The Many Friends And Foes of The Islamic State (ISIS)

The United States is leading a coalition against ISIS in an airstrike campaign that has thus far had debatable impact on the powerful and growing terrorist group.

But this 60+ nation alliance is far from the only foe of ISIS, and is up against an equally diverse group of ISIS supporters.

ISIS has the sympathy and support of some notable groups, for now, along with and an even greater amount of enemies both near and far. Here are some of ISIS’ most powerful friends and foes.


Sunni allies: Not all Sunni muslims support ISIS’ extreme religious beliefs, in fact, it’s been shown that they’re widely unpopular. However, politically speaking, there are Sunni muslims in both Iraq and Syria that side with ISIS because the governments of both Iraq and Syria are Shia-ruled, and largely repressive of Sunnis.

aha75pxIconIt is estimated that 8,000 of ISIS’ 30,000 fighters are Iraqi nationalists, outnumbering the regional natives that believe in global jihad.

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”n7zTboBhkGYuJPcv97UWmtzZ5y8DXZ6P”]Absorbed Syrian rebels: ISIS technically opposes the Assad regime in Syria, a dictatorship that many others are against including the United States.

While diverse groups fought against Assad during the Syrian civil war, ISIS benefited from fresh recruits and an ungoverned landscape. Meanwhile, Assad largely leaves ISIS alone while weakening moderate rebels.

Foreign fighters: As we’ve detailed previously, a rising number of foreign fighters are traveling from all corners of the world to fight for ISIS.

Many are young, untrained, passionate jihadi sympathisers, but the vast majority are from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, from which over 3,000 fighters have been recruited  respectively.

aha75pxIconOfficials estimate that in total, about 16,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries are now in Syria, though not all necessarily fight for ISIS.

Baathist Naqshbandi Army: Though the exact relationship between ISIS and the Naqshbandi Army is a complicated one, tribes and former loyalists of Saadam Hussein’s Baath party have fought alongside ISIS against common Shia “enemies,” even though their ideologies differ.

Such ex-Baathists have reportedly been ordered to swear allegiance to ISIS or be executed.

Other extremists groups: ISIS does not acknowledge other Islamic extremists as valid, therefore even like-minded terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda are considered enemies.

Even so, insurgent groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Khorasan Group share goals of conquest of Iraq and Syria, and are also being targeted by US airstrikes along with ISIS.

Six leaders of the Pakistani Taliban have also pledged their allegiance to ISIS, though this does not speak for the rest of the movement.


International coalition against ISIS: Over 60 nations are reportedly on board what the Pentagon is calling Operation Inherent Resolve.

In spite of past conflicts, the common fear of ISIS has made unlikely bedfellows of regional nations, which are contributing to the fight in different ways — some with air power, donations, training, or the provision of arms and humanitarian aid.

aha75pxIconSunni nations Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are officially allies against ISIS, however, their involvement has been minimal.

On the other hand, U.S. cooperation with countries like Syria and Iran is being kept low key for a variety of reasons.

Shias and Anti-ISIS Sunnis: ISIS, which is comprised of Sunni Islam extremists, is opposed not only by the Shia sect of Islam, but by Sunnis that disagree with their radical cause.

A number of Sunni tribes have allied with Iraqi authorities and Shia-led security forces to combat their common foe.

PKK and other Kurds: The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as well as Iraqi Kurdish forces and the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) are helping each other in battle against ISIS. There is even one group of all female Kurdish fighters, part of the Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga.

The Kurds make up a large chunk anti-ISIS forces, and have been joined by some unusual allies, including a Dutch biker gang called No Surrender and several Americans.

Iraqi Army and Shia militias: The Iraqi Army along with various other Shia-based militias — with the assistance of Iran — have fought ISIS alongside the Kurds.

aha75pxIconThe Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, outnumbering ISIS’ estimated 30,000.

However, the Iraqi army has so far been weakened due to its Sunni-Shia mix, an imbalance that may have contributed to their flight from ISIS instead of facing them in the past.

Syrian rebels: While some Syrian rebels may have joined ISIS, others are rallying against them.

Among these are newly organized coalitions, which include the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the Free Syrian Army, and the Islamic Front of Syrian Revolutionaries.

Originally published on November 6, 2014. 

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Jennifer Markert