I put this briefing together to give you a 5 minute flyover briefing on ISIL so you can be informed about who they are, where did they come from, what are their strengths, weaknesses, how are they financed, what is the significance of Iran in this conflict and any other information that seemed relevant. I didn’t write this – it’s a compilation of multiple articles that I read off the net.
The Islamic State is the latest and most powerful incarnation of what began as an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion.
American forces spent years and enormous resources to bring the group largely to heel before US troops pulled out of the country in December of 2011. Since then, the region has been convulsed in political turmoil and sectarian hatreds. The Islamic State has seized on those Sunni-Shiite tensions to help whip up its Sunni extremist followers.
The group is led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known by his nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with a $10 million US bounty on his head.
After taking the reins in 2010, al-Baghdadi successfully transformed what had been an umbrella organization focused mainly on Iraq into a transnational military force.
The Syrian uprising, which began in 2011, opened the door to his greater ambitions. Al-Baghdadi dispatched militants to Syria to set up a group called the Nusra Front. Initially, more moderate Syrian rebels welcomed the group’s experienced fighters but the Islamic State alienated many rebels and Syrian civilians alike with its brutality and attempts to impose its strict interpretation of Islam.
ISIL fought as al Qaeda’s Iraq branch against US forces during the years of American occupation in Iraq, but broke away from al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It now says the group founded by Osama bin Laden is not extreme enough.
In years of fighting on both sides of the frontier, ISIL has gained a reputation for shocking brutality. Al-Baghdadi’s group now controls much of northern and eastern Syria from its stronghold of Raqqa, where its strict brand of Islamic law holds sway.
On Wednesday, June 10, ISIL solidified its hold on Mosul, the largest city in Northern Iraq, a city with a population of around 600,000 people. ISIL’s attack on Mosul, which Al Jazeera reports occurred with around 800 Sunni fighters, defeated over 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, many of whom abandoned their uniforms and fled. One of the reasons that the Soldiers fled is that Iraq is led by a Shia Government and many of the soldiers are Sunni Muslims and did not want to give their life for a Shia Government.
While the taking of the city, ISIL recovered “massive cache” of weapons, vehicles and equipment, given to Iraqi security forces by the United States. Reports claim that many pieces of American equipment captured in Mosul have already been seen on the Syrian battlefield.
As ISIL took control of the city, it also took control of the city’s central bank. The Washington Post reports that amid the reports of “mass beheadings” happening in the city, the militant group also stole an estimated $425 million from Mosul’s central bank.
The United Nations Mission in Iraq, UNAMI, believes that the militant attack on Northern Iraq has forced some 500,000 people to flee from that region, with 40,000 more joining the refugees as ISIL continues to spread its offensive.
ISIL Wants to Create a New Islamic State That Restores Ancient Borders
As sectarian violence continues between the Shiite controlled nations such as Syrian and Iran, ISIL and Sunni rebels have claimed that they are trying to remake an ancient Islamic caliphate that stretched across the contemporary countries of the Syria and Iraq. Reuters reports that ISIL gave captured Iraqi soldiers a chance to “repent … for those asking who we are, we are the soldiers of Islam and have shouldered the responsibility to restore the glory of the Islamic Caliphate.” Some maps discovered show that ISIL wants to control the Middle East and parts of Africa.
One thing standing in ISIL’s way are the Kurdish people in northern Iraq, who are defending Kurdistan, an ethnic region on the border of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. On Wednesday, the Iraqi government announced that it would be aided in its battles against the spread of ISIL by the Kurds to the north. Al Jazeera reports that the ISIL offensive is now only around 60 miles away from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, often referred to as the “Kurdish Jerusalem.”
ISIS is, in a roundabout way, a product of the Iraq war.
It’s essentially a rebooted version of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamist group that rose to power after the American invasion. US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated AQI during the post-2006 “surge,” but it didn’t demolish them. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, described the group in 2010 as down but “fundamentally the same.” “What they want,” the general continued, “is to form an ungoverned territory or at least pieces of ungoverned territory, inside of Iraq, that they can take advantage of.”
In 2011, the group rebooted. ISIS successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government and, slowly but surely, began rebuilding their strength. The chaos today is a direct result of the Iraqi government’s failure to stop them.
Perhaps the single most important factor in ISIS’ recent resurgence is the conflict between Iraqi Shias and Iraqi Sunnis. 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 controversy over who got to take power after the Prophet Muhammed’s death, which you can read all about here. But Iraq’s sectarian problems aren’t about relitigating 7th century disputes; they’re about modern political power and grievances.
A majority of Iraqis are Shias, but Sunnis ran the show when Saddam Hussein, himself Sunni, ruled Iraq. The civil war after the American invasion had a brutally sectarian cast to it, and the pseudo-democracy that emerged afterwards empowered the Shia majority (with some heavy-handed help from Washington). The point is that the two groups don’t trust each other, and so far have competed in a zero-sum game for control over Iraqi political institutions.
So long as Shias control the government, and Sunnis don’t feel like they’re fairly represented, ISIS has an audience for its radical Sunni message. That’s why ISIS is gaining in the heavily Sunni northwest.
