 years which opened the door to Isis. During this period, they repeatedly denounced dictatorial but powerful national leaders – Saddam Hussein, Muammar Al Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad – as illegitimate and instead supported shadowy opposition figures with whom they were friendly as the true leaders of their countries.

The result was invariably disastrous: in July 2011, to take but one example, the British government announced that it was recognising the rebel council in Libya as the sole governmental authority there. But the rebels turned out to have little real power other than that provided by Nato, making it inevitable that a post-Gaddafi Libya would collapse into criminalised anarchy.

Fast forward to Venezuela this week when the US, along with the UK, Canada and a bevy of South American states, declared that the opposition leader Juan Guaido is the country’s legitimate ruler, replacing President Maduro.

The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said the hitherto little known Guaido was the right person to take the country forward, though there is no obvious reason to think so. On the contrary, we are seeing the same sort of crude imperial overreach producing failed states and chaos that brought calamity to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The terrible lesson of the rise and fall of Isis has taught leaders in Washington and London very little.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, ISIS, Syria, Venezuela 
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  1. Priss Factor [AKA "Asagirian"] says:

    There is no lesson to learn since the rise of ISIS was not the result of some mistake. It was willfully executed by the US and its allies that sought to destroy the ‘Shia Crescent’ by burning western Iraq, Libya, and Syria into a hellhole. Same with Yemen.

    • Agree: Per/Norway
    • Replies: @Sean
  2. anon1 says:

    The only lesson is to stay out of the middle east.

  3. Sean says:

    Why did America sacrifice so much to keep South Vietnam afloat. Obviously it was part of the Western blok, or a puppet of it if you prefer. If a state wants to stand apart from the Western blok of countries that is fine, but they can not expect to be treated as friends of that blok. Western support is for countries that stand with us. The others are owed nothing. Once the power of strongmen receding, the decline is accompanied, not by them being left alone but by being treated as they had treated others; militarily pressured, just as they had pressured others when the correlation of forces favored such predatory initiatives.

    Invariably disastrous? For all the chaos, it is not at all clear that the West is worse off for having toppled Saddam, whose iron rule over Iraq made that state immeasurable more dangerous than it was when fought over by rag tag militia like Isis. Assad was less of a threat, but the war against him was not 100% Western intervention, was it? Same goes for Gaddafi. On balance the neutralization of those those countries has improved the big strategic picture for the West. Venezuela backed and gave refuge to Farc, and chose to ally itself with Russia and China; Is the US supposed to wait until one of those countries build a naval base ?

    It is true that Western interventions resulted in the refugees coming to the West especially the EU, and caused a populist backlash against globalization. Well it’s a good thing! All in all, the Western intervention have been a much needed tonic, and a new balance of forces on either side of the bloks.

  4. I remember how Cocky was soooo convinced little over a year ago that Syria would break down into infighting regions along sectarian lines. It was practically over for the Syrian state as such. I.e the Yinon plan he’s been peddling in a not so covert way all along.

    Then he disappointingly stated to adjust his predictions according to how things evolved to ultimately trying to save what little credibility he’s got left.

    • Replies: @Sean
  5. Sean says:
    @Dr. Rosenpenis

    Cockburn was less wrong than many analysts who thought Assad or Russia was what Israel and Obama were worrying about. Obama could have shattered the Assad regieme with a massive rolling airstrike without going to Congress but he clearly was reluctant as were the US joint chefs. After the US decided not to blast Assad from power with the USAF, Obama publicly said that Russia would get bogged down in Syria.

    Cockburn seems to have thought that too but the fact is the US would had needed to give the rebels anti aircraft weapons which they could not do out of fear they would be sold to international terrorists, Putting undercover US forces in to Syria to guard and operate the AA was obviously considered too much like going to war with Russia,

    Israel could have done many things in the early days of the rebellion to draw off the regular Syrian Army, such as a an Israel build up of military forces on the along the Golan border. Assad would have been forced to match Israel’s threatening preinvasion-like posture, and thus divert his conventional heavy weapons divisions from the actual fight against the rebels.

    Israel wants to weaken its enemies and as with the Iran Iraq conflict keep wars between them going. It is probabally true that Israel and well as Obama and US intelligence underestimated how effective the Russian expeditionary force was going to be. That said, the Russians only went in after Obama decided against bombing Assad. I don’t think the evidence suggests that Israel or the US wanted to overthrow Assad at the cost of fragmenting Syria. The current bombing of Syria by Israel is because Israel objects to having Syria host Iranian installations, which are the sole targets.

  6. Sean says:
    @Priss Factor

    Clever of the US to pretend to use B52’s against Isis, then deny them Stinger Anti aircraft missiles to use against the Russians.

  7. Sean says:

    @Simon, did you see the documentary on Cameron and the negotiations with the other EU countries in the run up to the referendum that was on last night. I think it is clear Cameron lost patience with them and they did not really think through their refusal to give him anything really good on freedom of movement. The Syrian refugees were a big part of that in the minds of the public.

  8. ISIS is the creation of the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and her allies, including Israel, the U.K. , Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The decision to topple Assad in Syria came directly after Assad vetoed a pipeline from Qatar through Syria into Turkey around 2011 which would supply gas to Europe. And, ISIS would be the paid mercenaries to do the job. Also, Israel wanted to create the ISIS caliphate between Syria and Iraq which would create a boundary to prevent Hezbollah from transporting arms to the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel.

    The U.S. claimed to be fighting ISIS, using that claim to justify its illegal military presence in Syria. But there has been plenty of evidence that covertly the U.S. has been assisting ISIS. Not only had past U.S. Senator, McCain often met with ISIS leaders in Syria and had been photographed doing so, but often the U.S. Military in Syria would assist ISIS fighters safely evacuate when their positions were overrun by Syrian forces.

