Al-Qaeda emerged on the scene in Iraq to fight against the US occupation of 2003, and it collaborated with the country’s tribes, but when Shi’ite prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki came to power in 2006, Al-Qaeda found its position weakened. Maliki, for his part, was nothing special. He was nothing more than an eligible candidate for prime minister drawn from the Iraqi people due to his Shia faith. He only managed to secure his grip on power thanks to Iranian backing, since Tehran basically has final say on the Iraqi government. It was Maliki’s policies of marginalization towards Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes that provided the ideal conditions for the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS had initially sprung up in neighboring Syria as part of the revolution against the Bashar Al-Assad regime. This revolution began peacefully, but the regime resorted to violence and Syria quickly became an open playground for many Islamist and jihadist organizations, including ISIS.
ISIS’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. Some believe that ISIS enjoyed, or indeed continues to enjoy, the support of international or regional intelligence agencies. Many different parties have been accused of being behind ISIS’s creation.
Some observers have claimed that ISIS is an Iranian–Syrian creation, pointing to the fact that the Islamist militant group is also fighting against some enemies of the Assad regime, such as the Free Syrian Army. There are also some who say ISIS is a Turkish creation, part of an Ankara plan to re-establish the Caliphate. Others believe that ISIS gets their supplies from Qatar, in coordination with Turkey, perhaps as part of a plot to hurt the countries that have undermined the reign of political Islam in the region. Iran and its followers in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut’s southern suburbs accuse none other than Saudi Arabia of having established ISIS, pointing to the presence of Saudi nationals in the group’s ranks. Some even go so far as to say that ISIS is an American invention. In response to all of these claims, we need only look at the countries—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US—that have openly declared ISIS a terrorist organization.
Ultimately, the answer is simple: ISIS was borne out of the situation on the ground in Syria. The country has become a playground for all types of terrorism over the past three years, including the state-sponsored variety being committed against the Syrian people.
Now, the group has spread from Syria into neighboring Iraq, and we are witnessing ISIS occupation of large swathes of Iraqi territory. But the bigger surprise has been the retreat of Maliki’s army—numbering in the thousands and far better equipped than ISIS—in the face of the Islamist militants’ advance. ISIS has found its presence bolstered even further by the support of Iraq’s marginalized Sunni community and Arab tribes.
During his eight years in power, Maliki ignored the fact that large numbers of Iraqi soldiers hail from Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes and clans. They are the majority in Anbar, Salah Al-Din, Tikrit, and other northern areas. These people are now championing ISIS not because they love the Islamist group, but because they hate Maliki and his government, which marginalized and isolated them.
Now, the Maliki government has found itself mired in embarrassment and fear—fear that this Islamist group that was able to take over significant territory in just a matter of days will be able to reach Baghdad. The embattled prime minister has called for international help, appealing equally to Washington and Tehran.
So, what is next for ISIS?
Ultimately, ISIS is a source of concern for the entire region, Sunnis and Shi’ites alike, because they want to create a political entity of their own. Yet, on the other hand, we also do not have specific details regarding their future objectives. They have announced the establishment of an “Islamic State,” but nobody really knows what this means on the ground. This “Islamic Caliphate,” stretching from Aleppo in the north to Basra in the south is a distinctive region predominantly populated by Arab tribes. Some believe that ISIS can give them what they were deprived of for centuries.
Despite the fact that ISIS is in the news on a daily basis, we continue to hear just one narrative: ISIS as a terrorist organization that depends on violence, extremism and murder. While all of this is certainly true, there must be more to the story, given the group’s shocking advance and the developments on the ground.
ISIS’s ideology and methodology are not concordant with logic, religion or any civilized society. This “Islamic State” will find itself locked in a battle with the society it is seeking to rule, and this is a battle that ISIS will ultimately lose. ISIS and its Islamic State will become just another regional extremist group that emerged and decayed, like all the others.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.