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Why ISIS Persists

NEW YORK – Deadly terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad demonstrate the murderous reach of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. The longer ISIS maintains its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the longer its terrorist network will create such carnage. Yet ISIS is not especially difficult to defeat. The problem is that none of the states involved in Iraq and Syria, including the United States and its allies, has so far treated ISIS as its primary foe. It’s time they do.

ISIS has a small fighting force, which the US puts at 20,000 to 25,000 in Iraq and Syria, and another 5,000 or so in Libya. Compared to the number of active military personnel in Syria (125,000), Iraq (271,500), Saudi Arabia (233,500), Turkey (510,600), or Iran (523,000), ISIS is minuscule.

Despite US President Barack Obama’s pledge in September 2014 to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel (behind the scenes), have been focusing instead on toppling Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Consider a recent candid statement by Israeli Major General Herzi Halevy (quoted to me by a journalist who attended the speech where Halevy made it): “Israel does not want to see the situation in Syria end with [ISIS] defeated, the superpowers gone from the region, and [Israel] left with a Hezbollah and Iran that have greater capabilities.”

Israel opposes ISIS, but Israel’s greater concern is Assad’s Iranian backing. Assad enables Iran to support two paramilitary foes of Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel therefore prioritizes the removal of Assad over the defeat of ISIS.