The Isis offensive has exposed not only the failure of the Iraqi state but also of the whole Middle Eastern strategy pursued in these years by the US. “I told you so”, this is the resounding and well known sentence that many are now saying referring to the Iraqi situation. It is difficult not to comment or express sympathy for the use of the sentence when for years we have been brainwashed with the fairy tale of the “mission accomplished” or of Iraq becoming a stronger state. However, acute observers did not miss to notice the constant bloodshed of car bombings and suicide attacks targeting Baghdad’s markets or Shia sanctuaries as worrying signs of an incoming sectarian violence.
The hypocrisy is reaching gigantic dimension then if we look at Syria, where for years Assad warned of Al Qaida linked group filling the ranks of the insurgency and branded as mere propaganda from the West. You would have expected at least the decency of an “admission of misunderstanding” (a diplomatic way to admit failure) instead we heard American and British officials saying that they could not prevent or foresee Isis offensive. Is that true? One fact is established: unless Isis is taken into the wider picture that is set by its own goals, and therefore addressing not only Iraq but also Syria, the risk of a civil war spilling across the region, not on nationalist lines bit on sectarian ones, is becoming an alarming possibility.
Who is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant?
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (alternatively translated as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) (Arabic: الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām), abbreviated ISIL, ISIS, now officially calling itself simply the Islamic State (Arabic: الدولة الإسلامية al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah), is an unrecognized state and active jihadist militant group in Iraq and Syria. In its self-proclaimed status as a sovereign state, it claims the territory of Iraq and Syria, which implies future claims over more of the Levant region, including Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, a part of southern Turkey and Cyprus.
The group in its original form was composed of and supported by a variety of insurgent groups, including its predecessor organizations, the Mujahideen Shura Council, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the insurgent groups Jaysh al-Fatiheen, Jund al-Sahaba, Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal Sunnah and Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura, and a number of Iraqi tribes that profess Sunni Islam.
Isis has witnessed significant growth as an organization owing to the deteriorated security situation in Iraq and Syria, both subjected to the western change of regime strategy. In Iraq Isis flourished due to the Sunni population being sidelined by the Shia government in Baghdad, where political discrimination and even persecution created the fertile support for Sunni insurgents to join the group. In Syria, the civil war created the situation under which ISIS make the most of the inability of the government to control its borders, taking advantage of the influx of armaments from neighboring countries and supporting Sunni in their struggle against the Alawite minority in power. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, Isis has a large presence in the Syrian governorates of Ar-Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo.
Isis may have up to 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000–5,000 in Syria, including 3,000 foreigners with many arriving from Chechnya and even from France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Isis is known for its harsh interpretation of Islam and brutal violence, which is directed particularly against Shia Muslims. In addition to attacks on government and military targets, have claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians on both Iraq and Syria. Isis had close links with al-Qaeda until 2014 but, after an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda cut all ties with the group, reportedly for its “notorious intractability” and brutality, although the reason is more related to divergent strategic objectives between the group and the main al Qaida linked movement in Syria, Al Nusra Front.
Isis is now widely regarded not as a terrorist organization but as a proper army with ambitions to govern, similar to the Taliban: they have shadow governments in and around Baghdad, they currently run social programs, which includes social services, religious lectures, it also performs civil tasks such as repairing roads and maintaining the electricity supply.
The group is also known for its effective use of propaganda. In November 2006, the group established the al-Furqan Institute for Media Production, which produced CDs, DVDs, posters, pamphlets, and web-related propaganda products. Isis’s main media outlet is the I’tisaam Media Foundation, which was formed in March 2013 and distributes through the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). In 2014, ISIS established the Al Hayat Media Center, which targets a Western audience and produces material in English and German, and the Ajnad Media Foundation, which releases jihadist audio chants. Isis’s use of social media has been described as sophisticated and it regularly takes advantage of social media, particularly Twitter.
It is estimated that Isis have assets worth $2 billion, making it the richest jihadist group in the world. About three quarters of this sum is represented by assets seized after the group captured Mosul in June 2014, including likely $429 million looted from Mosul’s central bank as well as a large quantity of gold bullion. Sources of funding are mainly generated from kidnapping, extortion rackets, robbing banks and gold shops. The group is also widely reported as receiving funding from private donors in Gulf States, and both Iran and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding Isis, although there is reportedly no evidence that this is the case. The group is also believed to be receiving considerable funds from its operations in Eastern Syria, where it has control on oil fields and engages in smuggling out raw materials and archaeological artifacts. ISIS also generates revenues from producing crude oil and selling electric power in northern Syria.
A caliphate was eventually proclaimed on 29 June 2014, with the leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being named as its caliph, the group was renamed the Islamic State and calling for Muslims to accept obedience.
