By Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies–

Metrics are never a substitute for narratives or detailed analysis. They can, however, reveal broad patterns in the course of war, and key uncertainties in the nature of how a war is being analyzed and reported. The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a selective comparison of the key metrics available on the wars in Iraq and Syria that help to illustrate both the patterns in the conflict and some of the key uncertainties—the “fog of war”—in efforts to understand it.

This analysis is entitled The Uncertain Metrics of the “War” Against ISIS, and is available on the CSIS web site at

It is important to note that this analysis only provides only a small selection of the maps, graphs, and other metrics on the war, and relies on unclassified material. These literally total thousands of pages in various languages. It also is so selective that it can imply a broad lack of analytic rigor when some sources do provide a broad range of detailed material, present a range of different analytic approaches, and address the key problem of how to describe uncertainties in the data. The Institute for the Study of War ( is a particularly outstanding example of efforts to provide such analytic rigor and address the inevitable limits to summary metrics.

At the same time, even a limited selection of comparative graphics and metrics illustrate both some of the key patterns in fighting and the limits in the way it is being portrayed and analyzed. It is also clear that the material that is declassified and drawn from official sources is often designed to “spin” its contents to favor the source or to support official policy.

Keeping ISIS in Perspective (pp. 3-6)

There are many uncertainties in estimates of the patterns in terrorism at virtually every level of analysis. There seems to be broad enough agreement among estimates, however, to show that most agree with the broad conclusions of the START database used in pages 5 and 6 of this section. ISIS is only one of many sources of terrorism, even if judged solely in terms of Islamist extremist action by non-state actors.

Even a defeat which largely disbands it as an organization—which may or may not occur as a result of even the most successful campaign in Iraq and Syria—will not begin to put an end to the violence, terrorism, and insurgency caused by Islamist extremism, much less the broader global patterns in terrorism.

Worse, as the maps and data that follow show, it may be the prelude to long periods of struggle or conflict between the ethnic and sectarian groups, and armed factions, in Syria and Iraq—as well as competition between outside states for control and influence, and broader regional struggles between Sunni and Shi’ite.

It is also important top note that the civilian casualty data provided later in the country sections on Iraq and Syria are largely the result of broader patterns of sectarian and ethnic violence in the case of Iraq, and that over 90% of such casualties in Syria have been inflicted by the Assad regime. Bad as ISIS’s killings and atrocities have sometimes been, they have only been minor compared to those committed by the Syrian state under Assad.

Setting the Stage: The Rising Level of U.S. Effort (pp. 7-24)

The data in this section show the steadily rising level of the U.S.-led air campaign, not only in terms of strike sand strike aircraft but the intelligence and surveillance effort necessary to target ISIS in ways that produce limited civilian casualties and collateral damage—constraints that seem to have been minimal in the case of Russia and virtually non-existent on the part of the Assad regime (pages 10-18).

The growing level and use of airpower, however, was targeted almost solely against ISIS, and was often used initially to rescue minorities and civilians from ISIS attacks. As the later slides show, it was never linked to a major ground effort until 2016, or to any effort to protect civilians from the Assad regime. As the later casualty data for Syria show, the limited and incremental use of airpower over time may have limited civilian casualties in the short term, but the failure to act decisively to limit Assad massively increased them overtime.

This failure to use decisive force literally turned Syria into a bloody mess, and led to massive increases in refugees, internally displaced persons, and collateral damage in both Iraq and Syria—vastly complicating recovery in areas where ISIS was defeated and left as well as creating increasingly separated ethnic and sectarian factions. In effect, the focus on ISIS meant there was no meaningful grand strategy for either Iraq or Syria.

Some official data on the air effort are also suspect to the point where they may be nearly meaningless. The data on Targets Damaged or Targets Destroyed are so vague that it is unclear that most have any meaning—Staging areas? Buildings? Fighting positions? Other targets? The Body Count data seem no more credible than in Vietnam, and the cost data are so undefined that there is no way to know what costs are actually included.

The ground troop level data (pages 20-24) do seem to broadly reflect the extremely slow build up of an effective effort to rebuild Iraq’s shattered ground forces. This lack of a decisive partnering effort on the ground compounded the impact of the lack of decisive air effort in increase civilian casualties and the other human costs of the war.

The ground data also do not reflect the largely failed U.S. effort to build up moderate Arab rebel forces, may not include Special Forces and other ground force elements in Syria, and deliberately undercount the number of U.S. boots on the ground by only counting persons with permanent change of station assignments (PCS) and not those on temporary duty (TDY).

