The U.S.'s Major Mistake Vis-a-vis ISIS: Treating It as an Organization, Not an Evil Regime

The Americans keep on making the mistake of seeing the Islamic State as an organization, not an occupying regime that maintains civilian rule – even if it has to execute a gynecologist or two to keep order.


It’s hard not to admire the ingenuity that the war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has inspired. Last week, for example, Gen. David Petraeus – the former CIA head who was forced to resign in 2012 over suspicions of revealing classified information – presented a new patent for helping defeat the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.

According to Petraeus, some fighters from the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front joined ISIS for opportunistic reasons. He said they could be tempted to abandon the terror organization, be retrained, funded and sent back to fight ISIS.

This crazy idea elicited comic responses and made some decision makers in Washington, D.C. bow their heads in shame. Petraeus, the general who led the war in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, didn't detail how exactly the CIA would screen the “good” terrorists among the Nusra ranks, or how he could guarantee that, after receiving American arms and money, they wouldn’t then return to helping ISIS or Al-Qaida.

Petraeus said in an interview with CNN that his idea came after a successful experience in Iraq, when some of the Sunni fighters who joined Al-Qaida temporarily agreed to join the government forces to fight the terrorist group. He strangely neglected to mention that after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, many of those same Sunni fighters then returned to the ranks of Al-Qaida and fought the Iraqi regime.

In contrast to the wider public, Petraeus is also familiar with research the CIA conducted in 2014 (and published in The New York Times). The research concluded that relying on local militias was a mistaken policy that, in the best case, ended in resounding failure, and in the worst caused damage to the United States. The CIA is not crazy about using local militias in Syria or Iraq, and so it's little wonder that the training plan declared by President Barack Obama – and for which the U.S. Congress allocated $500 million – is going nowhere.

And yet the most worrying part is not Petraeus' idea – clearly the result of heatstroke – but rather a recognition that the U.S. government has no effective military doctrine to employ against ISIS and Al-Qaida. Still, at least it's not urgent: The working assumption is that this is a perpetual war, until Congress announces that it's cutting the enormous budgets set aside for it – and that probably won’t happen in the current decade.

Meanwhile, life goes on for the Islamic State. Last month, the first academic year ended at the medical departments the organization opened in Mosul, Iraq, and Al-Raqqa, Syria. The students are only two years away from obtaining medical degrees. According to ISIS publications, demand is high and only 100 male and female students were accepted out of 300 candidates.

Three Syrian medical students who had joined ISIS initiated the establishment of the medical college in Al-Raqqa. They established departments serving the local population, including gynecology, oncology, surgery and trauma units, together with volunteers from the West. Only women work in the gynecology department, after ISIS made clear in its own unique way that men are forbidden from treating women: it executed gynecologist Abdullah al-Shalash three months ago because a foreign female patient was in his office.

Doctors are a necessary commodity within ISIS, with the organization's websites inviting them to volunteer “to serve the Islamic State.” Similarly, it also prohibits doctors from leaving areas under its control. ISIS recently began charging for medical treatments, as part of ongoing efforts to line its coffers. If it cannot offer suitable treatment, it transfers the sick and wounded to Turkey for an $80 ambulance fee. ISIS' medical service system is just one example of its civil administration in Iraq and Syria. At the moment there's no alternative strategy to disconnect the organization from local life and the cooperation it imposes on civilians.

Thus, when Petraeus suggests gathering fighters from other terror organizations to help in the war against the Islamic State, he still treats ISIS as an organization and not an occupying regime that relies on its ability to maintain civilian cooperation. This mistaken perception is based, among other things, on reports in the global press that highlight the atrocities ISIS carries out, and only looks at the war front. It doesn't explain how ISIS succeeds in building a normative life in cities like Mosul, Ramadi, Al-Raqqa and others, allowing studies, trade and even industry, and to make citizens get used to a way of life that is probably preferable in their eyes to that forced upon millions of refugees.