The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a jihadist, Sunni militant group that has captured huge swathes of land across Iraq and Syria. Employing a strict interpretation of Sharia law, the group imposes harsh punishments and oppresses civilians in the territory it controls. Waging violent war against the Syrian government, Iraqi government, Kurdish militias, and the west, ISIS is currently engaged in a full time conflict on all borders. With tens of thousands of well-armed, well trained jihadists dedicated to their cause, ISIS is threatening to conquer even more territory and upset the careful balance of power in the region.
But in order to fully understand ISIS’s origins, goals, and tactics, it’s crucial to understand the ethnic and religious sectarian divides in modern day Syria and Iraq.
Ethnoreligious lines in Iraq
Iraq is a complex, multi-cultural nation as a result of European colonialism. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, major European powers such as France and Britain redrew borders at random, trapping several different ethnic and religious groups within the country.
It’s divided between Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and the Kurds, and much of Iraq’s recent history –including ISIS’s rise – has been defined by the conflict between these three groups. While both Sunnis and Shiites are ethnically Arabian, they belong to different sects of Islam that disagree on the linage of Mohammad. Shiites inhabit the south-east of the country, Sunni’s dominate the west, and Kurds live in the north. Historically, tensions between the three groups have always been uneasy.
The Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein
Iraq was ruled by a semi-stable monarchy until 1968, when the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, a Sunni dominated political party, seized power. Saddam Hussein, a young Ba’athist that sought political power, created a secret police force that answered directly to him. He used this security force to solidify his position of power within the Ba’ath party and to suppress dissent among Shiite Arabs and Iraqi Kurds. In order to maintain control over the Shia majority, the Ba’ath party brutally oppressed them for decades. This led to significant sectarian animosity between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis.
Sunnis removed from power
This Sunni-controlled Ba’ath system was overthrown during America’s invasion of Iraq. Backed by international political support after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. With their overwhelming military capabilities, America quickly decimated the Iraqi military and set up a new, provisional government. As punishment for their authoritarian reign, the Ba’ath party was outlawed and all members of the party were fired from government held positions. The decision put over 40,000 Sunni Arabs, from middle school teachers to secretaries, out of a job overnight.
However, under an authoritarian regime such as the Ba’ath Party’s Iraq, being a member of the party was more of a necessity than a choice. Most members of the Ba’ath party weren’t complicit in the regime’s internal policies or the authoritarian security forces, yet in Iraq they were held responsible. A lot of the people who were fired were average Sunnis, completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Many of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni lawmakers, professors, and leaders were exiled, replaced by Shiites and Kurds. By removing all Ba’ath party members, the newly formed, American-backed government was completely void of Sunni representation.
Nouri al-Malaki and the birth of ISIS
When the Americans pulled out of Iraq in 2011, they left Shiite Nouri al-Maliki in charge of the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite Arab surrounded by a Shia dominated government, would be responsible for fairly treating the Sunni minority. But after suffering decades of horrendous abuse at the hands of the Sunni Ba’ath party, Malaki and his inner circle were eager to extract revenge. Malaki illegally removed the remaining Sunni politicians from power and deployed the Iraqi military to the Sunni heartland in the north-west of the country. Here, the Shia dominated military harassed Sunni civilians, setting up hundreds of road blocks across cities nationwide under the guise of ‘regional security’.
The Sunnis, now politically marginalized and subject to daily persecution, organized themselves into insurgency groups to fight Malaki’s government. Muslim cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and pledged to establish an independent state for the Sunnis. However, Baghdadi received little support for Sunni Muslims in the region who found his hardline interpretation of Islam too radical.
The small group was raided by Malaki’s security forces again and again, and most members of Baghdadi’s inner circle were captured or killed. By 2010, the fledging ISIS organization was on the brink of collapse.
ISIS gains a foothold in the Syrian Civil War
Baghdadi, desperate to keep his small insurgency alive, found new roots in the war-torn Syrian countryside. The Syrian government, headed by Shiite president Bashar al-Assad was engaged in a bloody civil war against a moderate, Sunni opposition. ISIS, interested in recruiting new members and establishing themselves as the ‘defenders’ of Sunni Muslims, crossed the border into Syria and began to fight against the Assad government.
ISIS became known as one of the most radical and effective groups in the Syrian Civil War, gaining notoriety through their harsh tactics. In the violent chaos of the civil war, ISIS slowly gained more followers and territory, using the proceeds from captured oil fields to fund their operations. Within just 18 months, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria controlled nearly a third of Syrian territory, supported by thousands of battle tested, well-armed jihadists.