More broadly, the data on the United States and coalition effort do not reflect any clear effort to deal with the broader sectarian and ethnic divisions in either Iraq or Syria, deal with the civil impacts of the fighting, or focus strategy on the civil side of the conflict and achieve some level of post conflict security and stability.

The Rise and Decline of ISIS: Comparative Views (pp. 25-52)

The ISIS strength estimates summarized on page 28 routinely differ by factors of 2 to 3:1. So do the estimates of foreign volunteers by number and country of origin in pages 29-34. Discussions with national estimates often indicate that countries have deep internal differences over such estimates, although there seems to be some degree of consensus that the numbers were very small compared to the potential population base most at risk.

The data showing the areas of ISIS control and influence, and those of other factions, in pages 35-50 are some of the most familiar and the most misleading metrics of the war. Early on, the United States started issuing “blob” maps that showed ISIS had lost control of vast amounts of territory that marked its greatest line of advanced but were over 80% unpopulated. This was little more than “spin.”

With the exception of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), most analysts and media have used ‘blob” maps ever since to describe a war with no clear front lines and where the fighting is almost always for a specific line of communication or supply route and particularly for a given population center.

The problem is made worse by the lack of any broad effort to tie such maps to population density, road nets, and key economic areas—although some specialized studies have done this, and the web site of the ISW does contain a wide range of mapped focusing on key military objectives with support capsule narratives. This disguised the fact that much of the fighting against ISIS only affected a tiny portion of the population economy of Iraq and Syria, while the fighting between the Assad regime and Arab rebels in densely populated Western Syria had a massive human impact—as will the fighting for the control of Ninewa and Mosul in Iraq.

The maps for this section on ISIS—and the separate sections on the fighting in Iraq and Syria that follow—show areas of “control” by the Assad regime, Iraqi central government, and factions like the Kurds, Arab Shi’ites/Alawites, and Arab Sunnis that are equally misleading. They also ignore the fact that there are often serious rivalries and sometimes armed clashes, between different Arab rebel, Assad force, Kurdish groups, Iraq Shi’ite militias.

Unless such metrics focus on a given battle in a limited area, many imply a control of large areas of desert that does not exist. In many cases, the line of ethnic and sectarian control or influence is grossly outdated or guesstimated, and the impact of massive population growth in creating urbanized with mixed populations is ignored. This often implies neat geographic ethnic and sectarian divisions that simply do not exist.

Almost all of the other metrics on ISIS, however, raise serious questions about source and credibility. The data on ISIS fundraising—examples of which are shown in pages 50-52—are interesting guesstimates, but are generally poorly defined and based on uncertain data and methodology. The estimates of bomb damage to ISIS holdings of money and economic facilities are not included because they seem too uncertain to be credible.

The good news is that ISIS is losing regardless of the problems in the metrics.

The bad news is that a defeat of ISIS will expose major areas where given ethnic and sectarian factions will immediately contend for power, as well a which will need massive aid to recover of become a lasting area of instability. Moreover, ISIS does not dominate the most populated areas in either country, it may well blend into new or existing violent Islamist extremist factions, and securing the areas around population centers may be far more difficult than “liberating” them.

The Broader Dynamics of Iraq and Syria (pp. 53-59)

These data on ISIS also need to be put in a broader context that is largely ignored in most reporting and analysis of the war. Statistical reporting by UNDP, the World Bank, IMF, and Transparency International have long reflected the fact Iraq and Syria qualified as failed states” in their quality of governance, corruption, and comparative levels of development. ISIS and other extremist groups have fed on these weaknesses, as have various ethnic and sectarian groups.

As page 55 shows, however, Iraq and Syria have also been driven by massive population growth. There are some uncertainties in the data, but the U.S. Census Bureau is probably correct in estimating that Iraq’s population grew 4.5 times between 1950 and 2016, and Syria’s grew 4.9 times. This has pushed much of the population into cities and mixed areas for which there are no traditions or established patterns, and created an extremely young population with a rapidly growing number of young men for which neither state could create meaningful jobs.

The maps and charts this section are often dated and uncertain, but page 56 shows how little of Iraq’s and Syria’s population was in the areas affected by ISIS, and pages 57-59 show how critical the divisions between Sunnis and other Muslims, and Arab and Kurd have been in both states. These divisions not only affect Iraq and Syria but the region, create different challenges for the evolution of Islam, and are another key source of potential internal and external tension and violence.

