The Islamic State: 5% of the Militarization Problem

By Erik Goepner

An estimated 1,000+ militant organizations currently operate in Iraq, Syria, or both. Comprising somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million fighters, each fights for its desired piece of the power pie. Professor Robert Bates of Harvard wrote that when states fail, “those with power employ it to extract resources from those without power. The latter flock to those who offer them security, albeit often for a price…Political predation from the top is thus accompanied by the militarization of civic society below.”* The “militarization of civic society” seems an apt description for Iraq and Syria, where IS and its ~30,000 fighters comprise just 5% of the overall armed presence.

The extent of militarization within both countries represents a substantially larger problem than IS alone. The 1,000+ armed groups, however large or small, each has a different perspective on what the future should look like, and each appears to agree with Mao that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Should IS be defeated, approximately 1,000 armed groups would remain. They include the Iraqi army, of which 48% of its brigades are assessed as too sectarian to be a credible force against IS. Syria’s security forces, the next largest group, have been condemned for their systematic attacks against the civilian population, with more than 190,000 now dead. The third largest group is likely the Kurdish Peshmerga, which the U.S. has begun arming. With somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 fighters, they fight for the Kurdistan Regional Government located in northern Iraq. Their goals remain somewhat unclear, but appear to include increasing territorial gains in Iraq and, potentially, the establishment of their own nation-state. The next largest, the Islamic Front, is an umbrella group for multiple Islamist groups comprised of an estimated 50,000 fighters intent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria. Depending on which estimates are more accurate, the fifth largest armed group is either IS or the Free Syrian Army.

A sample of the remaining 1,000 or so armed groups follows:

Estimated Fighting Strength Name Description
10,000 Mahdi Army (aka Peace Brigades) Shiite; fighting IS, historically has received support from Iran
10,400 Islamic Army of Iraq Sunni Islamist, nationalist; more inclusive of others within the Iraqi jihadist movement than IS
10,000 Badr Organization Shiite; previously aligned with the ISCI
5,000 – 6,000 al-Nusra Front Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria
2,000 – 4,000 (“several thousand”) 1920s Revolution Brigades Sunni Islamist, nationalist; wants to install a state guided by Islamist principles in Iraq
1,500 – 15,000 People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish; has been linked to Democratic Union Party (i.e., the dominant Kurdish party in Syria)
1,500 – 5,000 Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) Sunni; offers alternative to al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI)
1,000 – 5,000 League of the Righteous Shiite; opposed to al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, thought to be fighting in both Iraq and Syria; supported by Iran

*see “State Failure,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2008.

Image Credit: Business Insider Australia

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