There’s a lot of confusion about the swift successes of ISIS in Iraq. It seems like overnight this group came out of nowhere and took Mosul, Tikrit and a number of other towns in northern Iraq. The Iraqi army ran, confusion reigned in the press and even their name bounced back between ISIS and ISIL (technically it’s the same thing but let me explain that in a moment). So who is this group and how did they manage to overtake northern Iraq in a matter of days?
ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (Al Sham meaning the Levant, or Greater Syria). ISIL is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. So as you can see, they are basically the same thing, but ISIS uses the Arabic word ‘Al-Sham’ for the region. Made up of Sunni Muslims, ISIS is pushing for a Sunni Caliphate across the Levant.
ISIS formed during the height of the Iraq war. They fought alongside Al Qaeda and other Sunni groups, taking part of the sectarian clashes that Iraq became infamous for. When the Syrian war began they saw recruitment opportunities (and the possibility to flex a little muscle) so off they went.
Sunni vs. Shia
There has been sectarian violence for ages between Sunnis and Shias. Yet in Iraq, it was kept under the stranglehold of Saddam Hussein. For some time in the capital it was fairly normal for them to live side by side, without constant clashes.
However, when Saddam was ousted, a huge rift that began to form between the communities. Soon Baghdad became dangerous for both groups. If you were injured and taken to a Shia hospital and they found out you were Sunni you would be left for dead. Likewise, any family that came into claim you would also be in danger.
The U.S. underestimated this clash and lacked knowledge on how to handle it. Most ‘experts’ the U.S. had tapped on the region, including John McCain, famously said in April of 2003 that the Shias and Sunnis had no history of discord between them. This statement would almost be funny if it weren’t so scary, considering that we are still listening to McCain’s thoughts on what we should do in Iraq now. The reality is, we’ve never solved these clashes. Bombs and sectarian violence has been a weekly ongoing feature in Iraq since the U.S. overthrew Saddam. And with Iraq’s current leader stoking interfaith violence, it’s likely to worsen.
How ISIS Won Affection
Nouri al Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, tries to distance himself from this violence, but has had a premier role to play in the ISIS takeover. Maliki, a Shia, has been responsible for numerous policies that helped pit Shia and Sunni against each other.
There has been very little reward for Sunnis remaining loyal to the current regime. In 2008, a number of tribal Sunni leaders worked hard, and risked their lives to kick Al Qaeda cells out of their cities and provinces. They were promised political inclusion and social rewards, but somehow that promise was forgotten.
Meanwhile in war torn Syria, ISIS was pulling off something that looked frighteningly benign. They held food drives, healthcare drives, and created an almost carnival-like atmosphere where people felt welcome to come and speak with them. This is the Islamic way, they would tell the people, and we are all equal and taken care of. In essence, ISIS made themselves look like the good guys.
Teenage boys, who had grown up witnessing years of violence with little prospect of a future outside a refugee camp, joined the group out of desperation. They were promised riches and power and ISIS has, in fact, delivered on that promise.
After raiding numerous banks in Iraq, ISIS has become the wealthiest terrorist group on the planet, with over 2 billion dollars to their name. For Sunnis who are living in squalor and discontent, ignored by a government that does not represent them, joining the ISIS brotherhood can feel like a step in the right direction.
Yet with international media nipping at their heels, the real brutality of ISIS is coming to light. The leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has been denounced by Al Qaeda for their over-the-top indiscriminate violence (yes, really), and in recent days unconfirmed reports that they slaughtered over 1,700 Iraqi military men in one afternoon shows the kind of destruction they’re capable of. Even further, ISIS has shown no mercy for Sunnis that don’t wish to join them, slaughtering them en masse as they see fit. They’ve also banned smoking, forced women to veil, and imposed Sharia Law.
What Are We Doing Now?
As ISIS advances on Baghdad, we’re seeing an influx of normal, local men joining the Iraqi army. Hundreds have lined up at recruitment offices, out of fear of watching their capital fall. Further it’s been reported that the government has been showing Shia shrines and playing Shia anthems on national TV, stirring up religious fervor between the rival groups.
Obama has sent a number of troops back to Iraq. These troops are not for ‘combat’ as Obama puts it, but merely to back up and help re-train the Iraqi army. However, many have expressed skepticism over the likelihood of avoiding combat, especially if Baghdad falls.
It’s clear we are seeing the consequences that sloppy planning during the Iraq War has generated. While experts warned both administrations, multiple times, about sectarian violence and creating new terrorist groups, America was certain the ‘seeds of democracy’ would grow. Now we see what over a decade of discontent looks like, in the form of militant extremists.
There is no easy way out of this, no staunch ally we can call upon that isn’t linked to terrorist groups or dictatorial regimes. So in this instance, it would do us well to remember the past. Our guns haven’t brought peace and stability yet, and with our head-in-the-sand understanding of the region, it’s unlikely they ever will.