IS: How Did It Emerge?


During the course of Syria’s civil war, a new terrorist group, ISIS, appeared from out of nowhere. Today, it is referred to as ‘one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world.’ [1] Furthermore, Al Qaeda has announced that it does not share any links with ISIS. [2]

ISIS was largely unheard of before Syria’s recent civil war. How and where did it start? Why have they become so powerful?  This article argues that, in many respects, the emergence of ISIS resulted from a US foreign policy driven by the country’s desire to play the role of ‘global governor’, or act as an ‘institution’ of global governance. First, this paper provides a brief review of the literature on global governance and presents the main aspects of this concept, above all, showing how it is reflected in US foreign policy. It then explores the phenomenon of the ‘postcolonial’ mind-set and demonstrates the US’s place within this idea in terms of foreign policy. The consequences of US policy will then be discussed and linked to the emergence of ISIS.

In the 1990s, the collapse of the USSR not only marked the fact that there was only one superpower left, but also signaled the end of a bi-polar balance. The need for a new power to stand against the US became crucial. In 1992 James Rosenau published his famous book Governance Without Government, in which he and his colleagues indicate recent changes in the world arena and international system of governance. Rosenau defines global governance as ‘systems of rule at all levels of human activity – from the family to international organisations – in which the pursuit of goals through the exercise of control has transnational repercussions.’ [3] Rosenau notes that governance is actually ‘inherent’ to the international order’ [4]. He emphasizes the idea that with the emergence of global governance in the international system has shifted towards greater integration among actors, although rather than focus on specific independent actors, he pays more attention to the various regimes (economic, human rights, and so on) that he considers representative of the main forms of global governance.

In comparison, Gilpin sees global governance as an instrument through which strong actors maintain their status and even increase their influence on the world stage. [5]  Some scholars emphasize that global governance contains power in and of itself. If there is ‘governance’ then there is a governor who possesses ‘power’ and the resources to govern and regulate international processes and establish the world order. Barnett and Duvall are adherents of this idea, and they look at how different types of power are used in global governance.

For many years, the United States has been such an actor. It won the Cold War and thus became the world’s only superpower. It possessed, and still does, fantastic economic, military and human resources. It has a seemingly endless ‘reserve’ of ‘soft power’, as J. Nye has defined it, and ‘an ability to get what [it] wants through attraction, rather than coercion or payments.’ [7] The seemingly global spread of American culture and values, such as freedom and democracy, as well as high-quality education, has prompted plenty of countries not only to look favorably towards the US, but also to try and copy its model. This has helped the US to take the leading role in world affairs, becoming one of the main creditors of a new Russia and plenty of other ‘newborn’ states, placing them within the orbit of its influence and actively participating in military operations (in former Yugoslavia, within NATO). With the so-called color revolutions, the US also started supporting anti-government forces in former Soviet republics in order to establish ‘truly democratic’ regimes, thus bringing to power pro-American leaders in Georgia and Ukraine. [8] We can thus see that the past 20 years have brought both glory and power to the US in its role as a ‘global governor’ in charge of all global processes and changes.

With regard to Iraq, where the US intervened in 2003, and Syria’s civil war of 2011, where the US supported rebels, we can see these events as  consequences of the aforementioned mindset which emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s. In both countries, autocratic leaders were in power. In addition, they were pursuing pretty radical and evidently anti-US policies. Finally, both wars comply with so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ or the ‘responsibility to protect’. Lawrence Freedman enumerates the reasons used by the US to justify the Iraq war: 1) national and world security, since Iraq was believed to be developing deadly weapons, and 2) human security, since the Iraqi people were believed to be suffering at the hands of the regime’s cruelty, madness and corruption. [9] Strikingly similar arguments have been used to justify support for Syria’s rebels. Unfortunately, these noble goals remain unachieved. Both Iraq and Syria occupy the top positions on the ‘failed states’ list. [10]