Invasion of Iraq
With his well-trained, well-equipped army, Baghdadi turned his sights back to Iraq. Using his experienced soldiers, Baghdadi conducted a lightning offensive across north-eastern Iraq. Malaki’s Iraqi army melted away in the face of the determined, relentless assault. Often, ISIS suicide bombers would destroy the walls of military bases, allowing other members to rush inside and overwhelm the Iraqi security forces. In order to inspire fear, surrendering Iraqi divisions were summarily executed by ISIS’s fighters. The Iraqi army, fearful of being captured and executed by the militants, deserted by the thousands and fled their bases, leaving their America-made weapons behind.
In under a month, ISIS scored a huge strategic victory by capturing Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Mosul is a religiously Sunni major oil production hub in northern Iraq, home to nearly 2 million people. In Mosul, Baghdadi secured thousands of American-made tanks, weapons, and materials that had been given to the Iraqi army. Armed with high grade weaponry, ISIS continued to rampage across the Iraqi countryside, grinding to a halt only 15 miles from Baghdad, the capital of the country.
Goals of ISIS
In just a few years, ISIS had transformed from a small, underground terrorist organization into a major regional power, controlling more territory than either the Iraqi or Syrian government. ISIS’s self-stated goal is declare an Islamic caliphate across the Sunni inhabited countryside of Iraq and Syria, a dream that they are close to realizing. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the group uses aggressive, harsh tactics to defeat its opponents and solidify control over its conquered territories.
Tactics of ISIS
- Terrorist attacks
Extremist movements thrive in chaos and by destabilizing the region through terrorist activities, ISIS will continue to receive support from disaffected Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq. Playing on sectarian divides between Sunnis and Shiites ISIS has painted themselves as the protectors of the Sunnis. By perpetrating violent, sectarian attacks against Shiites, ISIS forces the group to retaliate against Sunnis. ISIS militants specifically target important Shiite shrines in order to enrage the group and start a religious conflict. When the Shiites respond and retaliate against Sunni civilians, the Sunnis are driven into the arms of ISIS for safety.
ISIS uses the same terrorist-style tactics with the west. While ISIS’s brutal, horrific videos of Americans being executed may seem senseless and purposeless, they are actually very calculated. By executing high profile prisoners and conducting frightening terrorist attacks, ISIS is trying to bait the west into a response. If America or other countries sent troops to Iraqi soil, the populace will resist the invaders and support ISIS.
Remember how the chaos created in Iraq by the Americans in 2003 was manipulated to the benefit of Sunni extremists? ISIS is simply trying to provoke as many non-Sunnis as possible, so that all Sunnis in the region are forced to support ISIS as their only hope for protection. The more the Shia-governments of Syria and Iraq or the West respond, the more entrenched ISIS becomes.
- Youth indoctrination
To ensure a steady stream of soldiers, ISIS has taken over education, reforming schools to be religious military camps. Science has been banned, and schoolchildren are taught an extreme interpretation of Islam and given extensive military training. Recently, ISIS released a video showing a young Syrian boy executing two Russian prisoners at point blank range, proudly declaring that the youth will be the next generation of jihadists. By indoctrinating the Sunni youth, ISIS has ensured that they will have domestic support for decades to come.
- Oil revenue
ISIS is an impressive military machine that controls significant territory in the Middle East, and to support their war, ISIS is dependent on a steady income. While ISIS is able to pillage money and guns from territory as it conquers, it needs a consistent, reliable stream of money to survive.
To fund their operations, Baghdadi has strategically captured high producing oil fields. Selling the unrefined oil on the black market through smugglers in Turkey, ISIS brings in over $2 million every single day. Using this money to pay and equip its soldiers, ISIS is able to keep its armed forces well-armed and well-fed.
The future of ISIS
Contrary to western media that may lead you to believe that ISIS is composed of uneducated, radical Muslims who senselessly murder, ISIS’s overall strategy is quite complex. Poised as the defender of Sunni Muslims, ISIS continues to enjoy support from Sunnis who prefer them to the Shia Iraqi government. Well-funded through illicit oil revenues and constantly training the population for jihad, ISIS poses a significant threat to Syria, Iraq, and more importantly the entire Middle East.
A comprehensive, organized, and strategically led organization, ISIS will not be easily defeated. Despite a destructive American-led bombing campaign in support of Iraqi and Syrian troops, ISIS continues to hold its territory and mount devastating terrorist attacks. While the Middle East is exceptionally volatile and it’s difficult to predict the future, it’s safe to say that ISIS will be a problem for years, if not decades, to come. While ISIS may be defeated militarily, an extremist jihad insurgency will continue until Sunni Muslims in the region are successfully politically incorporated into Syria and Iraq.
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