Western media portrays the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – or the Islamic State, as it now calls itself – as a terrorist army. It is presented as though it appeared instantaneously and unforeseeably, taking Iraq by surprise, with brutal tactics even too extreme for Al-Qa’ida.
It is true that ISIS likely has more than 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq and has made great advances against the Iraqi military. Its very name expresses its intention: the plan to build an Islamic state in Iraq and in “al-Sham” or greater Syria. However, the apparently surprising development of ISIS was actually not that surprising. Many different factors are responsible for ISIS’ successes and we will elaborate on those briefly here.
First of all, we need to understand the sectarian division that is at the source of tensions and even civil war in Iraq (and other areas of the Middle East and the rest of the world). Sunni Arabs make up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. Under Saddam Hussein, positions of power were mostly filled with Sunnis, while Shia and Kurdish movements were suppressed. After the US invasion of 2003, a Shia-dominated government was set up. During 2006-7, there was a veritable civil war between these two groups in Iraq, largely unreported by Western media which allowed them to present that region as a victory in the “war on terror”. However, the Sunni marginalization helped Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), an organization carrying out Sunni rebellion. Nevertheless, it failed to overthrow the Shia government.
In 2011, the Arab Spring spread to Syria, which suffered from years of drought, inflation and other deep political, religious and economic divisions. Protests spread rapidly because of overreaction by state security forces, firing on peaceful demonstrators. This enraged whole communities and provoked armed resistance. Eventually, the West backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but the jihadists were often welcomed by locals for restoring law and order after the looting of the Western-controlled FSA. The Western powers, however, failed to see that by supporting the armed uprising in Syria that followed the Arab Spring, they would destabilize Iraq and renew the tensions of the sectarian civil war.
In Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader of AQI in 2010 after its former leaders were killed in an attack by US and Iraqi troops. It was at a low point, with the Sunni rebellion collapsing, but the Sunni revolt in Syria revived the group. After a rebranding into ISIS in 2011 and taking advantage of the Syrian civil war, al-Baghdadi sent fighters and funds to Syria to set up Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) as the al-Qa’ida branch in Syria. The two groups split in 2013, but al-Baghdadi remained in control of large territories in northern Syria and Iraq. Encouraged by the events in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq took a stand against the political and economic marginalization they had encountered since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Protests that started in December 2012 were initially peaceful, but a lack of concessions by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki together with a massacre at a peace camp at Hawijah in April 2013 initiated armed resistance. The general Sunni hostility allowed ISIS to ally itself with numerous Sunni militant groups that it had previously been fighting.
Why was the Iraqi army unable to cope with ISIS’ attacks? How did Fallujah and Mosul fall so quickly, despite an army trained by US military facing a rather small number of Sunni rebels? Of course, the Sunni population as a whole was prepared to give at least tacit support, but more importantly, the Iraqi army suffered from lack of morale and discipline and – most of all – corruption. Corruption in the military took place at every level and was widespread throughout the government. Iraqis blame UN sanctions in the 1990s and the destruction of the Iraqi state by Americans in 2003 . The fact of the matter is that the army was an army for hire.
Additionally, after the US invasion in 2003 the Americans dissolved the Iraqi army, rather than rebuild it as expected. Well-trained officers flooded into the resistance and many of them are now leading ISIS. This explains their organizational and strategic upper hand against the Iraqi army, only reinforced by the flow of weapons, funds and recruits. Young men join ISIS in masses due to a great lack of other opportunity, with ISIS paying its fighters much more than other rebel groups, but the military successes, as well as the organization and coherence of the group is equally attracting.
Today, the border between Iraq and Syria is quasi non-existent. Jihadists are able to cross the Turkish-Syrian border without hindrance from the Turkish authorities. Arms supplied by US allies, such as Qatar and Turkey, to anti-Assad forces in Syria are now being captured regularly in Iraq. The financial, military and even religious support from countries like Qatar and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia has helped ISIS to grow from a rebel organization into an extremist army seeking to build an entire new state.
ISIS celebrates this mission on social media, helping recruitment locally, but even more so from other countries in the Middle East and the rest of the world. It is estimated that 20-30% of ISIS fighters are foreigners. Opposition is weak and the fear of death and torture by ISIS is overwhelming, since Syrians and Iraqis can see multiple examples of such atrocities on the internet. The bigger threats of ISIS are worrisome, because it just might be capable to advance in its state-building mission, controlling a larger territory than al-Qa’ida ever had and possession large financial resources (around $2.5 billion ) through the selling of oil, looting and extortion.
It is clear that the rise of ISIS was not as big of a surprise as it would seem. It is yet another example of the complications that often arise after attempts to solve socio-political problems on a short-term basis, without studying all possible consequences.
Written by M.L. Schwarzenberg and published on 12-November-2014