Why has this happened? We can suggest that one of the reasons for this is the ideology of ‘liberal cosmopolitanism’. The general idea here is that some countries tend to behave as ‘patrons’ in relation to others. In many cases this derives from the legacy of colonialism. Some scholars look at it through the prism of global governance and peacebuilding as a means of global governance regarding conflicts. For example, on peacebuilding, Richmond comes to the conclusion that countries at war are usually treated according to the same ‘liberal model’. This model tries to incorporate democratic norms, human rights observance and a market economy into the target society. Despite being arguably ‘good’ in and of themselves, these things can be extremely harmful when implemented violently in countries that do not have equivalent long and established liberal traditions. These countries often fail to live by the new rules and thus instead of receiving help they become excluded from the world community [11]. Vivienne Jabri agrees with this general statement. In her opinion, peacebuilding is based on a ‘postcolonial’ mindset’[12], that is, on relations between stronger (usually European) states and states in war that are usually much weaker, either independently or as the result of war. These relationships are built using the model of ‘leader/follower’ as opposed to that of ‘metropolis/colony’. Vivienne Jabri explores this issue in her work by looking at so-called ‘operations of power’ within states of the late-modern period. She notes that, in general, interactions between states that are more powerful economically, militarily and politically, than their less powerful counterparts contain in many respects a ‘pastoral’ character [13]. This means that the more powerful (usually European) countries recall their colonial past and perceive their relations with other countries along the lines of a ‘civilising mission’ [14],framing the European world as ‘civilised’ and all that is non-European as ‘barbaric’ [15]. This encourages European countries to impose their norms, visions and models on the ‘target’ societies. Furthermore, Jabri notes that,

The distinctive aspect of liberal cosmopolitanism is not […] confined to the reinstitution of governing capacities to the postcolonial state. For the constitutive element that renders such universalizing power cosmopolitan is that it seeks legitimacy not from the target population […] but the wider global terrain and its institutions. [16]

This dynamic might cause the rejection of an imposed model by the target population and thus provoke serious grievances or conflict. This idea is supported by Paul Gilroy, who also stresses that current relations between states can be explained with recourse to Europe’s postcolonial past. [17] He notes that adopting ‘transnational norms’ as part of their own cultures might not be easy for target countries and that this is the reason for the transnational disaggregation evident in the modern world. [18] Mark Neocleous adds that the word ‘civilisation’ is back in the political vocabulary [19] and that a division between ‘civilised’ and ‘non-civilised’ parts of the world has emerged once again.  Wars, he notes, look more like ‘police operations’ [20], when a state that behaves ‘correctly’ punishes those that act as ‘outliers’.

Admitting that the abovementioned reasons of national and international security did play role in the US decision to intervene directly in Iraq and indirectly in Syria, we suggest that the US was driven by ‘liberal cosmopolitanism’. Believing in its ‘global governor potential’, the US aimed to “remake” certain countries according to its ideas about the ‘good’ by intervening and transforming  them according to its ideas of a ‘right state,’ that is, a democratic state observing human rights, possessing a market economy and being friendly towards the US. Therefore, in Iraq a dictator and violator of human rights, namely Saddam Hussein, was executed and replaced by a ‘democratically elected’ government. In Syria, the US-supported opposition was perceived as comprised of freedom fighters making an attempt to overthrow the dictatorial and violent regime of Bashar Assad. If we look at the speeches delivered on Iraq and the Syrian civil war by US presidents, the hallmarks of ‘liberal cosmopolitanism’ are clearly evident. In both cases, the presidents emphasize that the US is aimed at  promoting democracy and a market economy as a means of achieving ‘peace and prosperity’ [21]. This claim (a logical one of course) is that these countries’ regimes pose a threat [22] to such values. As an ‘anchor of global security’ [23], the US should therefore take measures to maintain such values and ‘teach’ Iraq and Syria to respect the global order and its people, aiding them along the path to becoming a ‘correct’ state. In the case of Iraq, President Bush intertwined this idea with a slightly patronizing tone, stating that when a democratic government is established in Iraq, its people would finally be ready to have their sovereignty returned. [24] This statement explicitly illustrates the idea that the US did not treat Iraqis as equals. With Syria, as mentioned above, the rhetoric focused on the necessity to spread and protect democracy, without references being made to the people’s ‘readiness’ for sovereignty. Nevertheless, the general message is similar. The US was therefore trying to establish an order that it saw as a ‘correct one’ without taking into account a country’s cultural and societal peculiarities.

