In 2014, the world was able to observe how the terrorist organization Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) conquered large areas in Syria and Iraq, often with extreme means. For many, ISIL’s progress came as a surprise, even in a Middle East already filled to the brim with conflict and tense tensions. The fall of the city of Mosul and the atrocities against the Yezidi minority group became gruesome eye- openers for many.
- Who is ISIL?
- What will ISIL achieve?
- Why has ISIL been able to grow so strong in such a short time?
- What does the regional backdrop around ISIL look like?
2: ISIL’s emergence
ISIL – also called IS (Islamic State) and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) – was originally a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but broke out in 2006 under the name ISI (Islamic State in Iraq). ISI established itself in Anbar, Nineveh, Kirkuk and other Sunni Muslim areas, but was, like al-Qaeda, defeated by Sunni Muslim (see facts) groups supported by the United States. Both claimed a extremist interpretation of Islam, demanded that all should be subordinate, and forward on a so brutal way that Sunnis turned against them.
According to Weddinginfashion.com, the war in Syria (HHD 2014: 6) opened up new opportunities for ISI, which now took the name ISIL. The movement grew rapidly in provinces such as al-Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo. Also there, they initially collaborated with al-Qaeda, but separated in February 2014. Today, the Nusra Front represents
al-Qaeda in Syria. Several times they have turned their weapons towards each other. A few months later, ISIL moved into western and northern Iraq and conquered large areas there, with Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – as the most spectacular conquest. In the autumn, they threatened Baghdad and Erbil.
In June 2014, ISIL proclaimed a global caliphate under the name IS, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph. Caliphate was the name given to the form of government chosen by the Muslims after the death of the Prophet in 632, and for 300 years the caliph was the political leader of the community of believers. In the caliphate, society must be governed by sharia law (see facts). Ottoman sultans also used the term caliphate, but it was abolished after World War I when Turkey’s great reformer, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, came to power. In sum, ISIL is a religious , political and military phenomenon.
3: ISIL’s strength
ISIL’s rapid advance into the Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq was largely due to the Sunni conflict with the government in Baghdad. The head of government, al-Maliki, had done like so many other leaders in the Middle East: provided for himself and his people – ie the Shiites, who make up 2/3 of the population – and pushed the Sunnis away. Many Sunnis were therefore driven into the arms of ISIL and saw their cut to fight with them against Baghdad. The Iraqi army, which was led by Shiites and recruited mainly from the Shiite Muslim population, was also poorly trained and had low combat morale.
In the autumn of 2014, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated that ISIL had just over 30,000 fighters at its disposal . Others operated with higher numbers. It was estimated that 12,000 of them were foreign fighters from nearly 80 countries. The list of foreign fighters is topped by Tunisia, followed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Russia and France. When so many come from Tunisia (approximately 3000), which today has a democratic system of government, it is partly due to that the former dictator Ben Ali was happy to get rid of them and that today’s leaders are cracking down hard on extremists. They have not taken root in this country, but are all the more prevalent in Syria and Iraq.
The advance in the summer of 2014 meant that ISIL gained access to both oil fields and heavy weapons that the Iraqi army left behind when it was forced to flee. Revenues increased sharply through oil sales, bank robberies and ransom for kidnapping. People from Saddam Hussein’s army, who knew how to use tanks and other armored vehicles, joined them. However, as they advanced toward Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, they were stopped by the United States .
4: ISIL’s weaknesses
In order to combat ISIL, it is important to get the government of Baghdad to pursue a more inclusive policy , ie to listen to and better distribute state funds between different ethnic, religious and social groups. Therefore, al-Maliki was removed , under pressure from the United States and Iran, and Haider al-Abadi was installed as the new prime minister – in the belief that he was better suited to win the Sunnis over to his side. He has then also tried it, albeit half-heartedly. In Anbar province, many tribal leaders have begun cooperating with him, but not in Nineveh and other areas. Iran trains and equips Shiite militias, which have taken back some cities and lands from ISIL.
Many arrows have begun to point downwards for ISIL. The flow of money from the Arabian Peninsula is stifled. Oil sales have plummeted, as the oil facilities are located where they are located and are easy to destroy from the air. A bank can only be robbed once. The heavy weapons are also bombed, little by little, and not replaced. No one will transfer such weapons to ISIL. Fight morale has dropped: There have been many reports of desertions and shootings of deserters, to deter more people from leaving.
In the long run, it is difficult to imagine that the Sunnis in Iraq will be led by a movement that is as brutal as ISIL and that demands that everyone submit to their leadership. In this way, ISIL is making the same mistakes as al-Qaeda in Iraq. The many foreign fighters also limit ISIL’s legitimacy.
However, Shiite militias have begun to provoke many Sunnis. The Sunni Muslim element in the Iraqi army is still unconvincing. In addition, to defeat ISIL, fighting them in Iraq is not enough. They must be fought in Syria as well, and there it is still difficult to see any clear trend, up or down, for ISIL. The general impression is therefore that the fight against ISIL can be tough .
5: The regional backdrop for the war
- A1. Turkey (HHD 2010) is the strong part of a grouping that otherwise consists of Tunisia and Qatar and that is brotherhood-oriented. There are Muslim fraternities in most Arab countries. Recently, Qatar has curbed this part of its foreign policy following pressure from Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia is geographically and politically on the sidelines.
- For Turkey (HHD 2013: 15), relations with the Kurds are a major issue . They cooperate with the government in Erbil (Kurdish Regional Government, KRG), but not with the Kurds in northern Syria, which is PKK-oriented (see p. 5). Therefore, the Turks have not participated in the defense of the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria, and they have refused the United States to use Turkish air bases in the defense of the city.
- A third regional grouping consists of Egypt (HHD 2013: 14) , Saudi Arabia and most of the emirates in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia plays the main role, especially as long as Egypt is burdened by internal problems. They have a common enemy – the Muslim Brotherhood – and currently Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are keeping the Egyptian state ship afloat. Saudi Arabia is competing with Iran and other Shiites for influence in Iraq and Syria.
- Iran leads a coalition that includes the governments of Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad / Hamas (see facts) in Gaza. After the US occupation brought the Shiites to power in Iraq, Iran has increased its influence there . For a long time, the Saudis gave generous financial support to groups fighting against Assad, not least to deprive Iran of an important ally, but eventually discovered that ISIL was a threat to themselves as well. Saudi Arabia is part of the American-clad alliance against ISIL, in which as many as 60 countries participate , but which diverge in many directions. Iran is outside. Relations between Iran and the United States are still heavily historically strained, but possibly on the road to recovery (cf. the nuclear negotiations).