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Decoding ISIS’ mission in Iraq

We are witnessing a new phase in the Islamist group’s transformation from a “virtual” to a “real” state

Raed Omari

Published: Updated:

A relatively newly-formed, or “unleashed,” militia is easily and quickly taking over intensely populous and heavily armed cities in oil-rich Iraq with a security/defense budget that hit $16 billion in 2013. It is something that is difficult to comprehend.

Until recently, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is said now to be advancing towards Baghdad after winning major territories and defeating armed forces in the country’s northern regions, was said just some days before its siege of Mosul to be forced to pull out of Anbar University in Iraq’s western province of Anbar by Iraqi security forces also said to kill nine members of the al-Qaeda-inspired militant group.

ISIS losing small-scale battles to recover shortly afterwards and embark on large-scale military operations, achieving triumph after triumph with Iraq’s key cities falling like dominoes in the hands of the group’s face-covered fighters is in fact a complete mystery.

The reality now is that we are witnessing a new phase in the Islamist group’s transformation from a “virtual” to a “real” state

Raed Omari

The fact that ISIS is still much below the “state status,” undoubtedly being embattled in both Syria and Iraq by other rival groups and locals as in the case of the former and by security forces and tribal insurgents as in the case of the latter, and yet achieving what it has achieved is another element in the mystery of the jihadist group that never enjoyed a moment of sovereignty, stability and tranquility to expand the way it is expanding now.

Witnessing a new phase

Plus, ISIS, which grew from the remnants of a now defunct al-Qaeda affiliate, was fought fiercely by the alliance of Iraqi Sunni Arab tribes “Sahawat” in 2007 with the help of the Iraqi and U.S. armies. At the time, the group, with its al-Qaeda roots, was said to be completely eliminated or at least dismantled as an organized entity. Then how and why did it quickly recover, re-group and resurrect itself?

Despite these complications on the scene and the mystery surrounding ISIS, the reality now is that we are witnessing a new phase in the Islamist group’s transformation from a “virtual” to a “real” state that might be short-lived, but until when?

Following the ISIS’s never expected siege of Mosul, abundant analysis has emerged linking the group’s victory to its seizure of the state of “statelessness” and “lawlessness” in Iraq and the Sunni-Shiite division within Iraq brought on primarily by the never-ending disputes among political figures. Such a rationale is no doubt correct, but Iraq has been in a state of chaos and sectarian division since 2003. In that case, why now?

I am not claiming here to have an exact answer to such a mysterious scene. However, a look at the map could provide us with clues to decode the puzzle.

ISIS has been in control of an area stretching across Syria and Iraq, a considerably large region its fighters took over in ambitions of establishing their envisioned Islamic state, benefiting in this endeavor from President Bashar al-Assad’s and Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki’s inabilities to impose full control over their countries’ borders and of course from the interrelated interests that emerged among the three sides.

Hard to believe

Although not indulging entirely in conspiracy theory, I found it hard to believe that there was no link between the mass breakout of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Taji in Iraq in July 2013, attributed at the time to ISIS, and Assad’s new rhetoric of the his war being against terrorism. However, let’s put that aside and place the issue within more logical context though there is much logic in projecting a connection between the ISIL on the one hand and Assad-Maliki on the other. This does not necessarily mean that there is a relationship between the three of them but mutual and interrelated interests.

For better understanding of ISIS’s abrupt advancements in Iraq, a link needs in fact to be built to the state of marginalization the Iraqi Sunni community has been suffering from during Maliki’s 12-year-old rule. The Iraqi Arab Sunnis, who have once and, not that far, fought ISIS is now allying with the Sunni jihadi group, in an exploitation of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle.

With Maliki now facing unprecedented pressure by his political opponents, obstructing his resumption of a new premiership term, the marginalized Sunnis found it the best time to add more complications to the political scene in Iraq, partly for salvation from long years of oppression and also for a change in Iraq’s long-held political formula, let it be in whatsoever means. The Iraqi troops and generals, mostly Sunnis, leaving their posts for ISIS to take over is a clear evidence of such a projection of incidents.

There was no fighting in Mosul or in the heavily-armed Tikrit, though there could be. No reports about causalities among both sides. The quick developments on the ground suggest that there was something plotted for a smooth march of ISIS towards Baghdad.

The whole story in Iraq now is a nothing more than a historic match of interests between ISIS and the Arab Sunnis to achieve a mutual goal of ending the totalitarian rule of Maliki and his Shiite government. If there is any risk in such a merger of interests and goals, it is all caused by Malik’s sectarian attitude, dictatorship and marginalization of other segments.

The U.S. entering the scene

What is remarkable is President Barack Obama’s recent threat of military airstrikes against the Sunni Islamist militants amid reports of their march towards Baghdad.

Asked during a recent presser at the White House whether he was contemplating air strikes, the president was quoted as saying, “I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria.”

Despite such a warning, the U.S. is still less expected to act decisively on Iraq, not even in airstrikes, let alone ground forces, simply because it has not moved boldly on Syria though there is much resemblance between the two cases.

If the U.S. were to resort to airstrikes to eradicate terrorism, it would have begun with the strongholds of ISIS and other radical groups of similar ideology in Syria as it is needless to say that what is being witnessed in Iraq is just a spillover from Syria.

In Iraq, Washington is expected to maintain the same policy it has been maintaining on Syria, manifested in “let things finish themselves by themselves.” If ISIS is a threat to America’s interests, its menace is better to be addressed by the Arab Sunnis or even Shiite militias the same way the Free Syrian Army is fighting Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS on behalf of the U.S.

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Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via raed_omari1977@yahoo.com, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.