Conflict Dynamics in Iraq (pp. 60-81)

The initial maps in the section on Iraq—on pages 62-67—again illustrate just how important it is to consider population density and sect and ethnicity, although they are based on uncertain data and long predate the impact of the fighting since 2011. They show very clearly that the fighting to date has occurred largely in sparsely populated areas and—unlike Syria—has had limited national impact.

The maps and data in pages 67-71 highlight the gains the Iraqi Kurds have made in non-Kurdish areas—a potential source of future tension and conflict. Other maps highlight the ethnic problems in Western Iraq, and particularly around Mosul.

The satellite images (pages 67-71) show the problems infighting in what are largely desert cities with serious internal barriers and empty surrounding areas that are very difficult to secure. These cities make natural fortresses for the use of civilian hostages, suicide attacks, booby-traps, and urban warfare.

At the same time, the data on Iraq forces—pages 72-76—show the lasting impact of the U.S. defeat of Saddam’s forces in 2003 and just how fragmented, ethnic, and sectarian Iraq’s forces really are.

The charts on casualties (pages 77-79) are extremely uncertain, as is recognized by Iraq Body Count—which generated much of the data shown in the graphs. A range of estimates from different sources is also shown.

There is no way to credibly estimate the injured, refugee, IDP, and economic impact of the fighting—all of which has far more lasting impact than the number of dead. The final tables (pages 80-81) do, however, attempt to analyze the human cost of the war in general terms.

Conflict Dynamics in Syria (pp. 82-132)

The maps and graphs in the section on conflict dynamics in Syria reinforce many of the point raised in earlier sections, but they also show that Syria present far more current problems than Iraq.

Syria is far more fragmented at the popular and military levels than Iraq. The constant changes in the size and alignments of given factions make it impossible to develop a reliable list, but pages 85-94 reflect a nightmare in terms of divided groups supporting Assad, the Arab rebels, the Kurds, and ISIS. Far too much media and analytic reporting only shows the name of the major group, and does not reflect the reality that the most effective Arab rebel forces have ideologies and goals similar to ISIS and had ties to Al Qaida.

Similarly the Syrian Kurds—the most effective fighters against ISI and the faction closest tied to the United States—has many ties to the PKK and Iraqi Kurds and increasingly has confronted Turkish opposition to their efforts to expand their influence and create a broad enclave along the Syrian-Turkish border.

The maps of ethnic and sectarian zones in Syria along with the population density data in pages 96-102 show why the main fight for Syria has little to do with ISIS, and the role of other violent Islamist extremist groups like Al Nusra or Jabhat Fateh al Sham.

The nature and geography of the fight between the Russian-backed Assad regime and the Arab rebels, and the critical nature of the struggle for a major population center like Aleppo is shown in “blob” form in pages 103-111. Some 70-75% of Syria’s population is in the more heavily populated West. Once again, most maps fail to reflect the deep differences between Arab rebel forces. Page 110 does, however, provide one of the few map estimates of the scale of damage to buildings and infrastructure.

The “Kurdish issue” in Syria and the growing Turkish and Kurdish confrontation in northern Syria is illustrated in pages 112-126.

The casualty data for Syria in pages 127-130 is even more uncertain than the data for Iraq, but the totals are clearly far higher for the period from 2011 onwards. The vast majority are also clearly inflicted by the Assad regime. Similarly, the charts in pages 131-132 show just how serious the resulting short and long-term term humanitarian crisis have become—although no clear way exists for estimating recovery times and cost, and no clear plans exist to take such action.

The Russian Role in Syria (pp. 133-142)

This section is being written at a time there is still no final confirmation of the role Russia played in attacking the aid convoy outside Aleppo. It is also clear from the data and maps in pages 135-142 that significant differences exist overestimates of the level of Russian air support of the Assad regime versus target of ISIS and other violent Islamist extremist groups.

At the same time, there is broad agreement that Russia has focused far more on support of the Assad regime against the Arab rebels than targeting ISIS and other violent Islamist extremist groups. Its intervention in Syria has played a major role in shifting the momentum from the rebels to the Assad regime, and in extending the length of the fighting.


Back Up Slides (pp. 143-164)

This final section provides limited coverage of the war in Libya, metrics on the role of ISIS outside Iraq and Syria, and lists of strategic partners in the fight against ISIS.