The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. Everything about it is mysterious, from its emergence and organization to its leader, the so-called “Caliph” Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, not to mention its strange, rapid expansion. According to figures provided by the intelligence community, ISIS fighters number between 12,000 and 15,000, while the group has been able to overtake an area larger than Kuwait and Lebanon combined within a period of just a few months. ISIS is in control of vast territories, stretching between Syria and Iraq, including oil fields and a strategically important dam. The militants roam this area freely, inciting terror, levying taxes and expelling members of minority communities. ISIS poses a threat to both Baghdad and Erbil and has turned the political equation inside and outside the region on its head.
All of a sudden, ISIS is dominating the headlines, overshadowing all other events. The group’s gains in Iraq have diverted attention away from the Gaza War, taking pressure off Israel which has come under international criticism over the massacres and destruction wreaked in the Gaza Strip.
ISIS may have taken advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the events in Gaza to extend its presence in Iraq and Syria, but it also provided an unwitting service to Israel by diverting the world’s attention away from the massacre of Palestinian civilians to the massacre of Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities.
Ironically, ISIS turned the political equations upside down in Iraq as well. After being deemed responsible for all the tragedies that befell Iraq since its 2003 invasion, the US is facing increasing calls to intervene militarily in Iraq to stop the advance of ISIS. Even the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki appealed to Washington to intervene. This is the same Maliki who had earlier opposed and refused to sign a security agreement with the US as part of the arrangement for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. After some hesitation, Washington accepted that it would have to carry out limited airstrikes, not in support of Maliki but because ISIS’s advance had started to pose a threat to other countries in the region, including exacerbating the already complicated situation in Syria. Washington and many, inside and outside Iraq, believe that Maliki has failed to manage a vital phase in Iraq’s history, widening the sectarian gap and inflaming the political and security situation.
Maliki today is paying the price for his mistakes. ISIS, which benefited from his mistakes, has contributed to his downfall. Its rapid expansion led to a consensus regarding the importance of replacing Maliki, while his successor prime minister-designate Haider Al-Abadi has found support from Maliki’s former allies, including Iran. Tehran announced its support of the constitutional process that has seen the nomination of a prime minister-designate other than Maliki and thus Tehran found itself, inexplicably, standing on the same side as Washington.
Another irony is that ISIS’s presence resulted in the US and Iran working to achieve the same military objectives, namely curbing the group’s expansion. There are reports suggesting that Iran sent some 500 Quds Force fighters to Baghdad in June in order to help stop the ISIS advance. While the US sent around 150 military experts this week to Kurdistan in order to “assess” the situation and assist in the training of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. This included training on the use of the new advanced military equipment provided by Washington in response to ISIS militants seizing sophisticated weapons and equipment left behind by retreating Iraqi forces.
Washington, as part of its military return to Iraq, is trying to address another mistake resulting from its previous operations in Iraq. ISIS originally emerged from the rubble of the Al-Qaeda in Iraq organization and the cells that grew following the death of Emir Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in a US operation in 2006, as well as the deaths of other prominent Al-Qaeda leaders in an airstrike in 2010. The Islamic State of Iraq emerged from this chaotic situation, and later changed its name to include Syria, becoming the ISIS that we know today. ISIS has most recently sought to change its name again following the announcement of its Islamic State, with many Western media outlets now designating the group simply as the Islamic State.
What is even more surprising is that ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s ascent to power is the result of another US “mistake” that Washington is now trying to deal with. In a New York Times article entitled US Actions in Iraq Fueled Rise of a Rebel published on August 10, a Pentagon source said that US forces arrested Baghdadi in 2004 during an operation in Fallujah. Baghdadi, at the time, was not a big player in Iraq and the US simply registered his name and processed him; the Pentagon official said that there was no way that they could have guessed he would rise to such prominence. So not only did he slip through US fingers, but he also used the US, and particularly America’s presence in Iraq, to rise. “At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq,” the New York Times article said.
One may also argue that Baghdadi benefited from the West’s confused handling of the Syrian crisis and its failure to unite the fragmented rebel factions. As a result he was able to take over vast swathes of land and attract even more fighters, expanding his operations even further.
It is difficult to gamble on ISIS’s internal collapse. So long as no one is willing to fight ISIS seriously, we may face an organization that confuses regional and international equations for many years to come.