Just how rational (or crazy) is ISIS?

The recently established terrorist organization, ISIS has made a huge impact around the entire world within months and has proven to be a much larger threat to the Middle East and potentially nations all around the planet. The intentions of ISIS have been made clear since their conception, and that is to create a caliphate in the Middle East. They have already acquired territory roughly the size of Belgium so far in their conquest, and appear to wish to spread throughout the region even more, attempting to acquire all of Iraq in the process. The conflicts between Sunni and Shia help to boost up their numbers considering that they are Sunni, and appeal to other Sunnis in the region who wish to defeat the Shia.

The existence of ISIS could be potentially explained by Realism, and the pursuit of power and territory in a world of International Anarchy, with a hint of theological ideology thrown in the mix, although there are some aspects that could, or should make the claim that what they are doing is rational questionable. On one hand it can be argued that they are not crazy and completely fundamentalist, this is evident by their alignment with anti-Saddam secularist militias, and their self-sustaining cash flow coming from oil refineries and well organized crime brackets. They have even contributed to communities, helping to build them up and giving medical care to people in their controlled territory, winning over more support in the region. This appears to make them be rational actors, with very well-thought out plans and a system that ensures that they constantly gain new supporters by the day. Appealing to people around the world with their usage of social media and religious messages, getting other extremist Muslims to join from numerous nations, numbering to a shocking 15,000 members from foreign nations around 80 nations participating in the war on the side of ISIS. 2,000 of which are European, and around 100 are American.

Some features that make it seem as if what ISIS is doing is essentially insane, (yet not completely since victory isn’t even close to being in sight for anti-ISIS members) is the staggering amount of nations that are now participating in the fight against ISIS. One would expect this alone to mean that ISIS is doomed, yet the U.S. is overwhelmingly the most involved member of this coalition, with other members putting in significantly less direct military effort to stop ISIS. Even with Kurds and Anti-ISIL Sunni tribes helping in the fight they are not nearly enough to stop ISIS. Two nations that could prove to be essential in the fight against ISIS are Iran and Syria, but the lack of inclusion of leaders of these two nations and a seemingly low amount of intent to cooperate with them comes across as having a limited desire to actually defeat ISIS. The U.S. government doesn’t seem to want to align itself with the likes of Iran and Syria completely in the fight against ISIS, even though this could prove to be extremely effective in this fight.

The lack of overall International involvement militarily and the lack of trust between the U.S. and two key states, Syria and Iran, shows how the effort against ISIS isn’t exactly as strong as one would think considering that there are dozens of states in a coalition against it. Ingenious planning and tactical takeovers on ISIS’s part, as well as the intensely increasing numbers of soldiers fighting within their flanks, and even non-soldiers working alongside them such as doctors and other workers that mimics an actual operating state, puts them at a fairly large advantage even with a large coalition of some of the world’s most powerful nations against them. The lack of cooperation between the United States and states like Syria and Iran, and the lack of drive to get too directly involved on the part of most other members of the coalition greatly reflect key elements learned in class about uncertainty especially. with a lack of certainty about how trustworthy the U.S. can consider Iran/Syria as well as the lack of certainty on the part of other nations about how worth it getting involved would actually be for them.

One key thing that seems to make it appear that what ISIS is doing isn’t purely Realist in nature, is the threat of waging a jihad on the soil of numerous other nations, particularly the U.S., using foreigners that came in to join ISIS, get trained, and then returned to their home countries. This is more of an ideological element, and even though it shows how ISIS would want to pursue as much influence and power across the world as possible it isn’t exactly a tactic that would heighten its chance of survival, but rather increase hostility towards the “state” and the sentiment against them would become stronger raising the chance that they would be attacked by multiple states. Even with this apparent want on ISIS’s part they appear to have been acting fairly rationally overall so far in their endeavors, and with a lack of legitimate cooperation and strong united effort against them they will likely become much stronger.

Comment below with thoughts you have on this issue, and what you believe is likely to happen in the future in this fight against ISIS. Just how much more powerful do you believe ISIS will become? Do you think the U.S. must cooperate with Iran and Syria more in order to take out this threat more effectively? What do you make of the foreigners joining ISIS, how much of a threat could they pose against other states and just what does their membership say about International conflict and relations?
What credible incentive to these people have to leave places like Europe in the thousands to join ISIS (personal question that I am wondering about, and what this says since this class primarily focuses on state actors and non-state groups, and the people fleeing their nations to fight alongside ISIS and then return to their home countries seems to be a bit of a mind-boggling concept to explain in International terms appropriate for this course).


9 thoughts on “Just how rational (or crazy) is ISIS?

  1. I really liked your points on how we can sort of consider ISIS a “state”. The sheer fact that they are growing so rapidly is concerning and intriguing at the same time. I also haven’t heard anything previously about ISIS “humanitarian” efforts thus far, and I found it really interesting that mainstream media hasn’t really covered that. They’ve been labeled as a terroristic and barbaric force, but the fact that they are showing some form of compassion to those they have taken over is a really interesting point. That definitely helps their cause, in terms of community support in that region.