Unfortunately, this approach is not always good. To be more precise, it is never good. Siba N. Grovogui explores and compares relations between the stronger European states and African states with relations between these same strong European states and so-called ‘quasi-European states’ (such as Belgium). He concludes that European interference undermined the sovereignty of African states, in some cases contributing to their failure.  [25] On the other hand, the interference of a stronger European state on a quasi-European state  contributed to the weaker states’ resilience. This might be because of the previously expressed idea that liberal models cannot be universal and that when implemented on the wrong soil they may prompt disastrous effects. This is exactly what happened in Syria and Iraq. In addition to internal problems, US interference contributed to the emergence of ISIS. How?

First, by invading Iraq the US destabilized the country. The government that came to power after Saddam’s execution was (and still is) too weak to be able to control the situation. This provoked the rise of various radical Islamist groups within the vacuum of authority and territory of Iraq. Crucially, in 2004 the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda was established, [26] and ISIS was at the time a part of it.

Second, while helping to build a post-war political system in Iraq, the US supported Nuri al-Maliki, who later became Iraq’s prime minister. Maliki conducted a sectarian policy: being Shia he launched severe repressions against Sunnis. [27] This can be considered a factor that fed the crystallization of ISIS as a separate group (Al Qaeda in Iraq was very decentralized). Mass Sunni persecutions helped ISIS to quickly gain new recruits; for example, Sunni prisoners started to join ISIS [28] after a series of attacks on Iraqi prisons. Overall, sympathy for the Sunni cause in Iraq may have contributed to an increased number of ISIS fighters throughout the Middle East.

Third, the striking success of ISIS in their military activities might also have been also caused by US actions in Iraq and Syria. A lack of government in Iraq and later in Syria helped the jihadist movement to spread along the countries’ borders. A weak Iraqi government was unable to prevent this and Assad had more important (for him) issues to tackle, namely maintaining the regime. Indeed, some experts express the opinion that Assad did not engage in fighting against ISIS because he wanted them to become a source of force against the US. [29] In addition, the US was delivering weapons[30] and organizing training [31] for Syrian anti-government fighters. ISIS was among them. [32] It is quite possible that future ISIS fighters may be among those trained by the US and supplied with weapons. In which case, it will not be surprising if ISIS is able not only to capture territories and establish a state, but also to successfully survive for much longer. Moreover, on the territories seized by ISIS fighters there are oil fields and refineries. ISIS is now known for selling oil at cheap prices and in such a way getting strong and stable financing, helping them to operate independently without relying entirely on possible state sponsors. In turn, this means that there is no one with the financial leverage needed to limit ISIS in its actions. Perhaps, if Iraq and Syria had been stable states with strong governments, this could have been prevented.

Finally, US interference in Iraq was not authorized by the UN Security Council, and along with participation in Syria and other actions, ISIS is able to present its cause and actions as offering protection to Islamic values against a “hostile western world” aimed at its destruction. The US has become the embodiment of the enemy for many Muslims, and for those who are inclined to radicalization the rhetoric of ISIS rings true.

ISIS did not emerge in Syria and Iraq by luck or accident. Its emergence was caused by the actions of the US since it created favorable conditions such as the dramatic destabilization of numerous Middle Eastern states. The US seems to have been driven by the idea of ‘liberal cosmopolitanism’, that is, the perception that only they know how to arrange life via single states according to their model of a ‘correct’ state. This ideology fails to take into account the specific features of the target population and has been proven to be harmful, only creating new problems instead of ‘ideal societies’.


