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ANALYSIS – What is ISIS and where is the conflict in Iraq and Syria headed?

7 October 20143 comments

One of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history is currently unfolding in Iraq and Syria with the United Nations describing it as “unprecedented” and “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the rise of ISIS and the existing civil war in Syria has now forced more than three million people to flee the country and 6.5 million have been displaced from their homes.

The agency says its work to help the Syrian refugees now marked the largest operation in its 64-year-history.

The rise of the brutal extremist Islamic group ISIS, also known as ISIL, is the major driver behind this human catastrophe in the making – which has already created tens thousands of freshly-minted refugees.

In August, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said ISIS was “an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else. “They are beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of … military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” 

So, just who, or what, is ISIS?

The first thing to know about ISIS is that it is ruthless, brutal and unrelenting.

It has slaughtered hundreds, possibly thousands, of Shias and Christians and even fellow Sunnis it considers not paying sufficient allegiance to it.

The organisation has released videos showing executions of Iraqi troops. It has destroyed ancient mosques to impose its own doctrine. It threatens draconian punishments for citizens under its rule, including cutting off limbs and crucifixion.

It has kidnapped women and children. Girls as young as 12 have been captured and given to some of the group’s military commanders as “gifts”.

ISIS revels in taking foreign hostages to extort money. It has executed two US journalists and British aid worker David Haines by beheading in recent weeks. 

Where did ISIS come from?

Originally ISIS was known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. But its methods have become too grotesque even for the perpetrators of 9/11.

US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq during the post-2006 ‘surge’ – but they were not destroyed totally.

In 2011, ISIS began to reinvent itself. It successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government and slowly began rebuilding its strength.

In February 2014 al-Qaeda divorced itself from ISIS because of its refusal to stop killing civilians.

US Political scientist Barack Mendelsohn says that over the years, there have been many signs that the relationship between al-Qaeda Central (AQC) and the group’s strongest, most unruly franchise was strained.

“Their relationship had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology,” he said.

Today, ISIS and al-Qaeda compete for influence over Islamist extremist groups around the world. Some experts believe ISIS may overtake al-Qaeda as the most influential group in this area globally. 

Who is ISIS’ leader?

ISIS head is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 43, who grew up in Samarra, north of Baghdad. He studied at the Islamic University where he was known as a talented soccer player but was otherwise deemed “insignificant”.

He is believed to have spent time in a US prison camp in 2005, where he met al-Qaeda fighters and cemented his own extremism.

After years on the run, in the style of Osama Bin Laden, he recently appeared on the pulpit of Mosul’s Great Mosque, where he gave a sermon urging the faithful to undertake the Ramadan fast. He also named himself as the commander of the Muslim faithful, calling himself “Caliph Ibrahim”. 

What is their plan?

ISIS’ core mission is to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria under hardline sharia law – and eventually extend that across the Middle-East. To achieve this they are striving to cause a total breakdown of the government in Iraq.

And it is having some success with this. Today, ISIS holds a lot of territory in both Iraq and Syria and has clearly stated ambitions to take more.

The single most important factor in ISIS’ recent resurgence is the conflict between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS.

The difference between the two largest Muslim groups originated with a seemingly arcane controversy in the 7th Century over who took power after the Prophet Muhammed’s death.

But sectarian problems between Shia and Sunnis in much of the world, isn’t about a 14-hundred-year-old dispute; they’re about modern political power and grievances.

A majority of Iraqis are Shias, but the Sunnis dominated the country under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni himself.

Saddam spread a notion still surprisingly persistent today, that Sunnis were the real majority in Iraq. Thus, Sunnis now feel, entitled to larger shares of political power than might perhaps be warranted by their size.

The civil war after the American invasion was a brutally sectarian affair and the system of government that emerged favoured the Shia majority. So, there is little trust between the groups and they are in a winner-takes-all battle for power.

The Shias currently control the government so the Sunnis feel they’re not fairly represented.  This gives ISIS an instant audience for its radical messages. 

How has ISIS risen so quickly?

The Iraqi Government has not helped the situation.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis and used terrorism laws to target Sunni civilians. He also made political alliances with violent Shia militias, infuriating Sunnis.

ISIS has exploited this to recruit new fighters.

When ISIS re-established itself, it put Sunni sectarianism at the heart of its identity and propaganda. The government persecution, according to most observers, played right into their hands.

“Maliki made all the ISIS propaganda real, accurate. That made it much, much easier for ISIS to replenish its fighting stock,” says Middle East commentator Michael Knights.

Whether new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, will be an improvement is yet to be seen.

The Syrian conflict has allowed ISIS to gain territory and hold it. It gave them access to heavy weaponry and money.

ISIS doesn’t depend on foreign aid to survive. It has built up a type of mini-state – collecting taxes, selling electricity, and exporting oil to fund its militant activities.

ISIS is not the only rebel group fighting in Iraq.

Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) is a Sunni nationalist group, many of whom are former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party loyalists.

JRTN doesn’t share ISIS’ militant Islamist outlook — they want to install a Sunni dictatorship.

ISIS’ major breakthrough was a victory in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city and the country’s second most populous. Since then, they’ve made rapid advances.

But there is serious doubt about whether ISIS can ultimately challenge the Iraqi government for control over the country.

The CIA estimates of ISIS’ fighting strength range at up to 50,000 troops. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, plus armed police. The Iraqi military also has tanks, airplanes, and helicopters.

But the Iraqi army lacks morale and is poorly led which explains why ISIS has had the success it’s had despite being dramatically outnumbered. In Mosul, a mostly Sunni city, 30,000 Iraqi troops fled just 800 ISIS fighters.

Put simply, the troops did not want to fight for their government – which goes back to the issues with the Maliki government and the fact that the army is a mix of Shias and Sunnis. 

Where to from here?

One thing that has emerged in recent months is that Iran – a largely Shia nation – is fighting against ISIS in Iraq.

Iran’s military outclasses ISIS on the battlefield but Iranian intervention could also help ISIS in its quest to build support among Iraq’s Sunnis.

The perception that the Iraqi government is far too close to Iran is already widespread among Sunnis. Some commentators fear Iran’s participation in actual combat risks legitimizing ISIS’ propaganda line that the conflict is not between the central Iraqi government and Islamist rebels, but rather a war between Sunnis and Shias.

The US and Iran – two traditional enemies – have met to talk about what they can do together.

Now, the US has launched a large air campaign – supported by other nations including Australia – striking ISIS elements and infrastructure on the ground. But some commentators say that without ‘boots on the ground’ this will not succeed.

The Turkish army has also been mobilised on the border with Iraq where Peshmurga Kurdish fighters have been holding the line against ISIS.

Significantly though, for the first time in a regional conflict in the Middle East, Arab nations have leant their weight and hardware to the military campaign. 

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist