Zakaria: ISIS may be most significant terrorist organization we’ve faced
August 26th, 2014
02:38 AM ET

Zakaria: ISIS may be most significant terrorist organization we’ve faced

CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria, traveling in Bodrum, Turkey, about recent developments in Iraq. This is an edited version of the transcript.

What do you make of the growing international alarm over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

The level of concern about ISIS is very deep, and very different from what I heard only a few months ago. There’s a sense that ISIS has become what al Qaeda always wanted to be. Remember, the world al Qaeda means base. Since 2001, al Qaeda really hasn’t had a base. It's been running around in mountains and caves.

ISIS is developing a very large, deep and sophisticated base. It has a financial base, by some estimates making $1 million a day. It has the ability to sell oil and wheat at a bargain. And of course it has this extraordinary military capacity. That military capacity is morphing in the wake of American air strikes. It’s moving from an open ground strategy, taking towns, to a guerilla strategy, hiding within towns. A kind of Hamas strategy. But all in all, if you look at that this, this is the most significant terrorist organization I think we’ve really ever faced. 

It's an alarming thought. You mentioned it has a military base there, but it also has a base of support. It represents something for Sunnis.

That's the core of it in a sense because they’ve been able to take so much land and move within the population. You know Mao Tse Tung of China always said that gorillas swim like fish in the water, meaning that they have to be people, the locals have to be friendly otherwise they're not going to be able to stay there.

What has happened is that ISIS has stepped into the Sunni discontent, the Sunni discontent about being ruled in Syria by Alawites, this minority sect that they regard as heretical. And in Iraq being ruled by Persians, which is how they regard the Shia government of Iraq, even though it isn't actually Persian.

And that reality is in many ways at the heart of it. There’s another piece, which is some of Saddam Hussein's old Baath Party military machine is back. You see some of these characters – the old skeleton of Saddam Hussein's army.

For many Americans, the beheading of James Foley brought ISIS into focus, although U.S. officials, as you mentioned, and others have been concerned about this for some time. Now that the U.S. is considering more military action, is it safe to say that the U.S. is at war with ISIS? And in the region do you find that because of the concern there, that others are willing to join the U.S. in a real fight against ISIS?

I think now I'm beginning to sense that awareness and that willingness. Look at Turkey, for example. In some ways the ISIS problem was fuelled by Turkey. The Turks began their opposition towards the al-Assad government in Syria saying we don't want al-Assad. We’re going to find a moderate opposition. They tried to stand up a moderate opposition, they essentially created the Syrian Free Army. It didn't really go anywhere. These guys weren't great fighters, they weren't able to fight. At that point, the Turks decide out of frustration to just let anyone into Syria. And that strategy of letting anyone in fuelled the worse kinds of people going into Syria and forming and building what is now ISIS.

So everybody now has had a kind of wakeup call. There are many, many debates about what you can do and how you can do it because ISIS is strong enough that air strikes alone are not going to defeat it. Fighting it from Iraq alone probably won't defeat it. The real challenge is what do you do in Syria? You don’t have powerful, capable moderate forces. The only force that is battling ISIS in Syria of any note is, of course, the army of al-Assad, the government of Syria.

And the United States and Turkey are both deadly opposed to it. So that's the strategic conundrum. We don't quite know how to get at ISIS in Syria. Iraq is easier, but they can always move across the border to Syria and recoup and rebuild.

Does this change the strategic calculus for the U.S. and the West when it comes to al-Assad? Is there an odd alliance that results from this where the U.S., the West are fighting against ISIS with them together?

There’s a pedigree of this kind of thing in international relations. When Churchill was asked why Britain aligned itself with communist Soviet Union, he said if Hitler had invaded hell, I would have joined forces with the devil.

The problem here is it's not going to be that easy to align ourselves with al-Assad. Al-Assad is the reason you have the insurgency in the first place. Al-Assad is the reason you have this massive discontent. I think in this case what you have to try to do is get at the roots of ISIS' support, and that is the Sunni discontent. You have to get the Iraqi government to be more inclusive and broaden out and reach out to the Sunnis and frankly start buying or renting the tribes, which is what David Petraeus did when he was general there.

You mentioned how Turkey inadvertently contributed to the ISIS problem by letting the foreign fighters across the border. I wonder about the U.S. role. President Obama has called it a fantasy, in his words, that U.S. military action before this point would have done anything to stop ISIS's rise. Do you think that's fair? Do you think that the U.S. inadvertently contributed by not acting in Syria earlier?

What I'm hearing on the ground here is that there are a lot of people who wish the United States had been more involved. They definitely feel like it would have helped. But they are also very aware of the reality that ISIS is a much more dedicated, much more efficient, much more organized fighting force than any of the other ones around, that perhaps it was inevitable that the most intense forces are going to survive here.

If you look at the ones that are doing well in Syria and have been doing well for two years now, it's groups like ISIS, al-Nusra, these very hard lined religiously oriented forces. The nice liberal democrats or the moderates – they have really have not shown themselves to be able to fight and fight hard anywhere.

Now maybe this could have changed with a modest amount of American support. It seems to me highly unlikely. It seems much more likely that in one of these highly polarized civil war struggles, the extremes went out and the center gets crushed.

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Topics: Terrorism • Turkey

soundoff (380 Responses)
  1. chri§§y

    Its just as i stated last night...get the facts first and then distort them how you wish!
    Mark Twaine

    August 30, 2014 at 3:08 am |
  2. lin chow

    Bad Isis is very bad

    August 30, 2014 at 5:55 am |
  3. lin chow

    Me no like isis.

