In September, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rhetorically asked an NBC correspondent about ISIS: "Who financed them? Who provided them with money? It's really clear -- where do the weapons come from? The terrorists who have come from all the countries, from which channel [did they enter], where were they trained, in which country were they trained? I don't think it is somehow difficult to identify this information." ISIS money has come from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and to a lesser extent Iraq,
Turkey and Qatar's reasons for supporting ISIS have much to do with oil and the politics of refugees. An Iranian pipeline to Syria and then on to Turkey was fine with Syria and Turkey as long as Bashar al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were getting along. But with the Syrian civil war spilling hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey, Erdoğan's affection for Assad morphed into animosity.
Only a few years earlier, the families of Assad and Erdoğan had vacationed together. The wives---Assam al-Assad and Emine Erdoğan--were headline worthy friends because they visited each other without their husbands. The leaderships of Turkey and Syria held joint cabinet meetings, eliminated visa requirements and even discussed economic union. The Turkish ruling party, the AKP developed a widely heralded narrative "two peoples, one state."
But Assad's repression drove hundreds of thousands of Syrians into Turkey, as Erdoğan faced rising dissent, new Kurdish unrest, and an uncertain election. Erdoğan's remedy, in part was to focus on the "Assad problem, " calling for "regime change."
Doha had its own difficulties with Assad. For several years, the Syrians planned an oil pipeline transiting Syria. Iran planned to tap oil fields that ran deep into Qatar, much in the fashion that Kuwait once drilled Iraq's Rumala fields in the early 1990s. Incensed and incentivized, Doha acted against Assad and his Iranian backers.
ISIS's annual expenditure was said to be 2 billion dollars a year; Acting like a a Fortune 500 firm, ISIS issued a slick annual reports in 2012 and 2013, itemizing attacks and other successes and targets.
The monies ISIS has accessed are breath taking. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel put it, "They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded."
A campaign of maneuver--involving towed field guns, armored tracked vehicles, including tanks-plowing at speed through a trackless desert. ISIS columns advanced using satellites, and thermal cameras. This kind of campaign is not within the competence of depleted Al Qaeda fighters, or of volunteers from the ranks of Libya's militia, no less the disaffected Europeans flocking to ISIS ranks.
The ISIS invasion that reached to Mosul and the gates of Baghdad was abetted by leadership from Saddam Hussein's long-disbanded army, including colonels and generals, and by Baath Party officials. ISIS' push into Iraq gave Sunni elites their opportunity to strike back at their nemesis, Prime Minister Nuri El Maliki.,
After taking Mosul, the Islamic State installed a Baathist and former Iraqi army general, Azhar al-Obeidi, as the new governor. Another former Baathist general, Ahmed Abdul Rashid, was named governor of Tikrit. These are among the people, said former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, with "a long history of running Iraq.... [I]t just feels right and natural to the people that they should be in charge."
Notwithstanding ISIS claims that is an agent of a seventh century wisdom, ISIS operates like a multinational mercenary army, with a marketing and media subsidiary, employing professionals to conduct a savvy marketing campaign. The repulsive YouTube snuff films released to horrify and goad the West may appeal to psychopaths. But most of ISIS media efforts, like "The Clanging of the Swords IV" -- a feature length film-- use drone-born cameras, slow-motion graphics, complicated special effects, professionally mixed sound tracks, and expensive cameras.
ISIS has access to state of the art computer and social media, including widely available smart phone "apps" like Dawn of Glad Tidings, software that posts tens of thousands of tweets a day, using third-party accounts--making ISIS messages all but impervious to firewalls. ISIS also devised "Diaspora"--a decentralized network, hosting recruiting materials with production values commonly found in Madison Avenue produced ads for soup or soap. "Diaspora" is all but impervious to firewalls and electronic counter-measures. The ultraconservative desert traditions of the earliest Muslims would not seem to cultivate this type of talent without the most expensive kind of help.
Despite still swelling ISIS ranks, amazing initial success, ISIS money and backing are slipping away. In early August, when ISIS fighters decided to move north towards Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government, it was the start of their undoing. Within hours, President Obama sent fighter jets and heavily armed American advisors to assist in the rescue of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Soon, France joined in arming Peshmerga fighters. Then the United Kingdom and Germany loosed their stores of light arms. Germany sent special units. And, then, Iran joined the United States in pressing Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
ISIS was rocked, but not down, partly buoyed by continued Turkish support. The Turks still held up U.S. supplies for Kurdish fighters. But then Vice President Biden chastised the Turks for supporting ISIS. To drive the point home, the Turks were compelled to rescind a celebratory victory party, on the occasion of gaining a much coveted Security Council seat at the United Nations. The Turks had received letters from 160 members promising them support for their bid for seat. They thought they were a shoo-in. But this September, the Americans withdrew support. When the secret votes were counted, all Turkey could garner was 60 votes. As one astute Turkish observer noted, Obama might not have left a horse's head on Erodogan's pillow, but it amounted to the same thing.
By early November, Turkey allow the Peshmerga safe passage across the Turkish frontier in order to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. And only in the last few days, Vice President Biden and Erodogan ended little publicized talks with an announcement of $135 million for humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, including those in Turkey. There was no mention of the American-run NATO base at Incirlik, Turkey. NATO base at Incirlik, Some commentators wrote that the continuous unmanned operations from Incirlik would also include manned strikes.
Though it is clear that Turkey has tacked to a strong wind, Turkey is painfully aware that the American-led effort to arm Kurds against ISIS will accelerate a redefinition of a hundred-year old regional order defined in the detritus of World War One. The Levant's remodeling has began with the succession of American interventions. ISIS is dangerous, to be sure, but it is just a part of America and the region's new calculus. How to face an unwelcome future defined by power, interests, oil, and religion is the puzzle. The resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel augers that America's bearings are unsteady, still.