Two months ago, fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were marching south towards the gates of Baghdad following their capture of Mosul and Anbar province. Despite that, they did not enter the capital; against all expectations, they headed north towards Kurdistan. In Syria, ISIS followed a similar course, turning its back on Damascus and heading east to Raqqa after it seized the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. ISIS gained an easy victory over Division 17 of the Syrian army’s 93rd Brigade. This strengthened the belief that the Syrian regime was intentionally giving up outlying areas to ISIS control and was settling for fighting the Free Syrian Army in Jobar, Rokneddin, and the Damascus suburbs.
The confusing question is: why did ISIS transfer its men to these faraway areas in Iraqi Kurdistan and eastern Syria? Also, why hasn’t ISIS attacked the Syrian military’s bases for almost a year now?
Based on what we see on the map, ISIS seeks to take control of Sunni-populated areas and ignores others. This makes one wonder. Maybe it wants to establish itself as a state or caliphate instead of getting involved in areas populated by other sects, which would be difficult to control. Or, it could really be working to thwart the revolution in Syria and serve Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq. This is a widely held theory of which some people seem to be convinced, especially in Syria, where many think ISIS is just another organization infiltrated and controlled by the Syrian regime—just as Al-Qaeda in Iraq was labeled as the resistance against US occupation.
For an organization that loves to attract attention and trumpet its victories, it is illogical for it to back down from attacking Baghdad or Damascus just because it’s looking for safe, faraway areas. Authority, influence and global attention can be garnered by fighting over capital cities. Kurdistan is a mountainous area that will not provide any added value to ISIS even if it achieves some victories in it. The same goes for eastern areas in Syria. These are all marginal areas in the struggle the two countries are facing. At the same time, we see that ISIS is threatening border areas with Turkey and Saudi Arabia—two countries which strongly disagree with the Syrian regime. This again reinforces the theory that the group has been infiltrated by the Syrian regime. Before that, all ISIS’s battles were confined to Iraq’s Sunni provinces.
Perhaps Iraqi Kurdistan will become ISIS’s graveyard, especially since Peshmerga forces joined the fight and the US became involved in the struggle for the first time since the situation began to deteriorate three years ago. Kurdistan is a rugged region and it will repel foreign organizations such as ISIS; the group will not be able to influence the political situation even if it wins in some areas.
The political tug-of-war in Baghdad remains of grave importance because if it succeeds in removing Maliki and promoting a moderate Shi’ite figure as a prime minister, everyone will unite to fight against ISIS, especially amid the increased international support centered on the call for a new government.