    August 30, 2014 at 5:56 am |
  4. rupert

    Sorry ladies, but I'm gonna have to go with philip on this one. More detailed and concrete. Thus more credible. Maybe next time girls.

    August 30, 2014 at 8:42 am |
    • LaBella

      🎶If you were dead or still alive,
      I don't care,
      I don't care
      And all the things you left behind,
      I don't care,
      I don't care

      August 30, 2014 at 11:02 am |
    • Philip

      Thanks, Rupert. I appreciate that a heck of a lot more than the snide remarks and attempted character assassinations I receive from the Party in My Panties clutch.
      Hope to be here long enough to get to know you, sir.

      August 30, 2014 at 8:57 pm |
      • LaBella

        You deserve all you get, you snarky pusser.

        September 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
  5. rupert

    Aww LaBella. I want to kiss u.....

    August 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
    • LaBella

      🎶Letting go, oo-oo
      Dont look out, oo-oo
      No way, no way, no way

      August 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm |
  6. rupert

    Your keystrokes say no, no, no
    Your fingers say yes,yes,yes.

    August 30, 2014 at 3:43 pm |
    • LaBella

      Are you a rapist? That's the sort of things they say.

      🎶Desperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no younger
      Your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home
      And freedom, oh freedom well, that's just some people talkin'
      Your prison is walking through this world all alone

      August 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm |
      • Philip

        Are you a victim of raype? Most women and girls who are keep it secret from police. Even their own parents pay for costly abortions to cover for rapists.
        Google US Ra(y)pe Statistics and see for yourself.
        It is a federal felony not to report rayoes of under aged Americans, btw.

        August 30, 2014 at 8:45 pm |
      • LaBella

        Do you not understand the written word? What ruper wrote was distinctly rapey. If you agree with what he wrote, you are too. You're all over the place, Evenflow.

        September 2, 2014 at 12:08 pm |
      • LaBella

        🎶Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies
        Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away
        Someday yet, he'll begin his life again
        Life again, life again...

        September 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Philip

    Dang it. My stupid Android sometimes only allows me to see the last few comments. Am thinking of upgrading though I hate fixing things that aren't broken down.
    Any suggestions? Have been looking at Techno D5 with Android 4.0
    An multi -hundred dollar "smart phone" is out of the question.

    August 30, 2014 at 9:01 pm |
  8. Philip


    August 31, 2014 at 7:36 am |
  9. chri§§y

    Lol philip...if youre waiting for an intelligent response from rupert you will wait along time. Since HES the troll you'll have to wait for someone else to answer so he can steal the answer! And i fail to see WHY my being rayped by my grandfather at 3 yrs old is any of your freaking business!!! Or how it proves ANY of your ignorant points! If ever anyone should be on meds its you! You are seriously deranged!

    August 31, 2014 at 11:28 am |
  10. Don Ray

    Perhaps the answer to what response should the USA make to Isis is too simplistic and the leadership cannot see the forest for the trees. The Kurds do not have a de jure couuntry. the Kurds do have a de facto country. The Kurds are allies of the USA and fought with the USA in desert storm. The USA has an obligation to defend the Kurds from invasions of every kind with whatever means may be necessary including the bombing Isis bases in Syira if that is the head quarters of the Isis invaders. That may be all the USA may need to do. The rest of the middle east can fend for themselves.

    August 31, 2014 at 6:26 pm |
    • Philip

      Don Ray? The US has as a first responsibility to defend US against DOMESTIC TERRORISTS! nothing defend Kurds who were seemed by US and then abandoned to be wiped out by the bloodthirsty Saddam Hussein who was also armed by US and Israel. (cite: The Teicher Affidavit...proof from NSA whistle blower that US and Israel armed Saddam before AND after he committed major atrocities against his own citizenry which is a violation of international law)
      "ISIL" are actually Muslim Brotherhood financed by The Barack H. Obama foundation, btw.

      September 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm |
      • Philip

        *...not defend Kurds who were armed by US, rather.

        September 1, 2014 at 11:47 pm |
  11. Brigham Young

    America = out of control 800 lb Gorilla.......... Ha! Ha! Ha!.......... and it's a purdy dumb gorilla at that......... swatting mozzies in the desert, while Asia laughs all the way to the bank........... boink! boink! boink!............ gotta get those mozzies............. boink! boink! boink!........ oooops, run outta cash, never mind that............... boink! boink! boink!............. oh crap, have no jobs, never mind that............ boink! boink! boink!............ oh dear! half our country lives in poverty, never mind that............ boink! boink! boink!.......... sheeesh! half our people are divorced and on drugs, never mind that............ boink! boink! boink!.......... Yes Sir! gotta keep those war mongers rich rich rich.......... boink! boink! boink!.................. Sick huh?????????

    September 4, 2014 at 4:34 pm |
  12. Phelix Unger

    What can be done to fight isis, not just in Iraq or Syria, but at home. People should be mobilized in every community to show their disgust for this sick group of animals. If there is truly a loud enough cry against this and all terrorist groups, those in power will perhaps be forced into real action and eliminate these evil creatures where ever they hide. Its getting to be time to use the internet to its fullest potential. One Voice. One Message. Eliminate this threat to mankind. If we are waiting for a cause I can't help but think of this being the "ONE" all civilized citizens on this planet would support. Its time to take out the trash.

    September 5, 2014 at 1:25 am |
  13. Diane Troesch

    ??? ?????? ?? ?? ????? ?? ??? ?? ????? ?? ????? ????? ,????? ??????? ????? ?? ??? ??????? ?????? ??????? ??????? ??????.

    December 20, 2020 at 5:47 pm |
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