Sunni militant success in Iraq brings Islamic caliphate into focus

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, backed by other Sunni militants, now controls swaths of northern Syria and northwestern Iraq in which it can impose its harsh rule. 

A burned-out Iraqi army armored vehicle is seen on a street in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, Thursday, June 12, 2014.

A transnational jihadist group now controls a swath of territory across northern Iraq and Syria, creating a de facto Sunni Islamic “caliphate” in its wake as it pushes south toward the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

The group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) endangered the oil refinery of Baiji and yesterday seized Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, 80 miles northwest of Baghdad. The advances came just a day after ISIS shocked observers by easily taking full control of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, where Iraqi soldiers trained and equipped by the US shed their uniforms as they fled. On Thursday the militant group claimed to have surrounded Samarra, bringing it closer to Baghdad. 

ISIS is dramatically changing the map, often seizing ground without a shot being fired, and working with other Sunni militants and Saddam-era military officers.

It is a “golden moment” for ISIS “because their whole idea is based on territory; every [captured] city becomes an emirate,” says Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, an authority on Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.

“Militarily, territorially, financially and practically speaking, ISIS’ Islamic State is very much nearing genuine realization,” said Charles Lister, a specialist on insurgent groups at the Brookings Doha Center, in a tweet after the fall of Mosul. 

Al Qaeda outgrowth

ISIS is an outgrowth of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which reached its peak amid the Iraqi civil war but was severely weakened by the time the US left in 2011. Al Qaeda in Iraq eventually broke with Pakistan-based Al Qaeda central and renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq – stressing its intent to create a caliphate as soon as possible inside the country.

That effort failed, but the dream did not, and when the war against President Bashar al-Assad broke out, the group expanded its vision to become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Disavowed earlier this year by Al Qaeda's central leadership for its brutality to local populations and fierce anti-Shiite sectarianism, ISIS gradually worked its way back across the border into Iraq, capitalizing on political and social divisions exacerbated for years by the heavy-handed sectarian rule of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“Al-Maliki’s authoritarian tactics, the way he has mismanaged both the security forces and the political system – his role is pivotal, in allowing [ISIS] space and shelter, and also in motivating, providing ammunition to disaffected Sunnis to join,” says Mr. Gerges.

Mr. Maliki has called on Iraqis to “regain the initiative” and said the fall of Mosul would be reversed. “Even if the battle is a long one, we will not let you [Iraqi citizens] down, because we are facing a ferocious terrorist campaign,” he said.

One draw for ISIS is the relative simplicity of its ideology, compared with other Islamists, says Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi. “The fact that ISIL has already announced an ‘Islamic State’ that Muslims can join, and fight for its survival and expansion, appeals to a considerable number of people – even though its brutal tactics have alienated others,” writes Mr. Hassan in The National. “ISIL is quietly expanding its following in the villages and towns dotting the Iraqi-Syrian border mostly because of the perceived reality of an Islamic state."

Proximate enemies, proxy war

In contrast to Al Qaeda central and Yemen-based offshoot Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which have concentrated on distant enemies such as the US, ISIS and other jihadists in Syria and Iraq focus on proximate enemies, such as Mr. Assad and Maliki.

“Iraq right now is a proxy for Iran,” David Phillips, a former senior adviser to the US State Department, told the BBC. “Countries like Saudi Arabia, which oppose Iran’s influence, are supporting these extremist groups in order to limit Iraq’s power, and to try to put the brakes on Prime Minister Maliki’s grab for a third mandate as prime minister. So Iraq is a battleground between Sunni and Shia, as it has been all along.”

Their aim, said Mr. Phillips, is to use a caliphate that does not recognize formal borders as a “launching point for radicalization through the region."

For the fighters themselves, the idea of a national home is dissolving as they push for that broader Islamic state. There have been reports of some burning their passports in Syria.

“Everybody’s renouncing their affiliation with their countries, because we are now trying to establish the caliphate. … Our citizenship means nothing to us anymore,” a British foreign fighter by the name of Abu Sumayyah al-Britani said from the northern Syrian town of Idlib, in a May 25 broadcast of “The ISIS Show,” posted by EAWorldview. 

Even the Syrians, the ISIS fighter said, are “distancing” themselves from their national identity. The porousness of the Syria-Iraq border – through which ISIS drove some of the US-made hardware it captured in Mosul into Syria – has reinforced that point. The Economist cites one estimate that ISIS has some 6,000 fighters in Iraq and 3,000 to 5,000 in Syria, among them 3,000 foreigners.

Extreme violence stirs challenges

Although ISIS can draw on the "deep rift" between Sunnis and Shiites, their track record in Syria “shows how they are their own worst enemy," Gerges says. Any level of violence is acceptable because “these limited victories all accumulate to bring about the Islamic caliphate as a strategic goal," he explains.

The group's extreme violence in Syria – beheadings and public crucifixions, directed at rival Islamist rebel groups, as well as civilians and suspected “traitors" – prompted other Islamist groups to take them on. Their path mirrored that of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, whose brutality spurred many Sunnis of Anbar Province to challenge them themselves, with US help.

Though gaining territory in Iraq, ISIS is already sowing the “seeds of their own self-destruction,” Gerges says. “The question is: How long will it take? And how much damage will it do in the meantime?”

The crisis, ironically, could be a wake-up call to unify Iraqis.

Maliki “is the leader, he is the strong man, he built himself up as the most qualified – in fact the only one – who could take [ISIS] on, and it exploded in his face,” adds Gerges. “That’s why there is hope … that this really scary, dangerous moment will serve as a catalyst to bring Iraqis together, to begin the process of reconciliation.”

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