By Brinda Sapra
Edited by Namrata Caleb
On June 5, 2014 ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) launched a major offensive in North Iraq against the government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis rebelling against the Shia dominated Iraqi government. Before looking at the sequence of events that unfolded following the Iraq crisis of June 2014, it is important to note that the uprising had already begun in December 2013. The demographic division of the 3 main religious ethnic groups involved in the struggle is: Iraq’s Shia Arabs (mostly in Southern Iraq), Sunni Arabs (in the North and West Iraq) and ethnic Kurds (who are religiously Sunni but their ethnicity divides them from Arab Sunnis, in the far North). Kurds are long-oppressed minorities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They have been fighting to form an independent country for more than a century. They have exploited the recent crisis to grant themselves greater autonomy. The biggest roadblock for the Kurds is that Iraq’s neighbors fear that the creation of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state would induce their own Kurdish population to break away and join them.
Important cities in Northern Iraq like Samarra, Mosul and Tikrit were invaded and subsequently ruled by ISIL. As Iraqi government forces fled south Iraq on 13 June, the Kurdish forces took control of the oil hub of Kirkuk.
ISIL also made incursions in neighboring Syria which strengthened their position. On June 29, 2014, ISIL declared a change of name to IS (Islamic State) and announced the establishment of a Caliphate that includes Syria and Iraq with Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi as the Caliph.
The Iraqi PM called for a state of Emergency following the annexation of Mosul (2nd largest city after Baghdad-the capital city, and fairly close to major oil fields). But the Parliament did not allow it despite the immediate threat to national security. The proposal was mainly rejected by Sunnis and ethnic Kurdish legislators who were opposed to the idea of expanding the PM’s powers.
After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) split from Al-Qaeda in February 2014 (mainly because ISIS was considered very brutal even for Al-Qaeda) its goal remained the same: to establish a hardline Sunni Islamic state in Iraq run by Caliph. It wants to create an Islamic state ruled by Shariah law in Iraq and in “the Levant” (a region stretching from southern Turkey into Egypt, encompassing not only Syria but also Jordan and Israel). The group’s extremist brand of Shariah orders women to stay inside their homes. It also bans music and punishes thieves by cutting off their hands.
The single most important factor in ISIS’ recent resurgence is the conflict between Iraqi Shias and Iraqi Sunnis. This can be traced back to the centuries-old sectarian conflict between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims over who would succeed as the leader of Muslims after Prophet Muhammed’s death. Sunnis are the largest branch of Islam. But Shiites outnumber them in Iraq and make up an overwhelming majority of neighboring Iran.
The oil reserves are concentrated in the Shia south and Kurdish north, with Sunni regions to the west notably lacking oil reserves. This makes it obvious why the Sunni ISIS rebels have targeted the country’s largest oil refinery and have suggested that they plan on seizing much of the country’s northern oil fields.
There are 2 ways in which the Iraqi government unknowingly aided the ISIS insurgent’s organization:
- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, built a Shia sectarian state and refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis. Police killed peaceful Sunni protestors and conducted mass-arrests of Sunni civilians. When ISIS reestablished itself, it put Sunni sectarianism at the heart of its identity and propaganda and it skillfully exploited this brutality to recruit new fighters.
- The US and Iraqi governments released a huge number of al-Qaeda prisoners from jail (who were described by Washington Institute for Near East Studies’ Michael Knights as-“an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower”) who subsequently joined ISIS.
The Syrian Connection
On 26 January, 2011 some peaceful protests began in Syria (Arab Spring Protests) against the torture of students who had put up anti- government graffiti. Soon the protests spread across the country. Other demands of the protesters include removal of President Bashar al- Assad, equal rights for Kurds, and broader political freedoms like freedom of the press, speech and assembly. President Bashar Assad’s deadly crackdown on demonstrators sparked a civil war.
The Syrian rebels are mostly Sunnis fighting against the repressive government dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Syrian conflict has made ISIS stronger because the chaos in Syria enables ISIS to hold on to their territory in Syria securely. The Syrian crisis has helped ISIS in terms of money and weaponry while attacking Iraq. ISIS gained access to heavy weaponry and they are aided by funds from small businesses and the oil and gas sector of the territory they captured in Syria. This ISIS territory in Syria also adds another advantage by acting as a ‘Safe Zone’- ISIS can safely retreat to these areas when fighting Iraqi troops.