[1] J. Bender, ‘How ISIS Became One Of The World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Groups,’ Business Insider, October 2014, accessed 13 February 2015,

[2] ‘Al-Qaeda disavows ISIS militants in Syria,’ BBC News Middle East, accessed 13 February 2015,

[3] J. Rosenau, Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] M. Lederer, Criticizing Global Governance (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 9.

[6] Barnett, M. and B. Duvall (eds.). Power in Global Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[7] J. S. Nye Jr., Soft Power. The Means to Success in World Politics (Public Affairs: New York, 2004), 3.

[8] E. Golinger, ‘Colored Revolutions: A New Form of Regime Change, Made in the USA,’ Global Research, October 2011, accessed 13 February 2015,

[9] Freedman, L. ‘The Age of Liberal Wars.’ Review of International Studies, 31 (2005).

[10] Fragile States Index 2014, accessed 13 February 2015,

[11] O. P. Richmond, ‘The Globalisation of Responses to Conflict and the Peacebuilding Consensus,’ Cooperation and Conflict 39, no. 2 (2004): 144.

[12] V. Jabri, Peacebuilding, the local and the international: A colonial or a postcolonial rationality, Peacebuilding 1, no. 1 (2013): 8.

[13] V. Jabri, The Postcolonial Subject: Claiming Politics/Governing Others in Late Modernity (Routledge: London; New York, 2012), 110.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gilroy, Paul. ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 6, no. 3 (2003): 261-76.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mark Neocleous, ‘The Police of Civilization: The War On Terror as Civilizing Offensive,’ International Political Sociology 5, no. 2 (2011): 144-59.

[20] Ibid.

[21] ‘Obama Syria Speech: Full Text,’ BBC Online, 11 September 2013, accessed 11 March 2015,

[22] ‘George Bush: “I don’t plan on losing my job”,’ The Guardian, 14 April 2004, accessed 11 March 2015,

[23] ‘Obama Syria Speech: Full Text,’ BBC Online, 11 September 2013, accessed 11 March 2015,

[24] ‘George Bush: “I don’t plan on losing my job”,’ The Guardian, 14 April 2004, accessed 11 March 2015,

[25] Siba N. Grovogui, ‘Regimes of Sovereignty: International Morality and the African Condition,’ European Journal of International Relations 8, no. 3 (2002): 324.

[26]  Reynolds, ‘Iran Did Not Create ISIS: We Did,’ The Diplomat, August 2014, accessed 16 February 2015,

[27] ‘How Did It Come to This?’ The Economist, June 2014, accessed 16 February 2015,ю

[28] J. Bender, ‘How ISIS Became One Of The World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Groups,’ Business Insider, October 2014, accessed 13 February 2015,

[29] Reynolds, ‘Iran Did Not Create ISIS: We Did,’ The Diplomat, August 2014, accessed 16 February 2015,

[30] Ernesto Londoño and Greg Miller, ‘CIA begins weapons delivery to Syrian rebels,’ The Washington Post, September 2013, accessed 16 February 2015,

[31] Sara Elizabeth Miller, ‘Learning to Fight Like an American at the FSA Training Camp in Jordan,’ Vice, April 2014, accessed 16 February 2015,

[33] ‘Syria crisis: Guide to armed and political opposition,’ BBC News, December 2013, accessed 16 February 2015,

[34] ‘ISIS sells stolen Kirkuk oil at $20 per barrel – Iraq Finance Ministry,’ RT News Agency, November 2014, accessed 16 February 2015,

About the Author 

Anna Kruglova is a Fellow at ERA Institute. She holds M.Sc. in Security Studies from UCL and is completing M.A. in International Conflict Studies at King’s College. Ms. Kruglova worked at MEC International, The Bow Group and Integrity UK.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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