Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why ISIS Marched on Baghdad

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, was having a good time in Syria. From March 2013, it controlled Raqqa, a city of more than 200,000 people. While the anti-Assad rebellion in Syria’s western provinces was in retreat, the ISIS was in effective control of much of the east.

However, after being in control of much of Syria for a long time, ISIS suddenly burst into the limelight by sweeping across vast areas in Iraq, even taking control of the country’s second largest city, Mosul. The speed in which Mosul fell suggests some support was given to the ISIS from Iraqi security forces. However, the speed in which they captured vast areas of the country scared the Iraqi regime, forced its otherwise unassailable Prime Minister to resign and the country to seriously consider the threat to the capital, Baghdad. Meanwhile, ISIS was in the western media spotlight all of a sudden.

Baghdad (Wikimedia Commons)
After attracting total attention, ISIS started to market itself. It intensified its social media campaign which is miles ahead of many other groups and political parties in the world. Videos of its brutal killings of captive soldiers and then even US hostages were released, horrifying the world and establishing how barbaric their rule can be.

However, this was not new to ISIS at all. For more than a year, ISIS has been using brutal methods in suppression and intimidation against millions of people who had the misfortune of falling into areas under its control. Syrian regime soldiers and even opposition were special targets. If a soldier fell captive, it was most unfortunate. Even dead bodies were not spared. However, this was lost in the massive news output in mainstream media which had other things to consider. Syria was a far off battle and a battle against the enemy of the west, Bashar Al-Assad.

However, the new spotlight on ISIS meant that such brutalities would not go unnoticed anymore. This was used by the group to advertise itself. Its next step was transforming itself into something even more superior. After taking over large areas in Iraq, they denounced the ‘sham’ borders drawn by westerners after World War I and dismantled the Iraqi-Syria border. Thereafter, it claimed legitimacy by declaring a Caliphate. The organization was also renamed Islamic State (IS) and the ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi appeared in public. By these steps, the IS created a sense of authenticity in the people. The Islamic State is not a movement like the Taliban, whose leader is nowhere to be seen. The ‘caliph’ of the so called “Islamic State” is a man who appears in reality.

The sudden outburst of the ISIS, or the IS, has apparently confused the western governments including the US. Today, the west is encouraging a hodgepodge alliance of Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces to fight the ISIS. Meanwhile the western powers are apparently searching for other methods of tackling the ISIS.

The question as to why the ISIS overran parts of Iraq comes to mind, given the sudden interest it has attracted from the authorities in the western countries which have now for the first time started to think about the threat it poses. It seems to be unwanted attention for the group. If it had been in Syria, it would not have created much of an interest. However the situation has been changed dramatically by its operations in Iraq. Perhaps it has overstretched itself as the limited setbacks in Iraq suggests.

However, the ISIS has gained several advantages by its excursion into Iraq, which can be used in the long run to strengthen the movement. Syria had come to a sort of a stalemate between the regime and the ISIS. Therefore, both sides were in need of a serious source of support to gain the upper hand. ISIS may have been trying to achieve this by its Iraq operation.

ISIS gained immense propaganda and a source of funds by this excursion into Iraq. It has been suggested that ISIS economy runs on extortion and oil piracy. Iraq opens new fields of operations for the ISIS. Also it is a source of new recruits. In Syria, ISIS had a systematic process of recruiting men and even boys to the movement. It was also a huge propaganda machine which strives to brainwash the people and instill its ideology, creating a hard core of supporters and fighters in its strongholds. By widening the operational area, the ISIS was looking to expand these.

The idea of the Caliphate and the images from the war zone has immense propaganda value even in foreign countries, especially the west. At least a section of Muslim youth in the west is bound to be impressed by the ISIS propaganda. ISIS is no mere figment in imagination. It has modern tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and other heavy weapons. It has created a ‘Caliphate’ and has a ‘Caliph’ to lead the ‘true believers.’ It is a potent force.

It is obvious that the Iraqi excursion has also created opposition to ISIS. However, ISIS can afford this. The opposing groups will resist the ISIS in Iraq. However, they will not most probably go into Syria. Iraqi Kurds will not move into Syria for obvious geopolitical reasons. Iraqi forces are anyway too weak to fight the ISIS alone. Therefore, ISIS can always retreat back to Syria, still full of strength.

The only alternative way to defeat ISIS in Syria will be an international effort. However this opens new possibilities in the area. With the Assad regime and the Western Powers unable to see eye to eye in the matter, it looks a far distant reality.

Furthermore, this gives the west a chance of interfering actively against even the Assad regime in the name of defeating the ISIS. Certain quarters are now accusing Assad of actually aiding the militants. Perhaps these accusations are a prelude to unimaginable things to come. Only time will tell.

Originally published in 'The Nation' on Sunday, Sep. 7, 2014.

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