Illustration by Alyona
In the last month insurgent group the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has taken control of large parts of western and northern Iraq. With Western media and government officials preoccupied elsewhere in the Middle East, this dramatic and successful campaign has come as a surprise to many.. Neither the media, nor the population, preempted this as the next great threat to stability in the region. It is now critical to understand who ISIS is, how the group pulled off such an astonishing advance, and what it means for the region.
What’s in a name?
The Arabic name given to the group, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham translates into English as ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’ or ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, usually referred to as ISIL or ISIS. The last Arabic word, al-Sham, is usually translated as ‘the Levant’. Although this somewhat old-fashioned English term roughly covers the same geographic region as al-Sham, there are slight differences. The same could be said for rendering it as ‘Syria’, and both terms have distasteful political connotations for radical nationalists and Islamists. Thus neither translation is entirely accurate.
Who is ISIS?
ISIS is a Sunni militant group established in Iraq in 2006, which expanded into Syria last year. The aim of ISIS is to establish an Islamic State throughout the Sunni-majority region of northern Iraq and Syria. The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a little-known figure in the West, though he is understood to be an Iraqi who joined the insurgency soon after the 2003 invasion. Analysts attribute his success as leader to his role as a battlefield commander and tactician, which makes him attractive to young jihadists.
According to Kylie Baxter, an expert on the contemporary Middle East at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, most analysts agree that ISIS has around 10,000 combat-ready fighters. Their base has increased as Sunni Iraqis have join the group and—equally importantly—as Sunni militia have coordinated with ISIS in the field. Their newfound international profile will likely lead to an increase in the recruitment of foreigners looking to fight for the jihadist cause.
ISIS’ strong presence in the Syrian Civil War, in which they have controlled large parts of northern Syria including oil fields, has allowed their base and resources to grow. Already commanding some power in the region, their recent takeover of major centres including Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city—has given them access to more sophisticated weaponry, as well as hundreds of millions in cash and gold bullion.
ISIS was previously the official branch of al-Qai’da in Iraq, however, that most infamous of jihadist organisations dissociated itself from ISIS in February. The split between the two groups occurred after a dispute between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qa’ida branch in Syria, could not be resolved. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, Jabhat al-Nusra has agreed to cease fighting with ISIS in Syria. If an allegiance were to reemerge between the two groups, it would pave the way for ISIS to control large tracts of land on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The Situation in Iraq
Iraq is a bitterly divided country. Since the 2003 invasion and ousting of Saddam Hussein’s long established dictatorship, Iraq has been marred by sectarian conflict. The central government is seen by Iraqis to be disconnected from the reality on the ground. The Prime Minister of Iraq since 2006, Nouri al-Maliki, belongs to the country’s majority Shi’a Muslim population. The Sunni and Kurdish populations of Iraq have voiced their dissatisfaction with al-Maliki, accusing him of fuelling sectarian tensions. There have been calls, both internally and by US officials, to replace him with a more inclusive leader in the hope of uniting the country against the insurgents. The broader sectarian environment means that Iraq’s army is a force for greater division rather than unification, which the rapid advance of ISIS has painfully revealed.
The semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq has taken advantage of the situation by assuming control of Kirkuk, a major city previously outside of their control, but which Kurds consider as their historical capital. Kirkuk holds major oil reserves and with independent oil revenue, many analysts believe there is little incentive for the Kurdish region to remain a part of Iraq.
Part of ISIS’ success has been attributed to their savvy social media campaign. Their advance on Mosul, for example, was conducted alongside a storm of tweets. ISIS swamped social media with images of their brutality, including gory executions and explicit videos. The campaign was aimed at instilling fear in Iraqi soldiers, as well as spreading their message to possible recruits. According to a report by The Guardian, this tactic was so successful that Iraqi soldiers fled their posts after becoming aware of the gruesome fate they faced if caught by the ISIS insurgents. Iraqi forces, on the other hand, were slow at reacting and disseminating counter-information to keep their troops from fleeing.
Iran, whose population is also mostly Shi’ite, is a strong supporter of the current regime in Baghdad. Iran continues to press for influence across the fractious region and to that end they sent in support to the Iraqi government shortly after the ISIS offensive began. This was initially in the form of around 2,000 advance troops, though reports by the Wall Street Journal have also confirmed the presence of Iranian drones in the country. The danger here, however, is that broad-scale intervention by the Iranians would further inflame the sectarian element of the conflict. The more the conflict is expressed in sectarian terms the more ISIS can use such divides in their recruitment campaign.
ISIS’ growing power poses an increased threat to the Assad regime in Syria, particularly with the potential merging of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Reports have confirmed that the Assad regime has already conducted air strikes against ISIS positions in northern Syria. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has denied any coordination with the Assad regime, however in an interview with the BBC, he hailed the raids as leaving both Damascus and Baghdad as winners.
As Baxter told Farrago, “One outcome of this may be the provision of common political ground between the US and Iran. The two states share a powerful interest in ensuring that ISIS does not continue to make territorial gains in the region”. For their part, the US remain reluctant to reenter the region and have been treading very cautiously. So far they have refused to commit to any meaningful support. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called on the US for help with air strikes: he is still waiting. Without political unity in Maliki’s government, the US are unlikely to come rushing to the table.
The future success or failure of ISIS will come down to their ability to maintain both internal cohesion and their relationships with other sympathetic Sunni groups. The presence of ISIS and their control of such a large area will only continue to exacerbate the instability of the region. ISIS now control around one third of Iraq, severely damaging the country’s territorial integrity. In recent developments, Baghdad has launched a major offensive to retake Tikrit, a city under ISIS control. However without a cohesive response from Baghdad and its allies, ISIS will continue to have the upper hand in this conflict.