ISIS have recently attracted attention by invading Iraq. The Western media and many online commentators have been describing them as al Qaeda, or as Syrian opposition fighters. They are neither of these things. So what are they?
Firstly to understand where we are we have to look how we got here, which means going back a long way. Islam was invented by Muhammad, who died in the year 632. As with Christianity he stole much from Judaism, around this he concocted rules for a whole way of life suited to desert nomads. His successor leaders were called Caliphs and their territory a Caliphate till this title was taken over by the Ottoman sultans in about 1453 as part of their success in conquering most Muslim lands.
Long before this, about the years 670 to 680 Islam split into two, most accepted the legitimacy of the three Caliphs prior to Ali, and are called Sunnis. A smaller number believed that only Ali and some of his descendants could be Caliphs, these are the Shia. These two factions have been fighting at every opportunity ever since, it was largely the Ottoman empire which put a lid on this for a few hundred years. Each faction regards the other as apostate and therefore worse than a Christian or a Jew. The Ottomans didn’t trust Shias so tended to choose Sunnis to administer their territories. It is the factional disputes that make democracy almost impossible in Muslim countries, a fairly nasty strong man is needed to bang heads together.
80 to 90% of Muslims are Sunni. So to make life easier it is best to look at who some of the Shias are:
Bahrain, a largely Shia country with a small ruling elite who are Sunni. Hence the problems.
Iran, a huge concentration of Shia.
Iraq, about 80% Shia, but tradition of the Ottoman’s favouring of Sunni administrators continued up to Saddam Hussein. It only gained Shia leadership in the elections after Blair and Bush’s war.
Syria, the reverse of Bahrain, this is a largely Sunni country run by an Alawite (an offshoot of Shia) ruling elite.
Next in the jigsaw we have to look at the The Sykes-Picot Agreement which divided up the Ottoman empire, when it collapsed at the end of WW1, by drawing lines on a map to create countries, each of which came under the control of a colonial power. Iraq was created (roughly) of three Ottoman administrative districts, Vilayet of Mosul in the north, where there was a large Kurdish population, Vilayet of Baghdad in the middle, which is where the Sunni population lived and Vilayet of Basra in the south which is concentrated Shia. After GW2 is would have been sensible to divide the country back up. On the ground the Kurds in the north were able to establish semi-autonomy.
So now we have some historical context lets look at more recent events. On September 11th 2001 the largely Saudi, Sunni terrorist group called al-Qaeda attacked the USA using hijacked aircraft as suicide weapons. In response GW Bush declared a “war” on terrorism and the axis of evil, which included Iran and Iraq. This was utterly unbelievable as both these countries had done a lot to suppress al-Qaeda. Bush and Blair went after the wrong people when they invaded Iraq. They also destabilised the whole region which led to civil wars in many countries and the events we see today with ISIS.
There is a branch of Sunni called Salafism (all religions are subject to infinite schism) who believe that the only true Islam is an exact and literal enforcement of everything that Muhammad said. They want everyone on planet earth to be compelled to return to the Dark Ages. They are much, much stricter than the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia that we think of as strict. Mostly they are peaceful, but some believe in direct action.
ISIS/ISIL, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is a Salafist organisation which wants to re-create the Caliphate. They were founded and grew out of GW2 and were eventually put down by the Americans and the Shia government of Iraq. They then moved to Syria, where the chaos of the ongoing civil war gave them a home.
The strong Alwaite rulers of Syria have a ruthless history of suppressing discontent, however the “Arab Spring” that evolved from events in Iraq led to many local uprisings of the Sunni majority. These local militias are often known under the collective banner of Free Syrian Army, but being mainly local militias they are and were reluctant to conduct a broader war, so they received little support from outside. Eventually a fairly fundamentalist Sunni opposition group formed who did take on Assad more, called al Nusra. They received quite a lot of help from Sunni Arab nations.
Into this mix just over a year ago came ISIS, their current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has a PhD, three previous leaders were killed in their struggle. Initially they recruited a lot of battle hardened fighters from North Africa and Westerners, including about 500 British men. Their aim is to gain territory for the Caliphate, so they fight EVERYONE else. They have received huge amounts of money from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who see them as conducting a proxy war against the hated Shia. With this money they can pay their fighters which led many from the FSA and al Nusra to defected to them. In all their conquered territory they apply incredible strict Sharia law, banning cigarettes and alcohol, keeping women indoors, banning music. And they apply this law with maximum brutality, removing limbs and heads for minor transgressions. Captured enemies have their heads hacked off with kitchen knives, or if there isn’t time they are just shot.
ISIS has received quite a lot of help from Assad in Syria, firstly because they attack all his opposition, secondly to polarised the West’s choice into either Assad or ISIS. When the West threatened to act against Assad and then did nothing it gave ISIS an immense boost, many in the moderate opposition realised that theirs was a lost cause, so they either gave up or joined ISIS. ISIS has never received any help of any kind from the West. They are seen as the problem, not the solution.
ISIS has invaded Iraq to gain territory for their Caliphate. They want to take the historic Vilayet of Baghdad back. In doing so they have captured huge amounts of munitions and money and their ranks have been swelled by Iraqi Sunnis. ISIS is now, effectively, a country that straddles the Sykes-Picot nations of Syria and Iraq. Their territorial aims encompass Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey.
So who is going to stop ISIS?
Iraq. Mostly the Iraqi soldiers so far have run or surrendered only to be shot. The Shia militias have been invited to join the war which will make things worse with their inevitable sectarian atrocities. Further south the population is just about 100% Shia so ISIS can only get so far.
Iran. Iraq and Syria have been battlegrounds for a proxy war between Shia and Sunni. Now the gloves are off and Iran cannot let ISIS succeed. Expect them to suddenly become everyone’s best friend.
Kurds. These people have a huge historic grudge and want their state back. They already have north Syria and some of north Iraq. But they also want a chunk of Turkey, which doesn’t please the Turks. They have fought ISIS in Syria and won.
USA. America has plenty of bases in the region and almost certainly has intelligence gathering drones following events. They missed a huge opportunity last Thursday to carpet bomb the ISIS columns. Obama is an incredibly weak president but surely even he must do something.
Israel. The Israelis haven’t overtly started smiting ISIS yet. But unless someone else does they will eventually have no option. Their problem is that ISIS is growing exponentially so the longer they leave it the greater the threat.
Turkey. The regional superpower. In much the same position as Israel.
Jordan. They must be wondering when it is going to be their turn and who will help them. It really does look like they are next.
Syria. Assad is laughing his head off. Soon the West will be his allies in the war against ISIS.
As you can see we are headed for interesting times, this cannot end well. Large numbers of young men are being radicalised into extremist violent Salafism and are being taught how to fight with extreme brutality. Quite a lot of these are Westerners who will eventually bring this baggage home with them. Whole swathes of the Middle East will become battle grounds and very many innocent people will die. Also the long enmity between Shia and Sunni will be inflamed which will lead to further ongoing conflicts.
The catalyst for all that has gone wrong are Bush and Blair and the utter stupidity of GW2. Whatever their aims were they obviously never thought through the potential downsides. They will go down in history with utter ignominy.