The Comparative Metrics of ISIS and "Failed State Wars" in Syria and Iraq

The fighting against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh has become at least three different and interrelated conflicts: a fight against Daesh, a low-level sectarian and ethnic civil conflict in Iraq, and an intense civil war in Syria. It is also, however, part of a far broader regional and global conflict against terrorism and extremism; part of the competition between the United States and Russia; part of the competition between the majority of the Arab world and Iran; and part of an emerging struggle for Kurdish identity, and some form of “federalism” and/or independence that involves a range of separate Kurdish identities, Turkey, and the Arab world.

These are also conflicts whose scale literally involves the future of the entire populations of Syria (where more than half of its citizens are now refugees or internally displaced persons), and Iraq (where some four million citizens are now refugees or internally displaced persons). These conflicts have crippled Iraq’s development and reduced the size of the Syrian economy to some 20-35% of its pre-conflict level — and done so at time when there is a crucial drop in petroleum export revenues. The flood of refugees threatens the stability and economies of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, and — along with a rise in Daesh attacks outside the region — has created a crisis in Europe and the United States over terrorism and the acceptance of refugees.

The end result is one of the most complex mixes of conflict, tension, and pressures on all of the states involved in modern history. It is a conflict whose parameters can change radically by the day, but also one whose impact on the region — and the very nature of Iraq and Syria — will play out over at least a decade, regardless of how it is ultimately resolved.

An updated analysis by the Burke Chair reflects this complexity — and the constant shift in the character of the fight and the forces that drive it — by comparing a wide range of conflicting maps, graphics, trend analyses, and summary reports. This analysis is entitled The Comparative Metrics of ISIS and “Failed State Wars” in Syria and Iraq, and it is available on the CSIS website in four different versions.

The full report — which may be too large for some systems to download — is available at https://csis.org/files/publication/160302_Syria_Iraq_ISIS_Failed_state_Wars.pdf .

The same report — divided into four separate shorter parts — is available as follows:

The reader should be aware that no summary of graphics, maps, charts, and other metrics can do more than provide a partial overview of the conflicts and forces involved, and that this survey — long as it may be — can only contain a small portion of the different estimates now available from various governments, research centers, think tanks, and media.

There is no way to discuss all of the reasons that much of this material does more to illustrate the differences between sources than to provide an authoritative picture of even the metrics of the conflict. As a result, each of the charts and tables cites the source involved, and — where possible — its web address. It should also be obvious from the material presented that the situation is so fluid and uncertain in virtually every area that the materials in this report are broad historical background, and cannot reflect the current situation in any given area.

The reader who does not track the conflict in detail should also be aware of some broader problems in virtually all of the material available:

  • There is usually no effort to estimate uncertainty. (The work done by the Institute for the Study of War is a consistent exception, but the reader must turn to its website — http://www.understandingwar.org/ — to get the full benefit of its analysis). Many of the maps and other material referencing it ignore the uncertainty data and commentary of the analytic problems in the original source.
  • The data on land warfare generally consists of broad maps showing extensive colored areas for given forces or sides. As the survey shows, there are significant differences in the estimates for any given period. Some differences are simply liberties taken by the graphic artist, but others reflect a fundamentally wrong approach to mapping and assessing the conflicts. They show massive amounts of empty desert as being controlled by given sides, do not reflect the fact that there are often multiple groups battling for control in given areas, do not reflect the fragmented nature of the forces on given sides, do not reflect the importance of key roads, barriers, and areas, and do not reflect the fact that the primary battles consist of warfare in populated areas where the tactical details are critical. The Institute for the Study of War is again an exception but the reader must turn to its web site – http://www.understandingwar.org/. The Long War Journal and individual media reports also contain useful data, and the Daesh Daily — www.daeshdaily.com/ — provides a critical perspective in showing the complex daily interactions between fighting, terrorism, and sectarian/ethnic politics in Syria, Iraq, and the region.
  • Almost all data on Iraqi forces fails to provide a break out by force element and sides.
  • Pro-Assad forces are lumped together with no break out by force element or side.
  • Data on Arab rebel forces in Syria is generally misleading. It often fails to show the range of elements present in a given area, and lumps together diverse elements of rebel forces that do not act as coherent blocs, and constantly change alignments.
  • The data on the air war often fail to show uncertainty (again, data from the Institute for the Study of War are an exception). They also often overlay strike data on areas where the maps show a level of control by given sides that simply does not exist, and where very different rebel and other factions are fighting for control or share influence or power.
  • Many of the data on governance, economics, demographics, sect, and ethnicity are badly dated or highly uncertain. One of the key issues that emerges from these data is the lack of any effort by international institutions and governments to estimate uncertainty.
  • The data sources on “terrorism” lump together terrorist attacks and insurgent warfare to the point where they provide broad estimates of the impact of violence on the civil sector at best.
  • The data on ISIS/ISIL/Daesh forces and foreign volunteers are rough guesstimates, often badly dated, and give no indication of the effectiveness of given elements of such forces.
  • At all levels, most media make the classic effort of focusing on total manpower rather than the order of battle, or which units are actually effective. Total manning has never been a meaningful estimate of combat strength and capability, and such reporting is largely a warning that useful data are lacking or the reporting lacks military competence.
  • Casualty data are generally properly qualified by the source, but the reader must go to the source webpage for details. All are highly uncertain. Wounded and injured may not be estimated, and no clear attempt is made to distinguish between the seriousness of any non-fatal case. No attempt is made to estimate loses due to lack of food, medical care, exposure, etc.
  • The UN and other sources shown here do provide maps and data on the problems in coverage affecting aid and humanitarian problems, but uncertainty estimates again present major problems. There is no standardization in estimates by country or from agency to agency, and most estimates cover the size of the aid budget or effort, but make no attempt to estimate its effectiveness. Government and other official reporting on recovery, rebuilding, and returns generally consists of hollow spin efforts.
  • UN agencies have warned repeatedly since the spring of 2014 that the ability to estimate casualties and humanitarian needs is acutely uncertain in Syria. Despite these warnings, media and other reporting often quotes estimates that are up to a year old as if they were current.

That said, it should be stressed that the material presented does represent a broadly accurate picture of an immense human tragedy, and the reader will see broadly accurate trend analyses in many areas, along with steadily improving reporting and methods of portraying given trends. It is also a reality that improvements in technology and communications have not outpaced changes in the complexity and tempo of war. The “fog of war” remains as serious a problem as in the past and the best efforts at analysis and summarizing current trends can only do so much.

Suggestions as to changes, corrections, or additional material should be provided to Anthony H. Cordesman at acordesman@gmail.com.