Paradoxes and Contradictions fuel ISIS growth
So why is now Isis becoming so important even to create a miraculous rapprochement of Washington with Iran? The reason it may be the obvious partition of oil resources but at a closer look the US policy is more similar to a matryoshka. On the exterior the policy may have been shortsighted and failed in addressing the future state structure when a change of regime is achieved, but it also offer inside a sub-goal that is to create a weak state unable to survive and be dependent of US assistance. This opens therefore to the third sub-goal that is to generate an instable situation in the region under which no one will be enough powerful to overcome or undermine western interests.
For years the US have branded the change of regime policy as an infallible tool to export democracy, but they never considered that once eliminating a strong power the spot could be soon filled by another questionable or even more dangerous figure. Nevertheless, this strategy, even though being blind on future scenarios, suits best for the principle of divide et impera by fuelling internal instability. Iraq with its Shia government, although officially approved by Washington, has also been under scrutiny due to its Iranian links, and this is the reason why Kurds have been allowed to maintain their formidable army of Peshmerga. But exactly as per Shia groups, the Kurds cannot be allowed to exert influence to the point of creating an independent state across the region. So whilst on the news the US branded Iraq a mission accomplished, the constant bloodshed in everyday life simply exposed a failing project waiting to develop a next stage. Isis grew out of these paradoxes and religious violence, but what Washington did not planned or considered is that the internal instability is evolving into sectarian violence and completely underestimates the importance of the Syrian civil war connection.
Isis could have never reached the current proportion without also gaining valuable advantages from the Syrian civil war. The other rebel and opposition fighters have been soon outgunned by government’s forces while the western and especially Arab supplies soon ended in Isis or Al Nusra hands thus polarizing the conflict not as political but as religious. Assad’s warnings have always been branded as regime propaganda, but on the ground ISIS gained not only equipment but also basis and oil fields in Syria, has been able to deploy a stronger army to counter not only government forces but also other rebel groups, Al Nusra and even to support Iraqi insurgency.
Whilst stronger concern has been put on Iraq with the Syrian side of the Isis activities continuing to be underestimated, on the other Assad and rebel groups fight against Isis basically alone and you can wonder how it would be possible to destroy effectively the group without targeting its basis in Syria.
Isis offensive in fact opened at the eyes of the whole wide world the paradox and contradictions of the Middle Eastern policy of several countries, all of which have little or nothing to do with the wellbeing of Iraqis.
ISIS Effects in the Region
Isis already controls large parts of northern and eastern Syria, including much of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour provinces. Emboldened by the gains made in Iraq, Isis fighters seized a number of strategically important towns along the Syrian side of the border. They also used weapons and equipment seized from the Iraqi army.
Isis’s advance is said to have alarmed the Syrian government, which has allegedly refrained from targeting the jihadist group because of the damage it has caused to more moderate rebel forces. However, over the past weeks, the Syrian air force has for the first time attacked Isis strongholds and also for the first time neighboring Iraq even welcomed action in its own territory.
The main Syrian opposition alliance, the National Coalition, has said it has been warning about the threat posed by Isis for years, and that pro-Western and Islamist rebel groups should have been given the military aid they needed earlier to counter it. They launched an offensive to expel Isis from Syria in January, triggering fighting that has killed thousands. Syria offers the excellent conditions for a jihadist group to raise and shine: security decay, arms influx, fighters joining from other countries, indifference of big powers. Buy Syria is not different from Iraq, you have an alawite minority, Shia linked, that struggle for maintain its power, you have the Kurds and you have the Sunni population that have been subjected to decades of discrimination.
But if Iraq received outmost attention and even forced US and Britain to reconsider their links with Iran, Syria on the other is still seen as a country to be left alone struggling against the group. This reinforce the idea that behind the concern there is in reality an use of Isis to reach the ultimate goal that is a change of regime and destroy another pillar of the anti US policy in Middle East.
Iran’s Supreme Leader rejected military intervention in Iraq by the US, accusing Washington of trying to manipulate sectarian divisions to retake the country it once occupied. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he believed Iraqis could end the violence themselves.
The region’s leading Shia power is reported to have sent troops to Iraq to advise its security forces on how to tackle Isis. The commander of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Gen Qasem Soleimani, has flown to Baghdad to oversee the capital’s defences and the thousands of Iraqi Shia who have responded to calls to take up arms and defend their country, particularly its Shia shrines.
