The Sunni extremist group ISIS, or ISIL, has been taking over Iraqi cities and has claimed responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi soldiers. As events unfold in Iraq, the United States finds itself in the curious position of moving towards effective support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Having first intervened in Iraq and then folded on a threat to take action in Syria, the US now will be forced to intervene or face the alternative of the break-up of the nearly century-long construction of the region as a series of sovereign states.
Much depends on the strategic capacity and the next tactical moves of the organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or, more correctly, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIS is used by most media because it conflates and hence simplifies two neighboring wars, and perhaps because it has echoes of the ancient Egyptian fertility goddess.
However, the name ISIL better reflects a local and historical understanding of the region, which pre-dates regional states as they currently exist. It also indicates the organisation’s ambitions, which extend well beyond occupation of northern Syria and central Iraq.
Comprised of a number of multi-national groups that coalesced in the latter part of the war against the US-led occupation of Iraq, ISIL split with al-Qaeda after a power struggle in late 2013. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, ordered for ISIL to disband and was rebuffed by ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This followed an earlier rebuff by al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by a US air-strike in 2006. A number of jihadi organisations formally claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda have since effectively split with the organisation, in part due to al-Zawahiri’s increasing impotence as a leader in hiding and in part due to the differing circumstances in each of the jihadi fields of operation.
Having crossed from Iraq to Syria, ISIL rose by early 2013 to become the most powerful of the country’s anti-Assad factions. It now controls Syria’s north and north-east. With its origins in Iraq, it was unsurprising that ISIL crossed back to challenge the enfeebled government of Iraqi President Nuri al Maliki.
A large part of ISIL’s advantage in Iraq is that it claims to represent Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims, who predominate in the centre of the country. Politically dominated by Sunnis, including ousted and executed dictator Saddam Hussein, since its founding, Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims are now in political control and operating to large extent to the exclusion of Sunnis.
ISIL’s intervention has only deepened the Sunni-Shia divide, and in so doing has inadvertently strengthened the strategic position of Iraq’s Kurds. The Kurds run a semi-autonomous state in northern Iraq and have just taken the main northern, oil-rich town of Kirkuk.
ISIL is now facing a more concerted defence by Iraq’s embattled defence force but, as with Syria, may be expected to hold much of the territory it has gained. Having transitioned from being a guerrilla organisation to a state within two states, ISIL’s longer-term ambition is to combine the Arab lands divided by English and French colonial planners in the dying days of the Great War.
As ISIL’s name suggests, its origins are in Iraq, but it rejects the division of the Middle East based on colonial and subsequent administrative convenience. ISIL’s goal, therefore, is to eventually subsume Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, southern Turkey and Cyprus into a greater Islamist caliphate.
As ISIL’s strengthens its regional grip, the US is increasingly motivated to act, if not with “boots on the ground” then with equipment and, more importantly, air strikes. If this action is successful — and it is a big if — the US will have broken the back of the main anti-Assad organisation in Syria, tipping that war in favour of a dictator whom, only last year, it was considering ousting.
In so doing the US will be reconfirming that, with states loosely based on arbitrary conglomerates of old Ottoman administrative districts, the region can only exist as disaggregated squabbling fiefdoms or, as states, under the control of dictatorial leaders. Whatever dream the US had of exporting “democracy” to this part of the world is now, in a functional sense, quite dead.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University.