To understand the magnitude of the problem on a global level, and not just on the Syrian and regional fronts, we must be aware of just how significant the CIA’s estimates of the number of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters is. Less than two years ago, the CIA estimated ISIS number at just a few hundreds; a few months ago that number was closed to 10,000. This week, however, the CIA admitted that in just a few short months ISIS numbers could have tripled to 30,000. Governments across the world have also confirmed that many of their Muslim citizens have joined up.
ISIS today is the largest terrorist organization in the world. It is twice the size of the Kuwaiti military while its financing, arms and hiding places means that it is one of the richest states in the region. ISIS fighters also surpass the strength of the world’s armies in one other aspect; they are ready, willing and eager to die. One ISIS fighter is equal to ten regular soldiers. ISIS also includes hundreds of fighters who are willing to perform suicide attacks. ISIS could rival even the US military, which is the most highly-trained and well-equipped army in the world. The CIA’s estimate of ISIS’s fighting strength is most likely based on information from the ground, aerial surveillance, interrogating prisoners and gathering information from friendly security apparatuses.
Therefore, to think that the battle can be won by aerial intervention or a limited military campaign in Iraq is a delusion. This is a simplification of a difficult situation which has become even more exacerbated as the result of negligence and the passage of time. We are confronting a fierce war in Syria and its surrounding countries and it will take us at least two years—and probably double that time—to end this.
All signs indicate that the fight against ISIS will be a prolonged one, especially in Syria. As for Iraq, considering the state of the Iraqi military, its capabilities and its ability to secure local alliance, Baghdad is capable of expelling and defeating ISIS so long as the central government deals with this threat seriously. However the war on ISIS in Syria will be the the most difficult from a political, social and military standpoint.
As silence continues over Syrian regime forces’ targeting 70 percent of the country’s population—who are Sunni—and as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iranian militias continue to fight alongside Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, ISIS will no doubt alter its stance and seek to be embraced by the Sunnis for its own protection. It will thus seek to win the sympathy of Sunnis across the world, in the same manner that the Taliban withdrew to Afghan’s tribal regions for refuge.
US President Barack Obama’s positive step of approving training for the Free Syrian Army—worth 500 million US dollars—to fight ISIS will lay the foundation of relations between the US and the Syrian people. It may be the first step towards a long-awaited decision to support change in Syria. However, we cannot rely on this to combat ISIS. The 500 million US dollars will go to training less than 3,000 opposition fighters—which is half the number of Hezbollah fighters in Syria. The FSA seems even smaller when compared to ISIS.
What further complicates the situation is that training 3,000 Syrian opposition fighters is a very slow process that will require at least two years. Fighting ISIS is something that cannot wait. This will require drawing more manpower from the thousands of Syrian army defectors who currently reside in refugee camps, either inside or outside Syria, to join the fight against ISIS as professional soldiers. It will require reviving efforts for a political solution. Perhaps the parties that support Bashar Al-Assad have finally realized how far their ally has sunk, and that it is time for a reconciliation government that does not include him.