June 12, 2014
The fall this week of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham, a transmutation of Al-Qaeda, is not where the story of the modern Islamic caliphate begins.
Rather, it is the most visible in a series of victories, albeit not without losses, that is propelling ISIS toward its vision of an over-arching Islamic state that breaks the borders set by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916.
ISIS is and has been straightforward about its agenda. Unlike Jabhat a-Nusra (the Front of Victory) or even Al-Qaeda (The Base), the purpose lies in the name – the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham. An Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is doing what it said it would – work to build a caliphate that traverses borders and breaks the Western-drawn boundaries of the region. Rival hardline group Jabhat a-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, paved the way by taking over the north-central Syrian province of a-Raqqa in March 2013 after battling the FSA and other groups for what is today Syria’s only rebel-controlled province.
ISIS swooped in last year and began fighting Jabhat a-Nusra (JAN) for a-Raqqa. Nusra fought back, not only in A-Raqqa, but in other parts of Syria, sparking violent fighting between the two most radical Sunni militias.
In other words, the only real contender for taking out ISIS, the bastard child of Al-Qaeda, in Syria is the legitimate child of Al-Qaeda in Syria, Jabhat a-Nusra.
Once ISIS finally knocked out JAN by pretending to set up a conciliatory meeting to negotiate and then sending in multiple suicide bombers to blow JAN up, things quickly fell into place for ISIS. A-Raqqa was theirs in January of this year.
Its soldiers began rounding up dissidents, recruiting children, conducting public crucifixions, banning Christians from publicly practicing their religion and forcing them to pay a tax for their second-class status, coming up with slogans such as “ISIS or we burn the wheat.” These are just a few examples from an exhaustive list of crimes against the civilians of Raqqa and other pockets in north and east Syria under ISIS rule.
Sitting on the sidelines as we are, it didn’t take long to see that in Syria at least, ISIS was looking to capture areas in the north and east with oil fields. In January, we reported on how the group had nearly captured Deir e-Zor, the oil-rich eastern province, large swaths of which are currently controlled by rebels. ISIS kept at it, and this week, appears poised to win it, though it is battling regime forces and Jabhat a-Nusra for the petrol-rich prize.
Across the border, ISIS began consolidating support in Anbar province. They did this by recruiting from these areas, where a job opportunity with ISIS is one of the few options for under-employed Iraqis who feel disenfranchised from the country’s Shiite leadership. “Hunger is an infidel,” the Arabic saying goes, which helps explain why moderate Sunnis are joining ISIS and will continue to do so.
Beyond the multi-national outreach ISIS employs to glamorize its battles and attract recruits (sepia-toned desert shots on Instagram and a surprisingly strong presence on Twitter, among other techniques), moderate Sunni leaders in Iraq at least seem to be making a calculated decision to ally with ISIS.
The reality of Iraq today, a Sunni tribal sheikh told Syria Direct this week, is that “between [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki and ISIS, we’ll choose ISIS.” Maliki, the tribal leader says, has targeted him and others to be killed and has alienated Anbar’s tribes to the extent that they will not stop the advance of ISIS if for no other reason then to eventually remove the premier from power.
Any alliance with ISIS, the leader says, is simply one of convenience, not permanence.
“We will work with ISIS to take down Maliki, and then we will deal with ISIS.”