Originally Published 2014-06-21 03:55:37 Published on Jun 21, 2014
Extremists' groups like the ISIS have capitalised on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's ethno-sectarian politics. And, the resurgence of ethnic animosities has long-standing implications for Iraq and the West Asian region as a whole.
Decoding the ISISDecoding the ISIS
"Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his security establishment is facing major challenge as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over major cities, including Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, Tikrit and now Mosul - the second largest city in Iraq. Mosul is also a strategic intersection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey, providing a stronghold to the ISIS for the flow of fighters across the Syria-Iraq border. The security vacuum has facilitated Iraq’s disintegration along sectarian lines. Kurdish forces seized control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The ISIS has fuelled the endemic sectarian crisis in Iraq by attacking Shiite religious sites and slaughtering hundreds of Shiite members of the country’s security forces.

The ISIS, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, emerged in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. It was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Rising citizen causalities during the US occupation and the disbanding of the Iraq army played into the hands of organisations like the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). However, Al-Qaeda’s radical interpretation of Islam eventually alienated Sunni tribes in the Anbar Province and in cooperation with US forces, they organised themselves into "Awakening Councils" to battle the AQI.

The AQI-aligned Islamic State of Iraq was linked to an increasing number of violent attacks in Iraq after the withdrawal of the US forces and the group was classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department in 2011. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS is a Sunni Jihadist movement that seeks to unite the umma - the community of Muslim believers - under one rule. The group, extremely sectarian in character, has called for the killing of all non-believers and ’apostates’, including Jews, Christians, Shiite Muslims and Alawites as well as Sunni Muslims who do not abide by their "self-imposed regulations".

The beginning of the war in Syria allowed the ISIS (until now ISI) to expand its activities through the creation of Jabhat al-Nusra. Jabhat al-Nusra was founded in 2012 to operate in Syria and was mandated to help the ISI create a "transnational state" ruled by Sharia law. In 2013, al-Baghdadi proposed the integration of Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISI to form the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Greater Syria). However, the merger was refused by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, but the ISI proceeded to call itself the ISIS.

It has been estimated that over half of the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in Syria defected to join the ISIS, allowing the ISIS to gain control of several posts in Syria. Following the ISIS’s expansion into Syria, the Al-Qaeda issued a statement "disavowing" the splinter group and expressing Zawahiri’s support for Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Nusra also differs from the ISIS in that it aims to topple President Assad’s government in Syria, while the ISIS is focused on consolidating its own rule in captured territories.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s marginalisation of the country’s minority Sunni population has provided a fertile ground for the ISIS recruitment. The failure of the Maliki government to legitimise the "Awakening Councils" - US initiative to cultivate Sunni militia groups or Sahwa to fight AQI in 2006 and 2007 - and engage them in state building also eased the way for the ISIS’s control over the northern part of the country. The Sahwaswere instrumental in containing the ISIS until their alienation by the Maliki government and the withdrawal of US forces. Mosul, having been the cornerstone of the US-led Surge and Awakening efforts during the height of internal violence in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, is indicative of this.

Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak has also referred to Prime Minister Maliki’s partisan politics, stating that there was no real power-sharing during his presence in the government. "We were almost isolated from the decisions, especially regarding the security issue".

The fall of Mosul has provided the ISIS access to banks and water and electricity resources through the Mosul dam. Attempts are also going on to take control of the town of Baiji, which hosts Iraq’s biggest oil refinery. The ISIS has been raising almost USD 2 million a month through extortion networks in Mosul and other cities. Kidnappings, oil smuggling and private donations from individuals in the Gulf are reported to be other major sources of ISIS funding.

The Economist’s Middle East and North Africa correspondent, Sarah Birke, writes that Turkey has been instrumental in the expansion of the ISIS by allowing foreign jihadists to cross the border. The 10,000-member-strong group includes over 3000 foreign fighters, many of whom are from Chechnya, France, Britain and other European countries. Birke contends that Ankara has an interest in allowing the ISIS to expand in Syria and Iraq and battle the Kurdish forces, including the PYD which has close ties with the PKK militant Kurdish group in Turkey.

Even though the ISIS has support of other groups -- like Sunni groups like the Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq -- its extremist policies have alienated a large proportion of Sunni supporters. The group is often referred to as "Da’ash" or foreign occupiers in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the ISIS is engaged in battles with the Free Syrian Army and the Jabhat al-Nusra for control of Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo and Qalamoun in Syria, and with the Kurdish forces in Iraq, killing over 600 fighters in the last few weeks.

Prime Minister Maliki’s call for citizen volunteers to fight the ISIS has been echoed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has also called for the formation of "peace battalions" to protect Shiite shrines. Charles Lister, from Brookings Doha, states that these calls could lead to the reconstitution of Shiite militias that were active during the US occupation and could expand the sectarian conflict to a much larger scale. Robert Ford of the Middle East Instituteadds that mobilisation of Shiite militias could de-stabilise provinces like Baghdad, Diyala and Salah al-Din, which "sit on the fault lines between Shia and Sunni communities".

The kidnapping of 40 Indian construction workers as well as Turkish diplomats and truck drivers by the ISIS highlights the growing threat of insurgents in Iraq. The increasingly porous Iraq-Syria border has allowed the ISIS to tap into greater sources of finances, fighters and weapons. Groups like the ISIS have capitalised on the Maliki administration’s ethno-sectarian politics, and the resurgence of ethnic animosities has long-standing implications for Iraq and the West Asian region as a whole. As the Kurdish rebel forces, peshmarga, capture disputed territory and Shiite militias mobilise against the ISIS offensive, the absence of a consolidated response from Baghdad is paving the way for the de facto partition of Iraq.

(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.