By Iran Review
By Hassan Ahmadian*
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has succeeded in less than a week to capture many Iraqi cities, including the populous cities of Mosul and Tikrit. This is an unprecedented development. Neither Al-Qaeda, nor any of its offshoots have been ever able to score such a huge victory in the heartland of the Arab world. On the other hand, this is the first time in the Middle East modern history that the borders among Arab countries have become meaningless and ISIL elements have been in transit between Syria and Iraq without facing any important obstacle. This development has had no precedent since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The simultaneous operations carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Iraq and Syria is proof to high potential of this terrorist group. Even Arab governments are rarely able to engage in more than one war front at the same time and achieve such major goals. Therefore, the question is why and how the ISIL emerged as such a formidable power?
The ISIL was called “the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)” up to 2011 and was not considered an influential political player in regional equations. When Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi assumed command of the military forces of the Islamic State of Iraq, it was still working under the oversight of the late leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. However, later killing of Bin Laden, on the one hand, and rapid spread of the popular revolutions in the Arab world, on the other hand, changed the conditions and paved the way for a parallel alteration in the nature of this terrorist force. From the very beginning, Al-Baghdadi was not very willing to swear allegiance to the successor of Bin Laden, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. However, and in order to maintain the unity of the organization under his command, he finally gave in to the allegiance. While the beginning of popular uprisings in the Arab countries was clear sign that Al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries were lagging behind the real developments on the ground in Arab societies, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his men were waiting for their opportunity in order to take advantage of these developments.
That opportunity first showed up in Syria. Of course, what happened in Syria was not a result of plans made by the ISIL or other jihadist Salafist groups. They only took advantage of the situation. The main factor that helped to promote sectarian divides was countries which were considered the main losers of these developments at the beginning of the aforesaid revolutionary uprisings. Those countries were topped by the government of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, this country and its regional allies decided to minimize the damage they had incurred as a result of the revolutionary uprisings by taking advantage of regional media and restoring the traditional balance of power in the Middle East. As a result, they reached the conclusion that the best way to do this was to intensify negative sectarian discourse against the government of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran. The main output of this approach was creating difficult conditions for Assad’s government in Syria and military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Bahrain under the pretext that Iran was interfering in the Persian Gulf kingdom to instigate its Shia population against the government. All these instances were based on a sectarian discourse whose main element was revival and further strengthening of jihadist Salafi groups, including the ISIL.
The beginning of revolutionary movements in the Arab world showed that the jihadist Salafist current is way behind what is actually happening within Arab societies. In none of the Arab countries that underwent revolutions, they were part of those developments. It was only through escalation of sectarian discourse that the jihadist Salafist entity, especially Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, found more breathing room. By putting the highest emphasis on the promotion of the sectarian discourse, they once again managed to emerge as the main protagonists behind developments in the Arab world. In this way, the sectarian discourse succeeded in attracting a great number of jihadist Salafist forces from the entire world to Syria. In addition, a considerable amount of financial aid was channeled to Salafist militants from various sources. Most of that aid came in through unofficial channels and were contributed by the citizens, and sometimes princes, in the Persian Gulf states. In this way, it didn’t take long before Al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries managed to marginalize the Free Syrian Army and other opposition forces in Syria.
The situation of the ISIL, however, was quite different. This group was actually born in Iraq and most of its commanders and members, including Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, were Iraqis. After they lost the maneuvering room in Iraq as a result of the inauguration of the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq, the group practically failed to restore its influence in Iraq. Even following the dissolution of local awakening councils, Al-Qaeda was still stranded in Iraq. Since 2007, when Al-Baghdadi became the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group had not been able to make a basic change in the situation. Under these conditions, the emergence of the crisis in Syria provided them with more breathing space. The first step was to change the name of the organization to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The change of name showed the overarching nature of the new organization and its unwillingness for being restricted within the limits of recognized governments, on the one hand. On the other hand, it showed that the group was going to broaden its support base beyond Iraq and draw on the support from its members in other places as well. Of course, even before this development, the Al-Qaeda in Iraq had many non-Iraqi members. However, this change practically put more emphasis on multinational nature of this terrorist organization.