  2. First I would just like to say that I think this post is great generally but also in covering a multitude of the issues surrounding ISIS. I definitely agree that it is mind-boggling to see a flood of people from around the world that support ISIS coming to their aid and pledging to go home and continue the jihad. I am not particularly surprised though as this has happened on other occasions in the Middle East and actually Saudi Arabia was growing concerned at one point about what might happen when their nationals that would return radicalized and trained from fighting in Syria long before ISIS became a concern. I believe that these people who are mainly young are very ideological and have been inspired by recruiters that they would be fighting for a noble cause. It is the same mechanism required to recruit for any cause, good or bad, I think it’s just harder for us to grasp in terms of ISIS from a Western perspective where we have so clearly labeled ISIS as the enemy.

    As for whether or not they should be cooperating with Iran and Syria I must say I am conflicted. On the one hand I don’t think they should because as a liberal democracy the US shouldn’t be aligning itself with countries who have in the past has called for our destruction and the destruction of our allies or for that matter any extremely oppressive and violent regimes. On the other hand I recently read a quote by President Roosevelt I believe, saying essentially that he would work with the devil to defeat Hitler. I guess it really depends on how big of a threat ISIS truly is and develops into, but at the moment with the coalition of states that has formed jumping to align with Iran and Syria may be too soon.


  3. When ISIS’s siege through Iraq first caught on with the western press, they were just growing in size and strength. There was a point where they were just accumulating wealth through robberies, with some bank heists earning half a billion in funds for their cause, through extortion, and from foreign actors from other middle eastern countries (like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar). Now it seems they’re earning enough revenue from taxation, wheat sales, and Syrian oil (some of which they’ve even sold back to the Assad regime). ISIS is now self sustaining and even cutting off foreign support from other countries won’t be enough to stop them. It is difficult to imagine a solution to this problem, but I’m very skeptical as of now that US military intervention will do anything. It hasn’t worked for the past 20 years, and it’s difficult to imagine it working now. Training Iraq’s military also appears to have been unsuccessful, seeing as how they crumbled almost immediately during the first few days of ISIS’s uprising. Syria is another difficult actor, seeing as the Assad government is less than ideal to support because of its war crimes. They’re even partially to blame for the rise of ISIS thanks to Assad releasing Islamo-Fascist prisoners to influence his countries unrest, thus radicalizing his opposition, and allowing him the development of an enemy that would earn him world support in the international community. Arming rebels is also very risky considering how liquid alliances tend to be in the middle east. Iran may be a powerful ally in this conflict if some sort of agreement can be achieved, but working with Iran may anger Saudi Arabia and Israel. I’m honestly unsure as to what the solution could be to this problem, but humanitarian aid to regain the trust of people in the middle east, and legitimizing the ISIS bargaining chip of being in opposition to the occupiers, as well as providing support to the Kurds and other non-radical groups in their attempts to push back ISIS militants.


      • I personally do not think that direct military intervention on the part of the U.S. is a good idea either considering how it has consistently failed and been counter-productive numerous times throughout history. Working with Syria and Iran to an extent seems plausible, regardless of how mad Saudi Arabia and Israel become, and actions from these nations have often been blamed for the rise of a lot of fundamentalist regimes in that region too. Backing the Kurds is something I can definitely get behind.


  4. I enjoyed this post and you did a great job explaining what the deal is with ISIS. One thing I found interesting in the article you linked to from the Atlantic was that ISIS doesnt actually control all the territory that its borders appear to show. The territory it actullly controls is the roadways connecting the cities it has taken. Most of the land outside of that is just plain, useless and boring desert. Anyway, great post!


    • Yes, it is very interesting! A lot of the land is uninhabited so they aren’t quite as huge as a lot of people claim. Taking back the roadways may be key to defeating them.


  5. I agree with some of our classmates, this article does a great job covering many points with the situation/war with ISIS. Their threat is valid, but their goal, like many terrorists, is not attainable. Eventually, having different foreigners come together will cause some sort of dispersion among ISIS. I think you implying they might have a realist perspective is true, but a very radical realist approach is more appropriate. They are not a “state” technically, so applying IR can get tricky. I think our great nation and the rest of our alliances fighting this group will make it an unfair fight like it already is.


  6. I agree with some of the comments here. ISIS has made recognizable gains throughout the Middle East. That being said I think that Western nations will only allow this to go so far. Because most of the ISIS activity is focused in the Middle East now we’re focused on slowing their capabilities with airstrikes in an effort to halt the spread into Western Countries. I think the airstrikes will only end up working if they are able to slow down ISIS resolve. As we talked about in class, we can measure an actors ability and willingness to go to war through resolve. Consistent airstrikes at key locations could be a factor in limiting and ultimately halting ISIS resolve. In all I think ISIS has not reached the threshold for Western nations to fully intervene and engage in open conflict with ISIS. As for cooperation with Iran and Syria, past and recent events will make this cooperation difficult. If we recall bargaining strategies and cooperation discussed in class, working with Syria and Iran for this one time threat will not have promising cooperation outcomes as any continued cooperation with Syria and Iran seems unlikely after the ISIS threat has been stopped.

    As far as ISIS being compassionate towards the people they’ve “conquered” I’d have to say its simply an agreement between the people and ISIS. They can expect to be left alone if they follow ISIS ideology and would simply do so to survive. If given a way out I would argue that those who have come under ISIS control would take it.


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