Iran has steadily built up its influence in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, with whom it fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s. Many Iraqi leaders spent years in exile in Iran, and their political parties and militia receive support from Tehran. Iran strengthened its position in Middle East in recent years thanks mostly to the reckless actions of the western coalition, but at the same time Iran understood very soon the danger posed by the policy of divide et impera and the possible degeneration into sectarian violence. This is the reason why if one side Iran welcome the request of intervention to stop Isis on the other does not approve western involvement in a situation created ad hoc by them. Iran is aware that the West, without a powerful Iranian support, will not achieve its goals, reason why Teheran is instead strengthening its forces with Assad.
Jordan has bolstered its defences along the border with Iraq with tanks and rocket-launchers after Sunni militants seized territory in the west of Anbar province and took control of the Iraqi side of the only land crossing with Jordan at Traybil.
The loss of Traybil is not seen as an immediate security threat to Jordan. However, army units had been put in a state of alert.
Some analysts believe Jordan could be Isis’s next target. However, they note that the government is more stable than Iraq’s, its army more effective, and its jihadist ideologues have denounced Isis’s brutality. In addition Jordan strong links with the Palestinian cause will open another theatre of operations with all the dangers connected to it.
ISIS has taken over a number of cities and towns near Turkey’s borders with Iraq and Syria, and kidnapped dozens of Turkish citizens.
Although the Turkish government has threatened to retaliate if any of its citizens are harmed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of the risks of launching air strikes against the Isis-led forces in Iraq because of the risk of serious civilian casualties.
Analysts say the Turkish government is changing its stance on the creation of an independent Kurdish state in north-eastern Iraq, which it has long opposed. Officials now reportedly believe that Iraq will end up becoming a loose federation of three entities – Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shia Arab – or divided altogether. Nevertheless, Turkey did not officially commented on the Kurds aspiration of creating a wider state encompassing also Turkish and Syrian territories.
Erdogan’s opponents also say his government has helped Isis by allowing Syria-bound jihadists to pass freely through its territory.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Maliki openly accused Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni Gulf power, of promoting “crimes that may qualify as genocide” by providing financial and moral support to Isis. The Saudi government rejected what it called a “malicious falsehood”. It stressed that it wished to see the destruction of Isis, and blamed the “exclusionist policies” of Maliki’s Shia-dominated government.
Despite such assertions, Isis is widely believed to receive money from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of Saudis are also believed to have fought in Iraq and Syria over the past decade.
The authorities in Riyadh are increasingly concerned about returning Saudi jihadists switching their attention to the kingdom.
The Kuwaiti government has been criticised for having allowed wealthy donors to fund extremist groups. Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah has said the recent developments in Iraq are “deeply worrying” but were “expected”.
The Kuwaiti minister responsible for border security, Maj Gen Sheikh Mohammed al-Youssef, assured citizens and residents that the emirate’s northern frontier was safe. He said the state of readiness of the Kuwaiti military did not need to be raised because the situation in the predominantly Shia south of Iraq was “calm”. Wealthy donors based in Kuwait are believed to have given money to ISIS and other extremist Sunni rebel groups in Syria. This has increased the hostility of Iran and Syria towards the Gulf States.
The US are now caught in this situation that on one side may be a step further of their policy but in reality it could spill out of control very soon. While the US are trying to get Iran into the dispute, the move could be seen as hardly genuinely believable, as there is a sense that an Iranian involvement into the conflict could in reality exacerbate the sectarian violence rather than solve it. For many analysts Iran intervention is as questionable as Israel’s one. In such polarized situation while Isis is pushing for an all out war against Shia groups, on the other Israel in engaged again in the never ending saga with Hamas in Gaza. A war in the Gaza Strip would inevitably offer even more dangerous reasons to further damage the already fragile situation in the region, out of which Isis could get the biggest benefit.
The US are finding themselves caught in the paradox of their own policy without a future but with sub targets. The problem is that this time an intervention in Iraq could be seen as pro Shia government and will open questions about inaction in Syria; an intervention in Syria at the same time is not even considered, and while Turkey is calling for Kurds independence like Israel, it is difficult not to question why Tel Aviv government is keen to appease independence for Kurds and reject any negotiation on the Occupied Territories. This reinforces the idea that the whole project is to split the area in small states, and that there is a convergence of interests bringing together the US, Turkey and Israel on eventually accepting the partition of Iraq but continuing to destroy the Assad regime.
Syria and Iran are on the other side strengthening their partnership and, although not mentioned, they look with preoccupation at Lebanon as the possible next confrontation ground for ISIS, where the ground for a sectarian violence is fertile and where the two states have an ally in the Hezbollah.
The choice between partition versus enabling governments, although questionable they may be, to fight on their own terrorist groups, is the key to resolve Isis crisis, but a wrong move could open even more dangerous perspectives not only for the Middle East but also for US security and the West as a whole.