In the second step, they got separated from Al-Qaeda and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, in order to launch their own operations independently. Following the birth of Al-Nusra Front, Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham Al Islami (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), and other terrorist groups in Syria, which was marked by intensification of rivalries between them and the ISIL, Ayman Al-Zawahiri made efforts to bring all of them together under the cover of Al-Qaeda. However, the ISIL rejected those efforts, increased its distance from Al-Qaeda, and its power continued to rise. Following these developments, many previous followers of Al-Zawahiri breached their allegiance with him and took the oath of allegiance with Al-Baghdadi, which greatly increased his influence and standing in the face of Al-Zawahiri. “Allegiance of Khorasan,” which was announced by declaration of a statement about many subsidiaries of Al-Qaeda swearing allegiance to Al-Baghdadi in April 2014, further strengthened his position and the position of the ISIL in an unprecedented manner. Through that allegiance, many subsidiary groups of Al-Qaeda in Islamic countries joined the ISIL.
Another development which helped the ISIL to become what it is today was the support accorded to this group by some Pan-Arab secular currents. Both groups seek the same goals in Iraq: undermining the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, domination over territories predominantly inhabited by Iraqi Sunnis, and exacting revenge on Shias, or as they call them, “Safavid” Shias. As a result, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a deputy to former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, and leader of the main faction of the Baath Party of Iraq, (who was also Deputy Chairman of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam) has gathered many commanders of the dissolved Baathist army of Iraq under his umbrella and is currently sharing his military experience with the ISIL. As a consequence, a combination of military expertise and unprecedented violence has brought Iraqi to the situation which it is currently experiencing. Therefore, recent reports that say many commanders of the Iraqi army have betrayed their country and cooperated with the ISIL forces during the occupation of the northern city of Mosul should not be taken lightly.
As a result of the aforesaid conditions, the ISIL has achieved goals which are practically beyond its true potential. It is, however, obvious that after the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani issued his new fatwa (religious decree) calling on all able-bodied Iraqis to take up arms and defend their country, the ISIL will not be able to progress further. Before the fall of Mosul, only 50-60 armed men from a group that has been assigned to protect the holy shrines in Samarra, fought and succeeded in stopping ISIL fighters from entering the city. Therefore, when the fight against ISIL becomes a religious obligation, as a result of Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa, this terrorist group will not be able to make any more gains. So far, tens of thousands of Iraqis have volunteered to fight against the ISIL. There is no doubt that this popular and religious wave fill finally curb the progress of the group.
When it comes to the Western countries’ reaction, as far as the past experience has shown, their support for extremist currents or even their silence in the face of third parties’ support for these groups will exacerbate security challenges. The terrorist attack on the US soil on 9/11, 2001, was the result of the 1980s war in Afghanistan as well as the 1991 invasion of Iraq. The support offered to extremist forces in Syria has brought about the current conditions in Iraq. These conditions can also spread to other Arab countries and such extremist forces are also prone to plan and carry out attacks against the national interests of the Western countries. As the conditions become more difficult for the operations of the ISIL in Iraq, they are sure to use their potentials to foment insecurity in other parts of the Middle East and beyond. This is especially true because the ISIL forces have robbed a lot of money from Iraqi banks, which has helped them to be wealthier than what Al-Qaeda was at the outset of its activities.
The West, in general, and the United States, in particular, have no other choice, but to lend their support to the government of Maliki and back his efforts for the eradication of the ISIL. Even in Syria, the West will finally have to choose between the Syrian government and the extremist forces. Any hesitation in this regard will have no other result but further strengthening of the extremist forces. The non-extremist opposition groups in Syria, which are not considered a major power in comparison with extremists, can reach a reconciliation with the Syrian government over implementation of domestic reforms through mediation of regional countries. The important issue is that the West should first formulate its final plan for dealing with the ISIL and other terrorist groups, on the one hand, while warning its regional allies, topped by the government of Saudi Arabia, against providing further support to extremist forces, on the other.
* Hassan Ahmadian
Senior Researcher; Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research