The Iraqi government has made this tension worse by persecuting Sunnis and through other missteps
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, has built a Shia sectarian state and refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis. Police have killed peaceful Sunni protestors and used anti-terrorism laws to mass-arrest Sunni civilians. ISIS cannily exploited that brutality to recruit new fighters.
When ISIS reestablished itself, it put Sunni sectarianism at the heart of its identity and propaganda. The government persecution, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies’ Michael Knights, “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.
That wasn’t the only way the Iraqi government helped ISIS grow, according to Knights. The US and Iraqi governments released a huge number of al-Qaeda prisoners from jail, which he thinks called “an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower – an infusion at a scale the world has never seen.” US forces were running sophisticated raids “every single night of the year,” and Knights believes their withdrawal gave ISIS a bit more breathing room.
Unlike some other Islamist groups fighting in Syria, ISIS doesn’t depend on foreign aid to survive. In Syria, they’ve built up something like a mini-state: collecting the equivalent of taxes and selling electricity to fund its militant activities.
Max Fisher has an in-depth breakdown of how they managed to do this, which includes extorting money from humanitarian workers and selling electricity to the Syrian government that it’s currently fighting.
There are two important takeaways here. First, as Max explains, these clever revenue bases have made ISIS much more effective on the battlefield than other militant groups:
This money goes a long way: it pays better salaries than moderate Syrian rebels or the Syrian and Iraqi professional militaries, both of which have suffered mass desertions. ISIS also appears to enjoy better internal cohesion than any of its state or non-state enemies, at least for the moment.
Second, it makes the idea that ISIS’ near-term goal is to hold Iraqi oil and power facilities more credible. Some reports suggest they’ve restarted oil fields in eastern Syria. If that’s true, then ISIS isn’t just a strong military force: they’re also smartly laying the economic groundwork to accomplish their dream of an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.
The Iranian government is Shia, and it has close ties with the Iraqi government. Much like in Syria, Iran doesn’t want Sunni Islamist rebels to topple a friendly Shia government. So in both countries, Iran has gone to war.
THESE IRANIAN TROOPS OUTCLASS ISIS ON THE BATTLEFIELD
Iran has sent two battalions of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to help Iraq fight ISIS. These aren’t just any old Iranian troops. They’re Quds Force, the Guards’ elite special operations group. The Quds Force is one of the most effective military forces in the Middle East, a far cry from the undisciplined and disorganized Iraqi forces that fled from a much smaller ISIS force in Mosul. One former CIA officer called Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.” Suleimani, the Journal reports, is currently helping the Iraqi government “manage the crisis” in Baghdad.
These Iranian troops outclass ISIS on the battlefield. According to the Wall Street Journal, combined Iranian-Iraqi forces have already retaken about 85 percent of Tikrit. That alone demonstrates the military significance of Iranian intervention: Iraqi forces have previously floundered in block-to-block city battles with ISIS.
However, 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 a significant grievance among Sunnis. That’s part pure sectarianism and part nationalism. Many Iraqis don’t like the idea of a foreign power manipulating their government, particularly Iran (memories of the Iran-Iraq war haven’t faded). So Iranian participation in actual combat risks legitimizing ISIS’ propaganda line: this isn’t a conflict between the central Iraqi government and Islamist rebels, but rather a war between Sunnis and Shias.
Here’s one other scary thought. Iran is now helping both the Iraqi and Syrian governments fight largely Sunni rebels. What happens if the two battlefields get joined?
ISIS cannot challenge the Iraqi government for control over the country. On a basic level, it’s simple math. A rough count of ISIS’ fighting strength suggests it has a bit more than 7,000 combat troops, and it can occasionally grab reinforcements from other extremist militias. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, plus armed police. That Iraqi military also has tanks, airplanes, and helicopters. ISIS can’t make a serious play for the control of Baghdad, let alone the south of Iraq, without a serious risk of getting crushed.
But the Iraqi army is also a total mess, which explains why ISIS has had the success it’s had despite being dramatically outnumbered.
Take ISIS’ victory in Mosul. 30,000 Iraqi troops ran from 800 ISIS fighters. Those are 40:1 odds! Yet Iraqi troops ran because they simply didn’t want to fight and die for this government. There had been hundreds of desertions per month for months prior to the events of June 10th. The escalation with ISIS is, of course, making it worse.Sectarianism also plays a role here. The Iraqi army is mixed Sunni-Shia, and “it appears that the Iraqi Army is cleaving along sectarian lines,” Yale’s Jason Lyall said. “The willingness of Sunni soldiers to fight to retake Mosul appears limited.” This makes some sense out of the Mosul rout: some Sunni Muslims don’t really want to fight other Sunnis in the name of a government that oppresses them.
This suggests a natural limit to ISIS’ expansion. Mosul is a mostly Sunni city, but military resistance will be much stiffer in Shia areas. ISIS needs to stick to Sunni land if it doesn’t want to overreach.
Categories: Political Commentary or Thoughts