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.

Post by:
Topics: Terrorism • Turkey

soundoff (380 Responses)
  1. KEVIN

    We can't babysit this region and that is exactly what we will be telling the inhabitants if we make any major military moves. We can't treat the inhabitants of that area like children and then hope they will grow up. They have to physically do it themselves unless we are willing to enslave them all.

    August 26, 2014 at 4:29 am |
    • drtrener

      This Zakaria knows thispart of the world so I d pay attention when he says this. Hemight not like Israel but he calls it as he sees it. Guy gets his head cut off and we re sitting on our hands. eff em drop the bombs

      August 26, 2014 at 9:01 am |
  2. Really??????

    OK, so going out there.......Who F'N cares who we can track down / ID / whatever. If you area willing to for the sake of some god/dieety/religious belief kill someone and state it is your religious right to do so........then GREAT!. Embrace it, show your true affiliation with it and SHOW YOUR FREAKING FACE, unless of course you are in some way ashamed of it. AND, if the latter, is it worth facing your maker when your ass is passed on and explaining why your cut another persons head off is just, right and appropriate? Life is a sacred thing to most of the human population. Taking another's life is to be considered carefully, with deep thought and remorse, should it be necessary. The points that have been made are not worthy of any extermination of life, and should be considered crimes by the rest of humanity who must endure the ridiculous and preposterous explanations that morons use to justify them. Please consider using other diplomatic means to garner your requested outcome. your antics to date are self-limiting to your cause......which nobody is getting... get the hint??

    August 26, 2014 at 4:33 am |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      Life is a sacred thing to most of the human population? @ Really??????
      I see no reason to consider life "sacred." I see it as precious and of the greatest importance.
      We have self-declared enemies whose sacred thing is a prophet's directed writing that justifies our death.
      If anything is "sacred," it is my responsibility to defend my life by neutralizing those enemies By Any Means Necessary. That means "Any."

      August 26, 2014 at 8:46 am |
  3. ynotblue

    The US can't seem to make anyone happy with its ME policy. Thanks to our quick and somewhat unprepared intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq last decade, armed intervention in any trouble throughout the region appears to be on the table all the time. If you look back on time, we sat out several wars in Lebanon, all Israeli conflicts with its neighbors, the Iraq-Iran war, Pakistan-India conflicts, several wars in north Africa, not to mention many ethnically based more or less hot border conflicts. All this went down without direct US participation following Britain vacating the region. Now it's the US fault because a fighting force like ISIL emerged? What about blaming the oil rich countries which are sitting on a pile of disposable income due to the quadrupling of the oil price during the past decade? Conquests for more oil sources have become affordable. I think that's at the heart of the existence of ISIL.

    August 26, 2014 at 5:07 am |
    • drtrener

      question is what to do with the problem at hadn ISIS springs from Syria and Iraq.. we blew it in Syria, watchede them roll in iraq, miscalculated and guys head is cutoff. Blow them up period

      August 26, 2014 at 9:04 am |
  4. dongszkie

    the problem with human rulership is that it can not foresee what the future will bring, suddenly and unwittingly, that could outrighly change the calculus one envisaged in the early prospect.

    August 26, 2014 at 6:44 am |
  5. ChrisM

    Foley killer featured in Republican campaign ad

    August 26, 2014 at 8:20 am |
  6. rupert

    Lol. "If Hitler invaded hell, I would have aligned myself with the devil."

    August 26, 2014 at 8:40 am |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Churchull might have exaggerated. The ISIS is as cruel as the Nazis and Assad could be compared to Joseph Stalin. But Obama is not going to be a Winston Churchill and he will not want to be seen as fighting ISIS to help Assad strengthen his position.

      August 27, 2014 at 9:50 am |
  7. John

    ISIS was a NATO coordinated project that got out of hand now. NATO’s aim was to topple Assad within a year using these terrorists. But Assad has been able to resist the terrorists long enough for them to turn on their masters. Ultimate aim of the NATO project was to weaken Iran influence in Syria & Lebanon. Even if everything turns to custard, dragging Iran into proxy Sunni/Shia war would be a win for NATO.

    August 26, 2014 at 8:42 am |
    • drtrener

      sure was a niceand stupid idea Guess hagel the bagel head better go back to army war college

      August 26, 2014 at 9:05 am |
    • cskoog2014

      John – :"Isis was a NATO coordinated project". Kindly cite your source on this highly dubious statement as well as its supporting evidence. I seriously doubt that you have any...evidence that is.

      August 26, 2014 at 11:58 am |
  8. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Sometimes a good thing is too late.
    "What thou doest, do quickly."
    "Give 'em hell, Harry."
    "Oh, Smithy, Smithy, it may not be too late."

    August 26, 2014 at 8:53 am |
  9. Shahg

    yeah keep lionizing these crazies, thats exactly what they thrive on, media attention and JIHADICOOL image of themselves, they need to be eliminated and shunned from the media attention they crave. I know this as I am from the region, its ridiculous to give them so much importance.

    August 26, 2014 at 9:02 am |
  10. entheo

    IS will be extremely difficult to dislodge, even more so than the taliban. they are the 'true believers' who seek a caliphate and establishment of sharia law, and they'll be happy to die for this cause. perceived injustices elsewhere (e.g. the palestinians) will only win them covert support. post WWII lines will be difficult to enforce. look to the history of genghis khan for a blueprint for IS - it ain't pretty, and there are no easy answers.

    August 26, 2014 at 9:05 am |
  11. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    What we need to do is to quit trying to run that part of the world and try to get the ISIS, the Kurds and the Shi'ite government of Iraq to settle their differences and split Iraq into three different states. Our current policy of trying to kill the ISIS off is simply wrong and also it's driving more and more Sunnis to join it.

