ISIS: A Regional Power Change
In order to understand the current situation in Iraq and Syria, it is best to understand the actors involved. The main actor is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL). They are a jihadist group who uses a variety of methods to increase their membership, expand their territorial boarders, and combat their enemies. Additionally, their overall goal consists of trying to re-establish a caliphate state in the region, something that has not existed in almost a century. This is expected to be accomplished by ISIS implementing its ideology, increasing membership, and combating the status-quo powers in the region that borders the declared ISIS caliphate.
The origins of this particular jihadist group can be traced back to October 15, 2006. At that time it was known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and was formed by various militia groups. The most notable being Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was the leader of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the Mujahedeen Shura Council in Iraq, and the Jund al-Sahhaba (Al-Monitor). ISI started off by first taking Baquba, Iraq, as its capital, and swearing allegiance to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the group’s emir. Baghdadi’s real name is Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al-Zawi who embraced Salafist ideology in 1985 (Al-Monitor).
ISIS’s current leader and proclaimed caliph is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri. He has many aliases and is usually known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Abu Du’a. Al-Baghdadi became the leader following the May 2010 death of his predecessor, Abu Hamza al‑Muhajir. He is currently located in either Syria or Iraq and leads the Islamic State in both countries (Australian National Security). In August 2013, al-Baghdadi appointed Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al‑Shami as emir for Syria. The Islamic State has a hierarchical structure that consists of a leadership council and provincial governments in both Iraq and Syria. Regional and specialist cells act with relative autonomy under general direction from senior leaders (Australian National Security).
ISIS is a Sunni extremist group and former al‑Qaida affiliate that adheres to global jihadist ideology. They follow an extreme interpretation of Islam that is mainly anti-Western, pro sectarian violence, and which targets those that do not agree with its interpretations as infidels and apostates. They claim that the region ranging from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq is theirs (Australian National Security).
The central aim of all Islamist movements was and is to re-establish a caliphate, which they understand as a panacea for every ill affecting Muslims around the world. It was believed that it would help restore Muslim pride and provide Muslims with the unity they needed to defend their territory from European invaders (Hussain). Modern jihadist thought stems from the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, which dates back to the late-1920s in Egypt. Most Islamist and jihadist groups that emerged as offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood have all tried to establish a theocratic Muslim-majority government ruled by a single divinely appointed leader (Hussain).
ISI/S consists of several thousand members in Iraq who are mostly young Iraqi Sunni men. Their members have been increasing due to their successes in capturing Iraqi cities and coercing or convincing Sunni tribes to ally with the group (Hussain). In Syria, their members consist of both Syrian nationals and foreign fighters. Given the Islamic group’s Iraqi origins, a majority of its Syria based senior operatives and leadership are Iraqi nationals. Fighters in both countries are able to pass freely across the border, which is no longer recognized by the Islamic State (Hussain).
The group uses a variety of threats, incentives, and ideologies to recruit new members, which includes an ongoing social media campaign. It mostly targets young Sunni men worldwide, exploiting their anger at the Iraqi and Syrian governments’ perceived mistreatment of Sunni Muslims, and encourages them to join in on creating an Islamic caliphate (Australian National Security). ISI/S also aims to recruit Iraqi security force members to gather intelligence and undermine the performance of its enemies. They use funds donated for operations in Syria to fund their activities in Iraq and transfer weapons, fighters, and resources between the two countries (Australian National Security).
The rise of ISIS in Iraq can be attributed to the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. His government was a Sunni Muslim based regime that gave representation to the Sunni Muslim minority in Iraq. It was replaced by an ineffective and unstable Shi’ite Muslim based government with little military capability. This government gave the majority Shi’ite Muslim population representation in the government, but lacked in providing representation for the Sunni minority population. This caused various Sunni and Shi’ite militias to develop and spread throughout the country in an effort to not only overthrow and defeat the U.S implemented government, but to also seize control of the entire region. One of the most powerful and successful militias at that time was led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his group, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. As previously mentioned, this group assisted in developing ISI.