    More recently, the CIA moved ISIS forces to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. And even there The U.S. is covertly assisting ISIS:

  9. Ma Laoshi says:

    I have to agree with several other commenters that this piece is obtuse to the point of bad faith. ISIS rose so fast, and got so far, because it had superpower support, duh.

  10. @Sean

    “Same goes for Gaddafi. On balance the neutralization of those those countries has improved the big strategic picture for the West.”

    Yeah, cause flooding Europe with Muslims won’t have any negative consequences at all.

    • Replies: @Sean
  11. Zhu bajie says:

    Stupidity & vanity usually explain more than conspiracies

  12. Sean says:

    Have you any idea of the rate at which Poles ect were coming in to stay? Muslims fleeing Syria (allegedly) helped get Britain out the EU, which was letting an UNENDING flood of EU freedom of movement Poles ect enter someone else county get full benefits including child benefits at British levels for their children still in their homeland, suppress the wages of the native working class, and virtually eliminate them from some big construction projects. Workers were being recruited en mas abroad for jobs in Britain never even advertised in Britain.

    It was never in the power of Britain to prevent an uprising in Syria, and people being able to claim refugee status in Britain does not require them to be fleeing insurgency the overthrow of their government or any kind of actual war. Lying Kurds from Turkey got in for decades before the Iraq war.

    • Replies: @Ozymandias
  13. @Sean

    So, you’re sticking with: Muslims “improved the big strategic picture for the West.” That’s what I thought you’d do.

    “Poles ect enter someone else county get full benefits including child benefits at British levels for their children still in their homeland, suppress the wages of the native working class, and virtually eliminate them from some big construction projects.”

    And Muslims would never do any of those things, they’re too busy grooming underage girls. And improving the big strategic picture for the West, of course.

    • Replies: @Sean
    , @anon
  14. ISIS will rise again whenever it is convenient for imperialist wars of occupation to have an excuse. “Fighting ISIS”, like “destroying al Qaeda” used to be, and “rolling back communism” was before that, a convenient excuse.

  15. Priss Factor [AKA "Asagirian"] says:

    Clever of the US to pretend to use B52’s against Isis, then deny them Stinger Anti aircraft missiles to use against the Russians.

    Most of the damage done by ISIS was before Russia entered the war and then US sent troops. US and its allies tolerated ISIS violence and did precious little. If anything, by supporting the ‘moderate’ new-Alqaeda rebels, US and its allies weakened Syrian forces even further. That allowed ISIS to spread out even more than mess things up.

    It was after Russia entered the war that the tide began to turn. And then US interfered too. To justify its presence, it had to wage just enough war on ISIS elements. So-called War on Terror. But US dragged its feet in fighting terrorists in order to remain in Syria to PREVENT Assad retaking all of Syria. The main reason Russia joined the war was to support Assad to defeat ISIS and other Jihadi groups. US joined the war mainly to stop Assad from re-establishing command over Syria. But obviously, US couldn’t use that as an excuse as it would have been illegal. So, it used the cover of fighting ISIS while dragging its feet and, all the while, aiding OTHER terrorist groups labeled as ‘moderate’.

    ISIS would have been totally defeated long ago if the US had never took hold of ANY Part of Syria. The only reason why Assad, with aid of Russia and Iran, didn’t retake those areas is because US troop presence serves as trip wire.

  16. Sean says:

    Brexit improved the position of the British working class to get paying jobs instead of bloody Poles taking them, and the ability of Britain to keep out Muslims that Italy and France waves through to the English Chanel under EU freedom of movement. Taking care of the Muslims would be easier in the EU you think?

    All in all, the chaos and mass migration caused by middle east wars for Israel has not turned out so badly. The Israel lobby in the UK was dismayed by Brexit. It could not have been any worse that having the UK at the tender mercies of Merkel and Macron types indefinitely.

  17. Sean says:

    The war had been going on since 2011. Obama said in 2012 that use of chemical weapons would lead to US bombing of Assad, then after Obama said Assad had used chemical weapons Obama did nothing. Obama could have toppled Assad with one massive rolling airstike, but he didn’t.

    After that, in 2015, the Russian Expeditionary force entered Syria and the Americans stationed troops there. It was 2015 before there were official US troops in Syria to be a tripwire. Assad despite help from LIran’s Shia militia fighters from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon was loosing with Alawites no longer willing to fight in non Aliwite region of Syria, so he concentrated on key areas and left others to Isis,; he admitted as much in a speech.

    The moment Russia came in and methodically started obliterating rebels, the Assad regieme started winning territory. The Russians were so scared of offending nonexistant uniformed official US troops in Syria at that time that some of the first targets they destroyed were in the US backed Free Syrian Army. Russia has made a fool of the US in Syria and also shown up the US as a bad country to count on. Also true of the Kurds but they should have known that already seeing as how in the 70s they were also used against Iraq and dumped by the US. The essential point to grasp is a Russian expeditionary force did not come in until AFTER Obama showed America was not willing to crush Assad’s regieme

  18. anon[362] • Disclaimer says:

    And Muslims would never do any of those things, they’re too busy grooming underage girls” but the Afghans with the girls in tow managed to send America to where it belongs . Where is the helicopter ? Or will they be sent by buses and ships to Caracas before being reduced to caracas of pit burn victim with one testicle hanging between one and half leg? Same was done by Shia militias in Iraq and could have stayed that way until US stopped blathering about terrorism 911, about Saudis about sunni and joined the woman- enslaving “moderate “block.

  19. @Sean

    it is not at all clear that the West is worse off for having toppled Saddam, whose iron rule over Iraq made that state immeasurable more dangerous than it was when fought over by rag tag militia like Isis.

    Dangerous to (((whom)))?

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