Growing Strong in No Man’s Land: Why the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

ISIS convoy.  From:

ISIS convoy.

Taking over a city of 1.8 million inhabitants in just a few days is not an easy task. But the world received a shocking surprise yesterday morning when the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) overran key sectors of Iraq’s second largest metropolis, Mosul. A strategic chokepoint rich in petroleum resources, the lost of Mosul raises serious queries regarding the Iraqi military’s defense capabilities and general morale. Moreover, the event places ISIS once again under the international limelight as a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.

A group known for its predilection for brutality and narrow sectarian outlook, ISIS, a self-proclaimed Islamic state was officially declared in early 2013. A successor of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), ISIS filled in the power vacuum in northern Syria after the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Previously an organization primarily operating in Iraq, ISIS had since established itself around the Syrian city of Raqqa as a full-fledged totalitarian theocracy. Like all other totalitarian governments, ISIS is structured around the idea of “oneness”, meaning one leader, one ideology, under one banner. Though such polity might generate little traction during a time of peace, it works relatively well in a warring environment. Its fighters’ blind adherence to terror extraordinaire Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist Islam and the black banner of Jihad gave them strength in unity, an important factor absent in ISIS’ main opponents, specifically the Iraqi government and competing Syrian opposition groups.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS' ultimate impresario.  Copyright:

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The ultimate impresario of ISIS terror. 

Regardless of its ruthless statecraft predicated upon a noxious ideology and its penchant for grisly medieval punishments, ISIS is unlikely to be subdued anytime soon because of two main factors, it’s geographic advantage, and the lack of coordination and cooperation among its regional adversaries.

Formerly confined to Iraq, ISIS broke out of its constrictions in 2012 and established bases across the border in Syria. Its position in the no man’s land tucked between the non-ISIS Syrian rebels, Assad forces, Maliki forces, the Kurdish Regional Government and Turkey proved to be strategically invaluable, given the fact that none of these entities mentioned above have the wherewithal to singlehandedly subjugate ISIS, or would earnestly consider combining their forces for an all-out offensive against the Islamic state.

The non-ISIS Syrian rebels, already drained of their resources, focus more on fending off Assad’s onslaught than organizing attacks against ISIS. Unwilling to fight against a much stronger opponent imbibed with religious fanaticism, the Assad government is otherwise interested in sustaining ISIS and making it into the bogey needed to intimidate rest of Syria’s population into submitting to Damascus. Faced with never ending internal squabble, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki rules a fractured country torn by sectarian hatred which extends deep into the Iraqi military. His troubled relation with the Kurdish Regional Government jeopardizes any genuine chance of mobilizing the Kurdish Peshmerga into confronting ISIS. Holed up in their mountainous homeland, the Iraqi Kurds sees no benefit in jumping into what they view as an Arab slugfest. Lastly, Turkey, once a tacit supporter of ISIS had since cut its ties with a group so extreme that it was expelled from Al-Qaeda. Turkey had targeted ISIS in the past, but refrains from taking a firm stance against ISIS because at the moment, the pugnacious Jihadists serve as a check on the Syrian Kurds by launching periodic attacks against their bases in northeastern Syria.

ISIS Actual Sanctuary June 2014. Copyright: Institute for the Study of War Iraq Updates

ISIS Actual Sanctuary June 2014.
Copyright: Institute for the Study of War Iraq Updates

A dark pall is now descending over the refulgent star of Mesopotamia. Reports so far have indicated that close to half-a-million residents of Mosul had fled across the Tigris. In existence now is the quandary of ISIS gaining more influence and territory without much concerted reaction from surrounding regional powers. If such state of affairs persist, the tightly structured and highly disciplined Jihadist state will soon be able to crush its divided adversaries one after another with ease. First the Baghdad government, then certain Syrian rebel factions, and then whichever the ISIS leadership decides to conquer next. This is far from a false alarm, but a real possibility in the foreseeable future.

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)



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