Video via Journeyman Pictures
The group operating under the banner of IS (The Islamic State), formerly ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (or Syria)), used to function under the banner of al-Qaeda in Iraq. During the so called ‘surge’ authorised by Obama in 2006, the group was severely depleted but survived. Within a few years they had re-branded and replenished their ranks, a replenishment given huge boost through a well-planned and orchestrated prison breakout in 2011.
IS benefited hugely from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where a demand for weapons and experienced fighters swelled the group’s coffers. Before long IS held the North East of Syria bordering Iraq, which in turn saw a surge in radicalised growth, and with an absence of either Iraqi or Syrian authority, the strongest and most extreme groups thrived.
But al-Qaeda is only ever a franchise, and their brand wasn’t enough to keep IS under the banner made famous by Bin Laden. According to Barak Mendelsohn, a an Associate Professor at Haverford College who studies Middle East security and radical religious groups, Syria pushed that relationship to the breaking point. IS claimed that it controlled Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda splinter in Syria, and defied orders from al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to back off. “This was the first time a leader of an al-Qaeda franchise had publicly disobeyed” a movement leader, he says. IS also defied repeated orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria, and the tensions led to al-Qaeda disavowing any connection with IS in a February communiqué.
Unlike al-Qaeda who are content to carry out high profile attacks on Western targets before disappearing back into the shadows, IS seek to capture and hold territory. The territory seized by the Islamic State is designed to form a new Caliphate; a hard line Sunni Islamic state which dismisses the post Ottoman borders drawn in European map rooms at the end of the First World War. Whether by luck or design, the area IS claim contains a large number of known oil fields, and as such IS are estimated to hold an area the size of Belgium, although the extent of their grip on towns and villages in these areas varies greatly.
Fuelling IS advances are the sectarian fault lines that riddle Iraq: The Shia led government in Baghdad is so despised by many Sunni Muslims that the arrival of IS is often welcomed, preferential as it is to the traditional forces of order. So overt is the sectarian nature of IS, that the Iraqi government has sought help aid from historic rival Iran. Yet this is grease to mill of IS, who point to it as further evidence of Shia domination and voice that it drives a wedge even between Iraqis currently outside the conflict areas.
IS receive millions from wealthy individuals in Saudi and Qatar as well as from sympathetic groups across the world. During their initial sweep across northern Iraq in May, IS captured millions more from abandoned bank vaults. In a grim echo of South Vietnamese forces after the US withdrawal, huge quantities of Iraqi army equipment have been taken, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and even howitzers. The state of the Iraqi army is a tragedy not only for Iraq, but for Western policy maker for whom much stoke had been placed in the well-equipped Iraqi forces. A rough count of IS’ fighting strength suggests it has a bit more than 7,000 combat troops, and it can occasionally grab reinforcements from other extremist militias. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, plus armed police. At least part of the fault must lie with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has shored up his own increasingly authoritarian rule by appointing senior officers based on loyalty rather than competence.
If any group has benefited from the current crisis then it is the Kurds who dominate the oil rich North of Iraq and were the closest allies of the US after the overthrow of their long time oppressor, Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Kurdistan is semi-autonomous and the Kurdish security forces are partly integrated with the government, but there are between 80,000 and 240,000 Kurdish peshmerga (militias) who fall outside the remit of Baghdad. They’re well equipped and trained, and represent a serious military threat to IS. Yet prior to August, there hadn’t been major fighting between the Kurds and IS. More recently however, Kurdsish forces took advantage of the chaos to occupy Kirkuk, a city near massive oil deposits that they’ve wanted for some time.
On the 11th August the United States confirmed it would supply the Kurds with small arms, and their lead in the relief of the trapped Yazidi civilians in Northern Iraq has earned the United States huge respect and appreciation across the world. However the recent ISIS push towards Erbil threatens the Kurds largest city outside Mosul and will force the Kurds to cooperate with Baghdad in a manner both are unaccustomed to, leaving more questions about the future of the region during this particularly unstable time.