    August 26, 2014 at 9:10 am |
    • digitalcj

      Good luck with that.

      August 26, 2014 at 9:49 am |
  12. MF Hussain

    Doesn't say anything about how Saudi Arabia and Saudi's support this Salafist/Wahabbi group!

    August 26, 2014 at 9:19 am |
  13. entheo

    we should also place a moratorium on the use of the words 'terrorism' and 'terrorist organization', because it oversimplifies the causes and understanding the problems and marginalizes the threats. the beheading of a journalist and a rocket attack on a UN school in gaza are both terrorist acts, as were, as truman admitted, the bombings or hiroshima and nagasaki. IS wants to be what their name says - an islamic state that establishes a caliphate under sharia law. the discussion should be what to do about that.

    August 26, 2014 at 9:22 am |
  14. holloman59

    I am bewildered. I have listened to the experts on the ground for the last two years. I cant believe the things that are said by the experts on the ground. Why dose it matter? Well for one I met one of these martyrs in KSA 1991. Who do you think the US has been fighting in the insurgency sense GB2 announced mission accomplished of the Iraq war. The US has been engaged with these brigades sense the onslaught of Afghanistan. There were national news reports of the martyr brigades before and after 9/11. There are archives of video news casts that fly the martyr's flag in Libya, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, KSA, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, and only god knows were else, US? The US let one martyr commander out of GITMO in 2009 and look what happened. The US lets five more Martyr Commanders out in 2014 and they consolidate there Brigades into a small Army which believe they can win. Expert I think not. Cant wait till the experts start explaining.

    August 26, 2014 at 9:45 am |
  15. Pranav

    The role of western powers in creating ISIS was even greater than Assad. West is making every country a battler ground, meddling in it's affairs, disturbing the peace, arming rebels, creating a havoc and leaving the place. This is a very dangerous trend, which will cost dearly to humanity.

    August 26, 2014 at 9:51 am |
  16. palintwit

    All the more reason to send in the best negotiator this country has ever seen... Sarah Palin ! Afterall, she can charm a dung beetle into doing backflips.

    August 26, 2014 at 10:01 am |
    • cskoog2014

      Please tell me that's sarcasm...please!

      August 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm |
  17. HeyHey

    Fareed is the last person I'm going to listen to.

    August 26, 2014 at 10:29 am |
    • holloman59

      who is this, is this Obama?

      August 26, 2014 at 10:35 am |
    • cskoog2014

      Why? More often than not he gets it right.

      August 26, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
    • ignorant indeed

      that's cos' you are an ignorant loser........... go get an education............. you will respect Fareed after that..............

      August 26, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
  18. syrianewsclips

    The Shias are the culprits here, Why Iran and Iraq supporting Asad in crimes ? ISIS comes much later, Asad is still the most evil and murderous there even if we combine all the crimes of rebels include ISIS. Any action by US against ISIS in Syria would be seen as supporting criminal Asad against Sunnis by larger Sunni population in the middle east and US has more strategic interests in Sunni areas. For any strategy to work the first priority should be to take out Asad that will take away a big chuck of support for ISIS and will move the ball rolling for their complete elimination.

    August 26, 2014 at 10:59 am |
  19. Jp

    Please don't make these out to be anything more than a gang of criminals. They are not invincible. They exist because the countries are operating under a contaiinment action instead of an elimination strategy. You do not go to war for a draw. You go for victory. These vermin are the modern day equivalent of the divine wind. Until the world wakes up and uses the proper weapons , they will continue to kill innocent human beings

    August 26, 2014 at 11:28 am |
  20. Barbarosa

    And who spawned ISIS in the first place? Who lnspired and invigorated it? No one is asking these questions! ISIS was spawned by unrivaled brutality perpetrated, first by a sectarian tyrant in Maliki and ilk, and then by lack of actions on the Syrian scene, as Assad barbarism against his own people, mostly Sunni Muslims just like in Iraq, was ignored and sidelined. This exposed world hypocricy and inspired radicalism and extremism.

    August 26, 2014 at 11:35 am |
  21. Matt

    "You know Mao Tse Tung of China always said that gorillas swim like fish in the water"….if ISIS gets swimming gorillas the West is screwed. Gueriila warfare is bad….maritime gorilla warfare is something totally worse….

    August 26, 2014 at 11:36 am |
  22. EKB

    To quote your post: "You know Mao Tse Tung of China always said that gorillas swim like fish in the water". For what its worth, guerrillas swim like fish in the water, while gorillas sit on the ground, eat fruit, and groom each other. Does anybody proof read this stuff?

    August 26, 2014 at 12:00 pm |
    • cskoog2014

      EKB – Apparently not.

      August 26, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
  23. Big Bob

    Just don't mention J. I. M.
    i s u
    h l s
    a a l
    d m u

    August 26, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
  24. Big Bob

    Didn't come out as well as I wanted. Connect the dots. You'll get the answer. Think "down" crossword puzzle.

    j I h a d

    I s l a m

    M u s l I m

    August 26, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
  25. joey zingatto

    ISIL the worst? Hardly! Just as bad: Israel's monstrous crew of war criminals; al Sisi; al Asad; Maliki; Afghan puppets; etc,etc. We are in bed with all these ass clowns. Lie down with dogs and wake up with fleas. The US is coated with fleas. Well at least our police are now fully militarized and looking very cool while protecting our way of life.

    August 26, 2014 at 12:47 pm |
  26. chri§§y

    Agree @ joey hardly! We have our very own homegrown ones that we have paid with our hard earned tax dollars...the ones we call CONGRESS!

    August 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
    • awesome comment chrissy

      Thanks chrissy. awesome comment.

      August 26, 2014 at 5:19 pm |
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