In Syria, the story differs. ISI was able to obtain a foothold in the country due to the governments decreasing degree of control. However, another foreign state actor intervening in Syria’s sovereignty did not cause the decrease in government control; rather, it was caused by the Arab Spring. In short, the Arab Spring was a series of uprisings that occurred in the Arab world that normally consisted of protests, riots, and in some cases violence. Reasons for the cause of the Arab Spring differ, but in most of the countries especially in Syria, it was to protest the massive levels of income inequality, the lack of political representation, absolute monarchies or dictatorships, and human rights violations. In some of the cases, the protests were successful and in Syria’s case it was partially successful. The rebellion in Syria did cause president Bashar al-Assad’s government to lose some of its power. However, just like in Iraq, this created enough instability in the country for various militias to develop.It additionally created an opportunity for ISI to expand its influence in Syria. This was done so through new innovative recruiting methods and the provision of support to various militia groups that aligned with ISI’s mission. By doing these things, ISI was able to expand its regional boundaries and create ISIS
A majority of ISIS’s attacks in Iraq consist of military operations and daily assaults occurring mainly in central Iraq and the provinces to the north and west of Baghdad. Their primary targets in Iraq are security forces, Shia civilians in public areas, political figures, and community and tribal leaders who publicly condemn the Islamic State and Anti‑Islamic State militias (Australian National Security). By attacking these targets, ISIS hopes to undermine security force efforts to contain the group, destroy public confidence in the security forces and provoke a widespread revolt against the government. It also attacks and controls elements of infrastructure including bridges and dams, using them to cause major damage through flooding and restricting Iraqi security forces’ freedom of movement (Australian National Security).
Within Syria, ISI’s tactics consist of suicide bombings, sniping and small arm attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. They also attack other Syrian armed opposition groups, which they consider as apostates and infidels. Furthermore, they target Turkish and Kurdish militants in northern Syria, Syrian refugees, Kurdish organizations in Turkey, and Hezbollah-related targets in Lebanon (Australian National Security).
Already discussed are the Syrian and Iraqi government’s which ISIS is fighting, but there are other belligerents involved. First of which is Iran who is directly and indirectly fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Iranian support in Iraq consists of providing military troops and weaponry, as well as financial support. Iran’s interest is to continue the existence of the Shi’ite Iraqi government, which would allow them to maintain their sphere of influence and continue to establish themselves as a regional power. Additionally, Iran directly fighting ISIS now in Iraq as well as in Syria will limit ISIS’s expansion and their sphere of influence. Within Syria, Iran provides mostly financial and military support to keep the current Syrian government in power. This is also done so that Iran can continue to maintain its sphere of influence in the region. Aside from maintaining its interests, Iran supports both governments given that both are similarly Shi’ite.
Another actor that ISIS is indirectly fighting and is not covered as in depth as is Iran, is Russia. Putin’s Russia currently provides significant financial and military weaponry support to the Syrian government. Russia and Syria have long established relations with each other dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. Russia’s support for Syria lies within their interest of continued access to the energy sources within Syria. This has led Russia to denounce any Western intervention in Syria during the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Though not directly fighting against ISIS, the US is providing some financial and intelligence assistance to the current Iraqi government. If the situation deteriorates further, the instability in the region will threaten US interests, which include maintaining access to vital natural energy resources; it is a possibility that the US will become more involved. Direct military confrontation between the US and ISIS is unlikely given that the US public at 74%, opposes any US ground troop involvement in the current Iraqi crisis (Jensen).
There are a couple scenarios that can occur with neither one being more likely than the other. The first of which is that ISIS succeeds in forming what they perceive as a caliphate state. It will be likely that the new nation state would not be recognized by those in the region or other actors in the international community given the group’s beliefs, and war crimes. Nonetheless, its existence will only further destabilize the region giving possible inspiration to other jihadist-Al Qaeda groups. The other likely scenario is that ISIS’s attempts at establishing a recognized caliphate are prevented. But this is only likely to happen if Russia increases its level of support for Syria and Iraq. The US would also have to increase their level of support for not only their respective allies, but also for their adversaries which include Syria and Iran in order to prevent ISIS from further realizing their aims. This scenario would create a temporary alliance among Russia, Syria, Iran, the US and militia groups who are against ISIS. Whether or not this alliance could last after preventing ISIS from achieving their goal is uncertain.
It is uncertain what will happen next in the region despite the likely scenarios mentioned. What is certain is that the power struggle to establish state’s that are based on ideology is something that is not new in the Middle East or throughout the world. Despite some changes in the political actors involved, history seems to repeats itself. A way to break the cycle of conflict is to turn to history, and learn from the past. If the international political community can do that, then it may be possible to achieve peace in the Middle East.
“The Evolution of ISIS – Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East.” Al-Monitor. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2014. <http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/11/syria-islamic-state-iraq-sham-growth.html#>.
Australian Government. “Islamic State.” Australian National Security. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2014. <http://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Listedterroristorganisations/Pages/IslamicState.aspx)>.
Hussain, Ghaffar . “Iraq crisis: What does the Isis caliphate mean for global jihadism?.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, n.d. Web. 25 July 2014. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/iraq-crisis-what-does-the-isis-caliphate-mean-for-global-jihadism-9573951.html>.
Jensen, Tom. “Voters support Obama approach in Iraq over NeoCon Republicans.” Public Policy Polling . (2014): 1. Print.