Skip to content Skip to footer

Syria and Iraq: IS Casts a Chilling Shadow

Can the Islamic State’s military victories in Sunni regions of Syria and Iraq translate into the creation of the so-called “Islamic Caliphate” it touts?

The old profile on the world’s maps of the Middle East is in full erosion like so many sand castles stranded on a shore. The old Syria, a nation that harbored mixed ethnic groups of Kurds, Sunni and Shiite, Christians and Alawites has ceased to exist. The forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who won his elections in June and who is starting his third term in office, have lost control of the northern and eastern areas of Syria, which have been seized by the forces of the Islamic State (IS). What remains of Assad’s regime controls a shelf of cities and areas bordering the Mediterranean. Most of the Syrian rebels confronting Assad lack arms and training, and seem disorganized, chiefly because infighting has weakened them to the point where they are unable to mount any effective resistance that could produce a victory over Assad. The Obama administration’s half-hearted support for the rebel groups on the ground, although the administration is trying to gather more support for them, contributes to that weakness.

Meanwhile, the forces of IS in Syria have spread quickly, penetrating the old Iraq, where IS fundamentalists, allied with the remnants of the old Iraqi Sunni army, have seized the west and north there in an attempt to take back a country they feel has been appropriated by the blatantly unjust Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – whose government no longer controls the country.

Assad’s Survival

But the survival of the Assad regime is posing a bigger and more critical problem to US interests in the region. According to former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, IS has become a threat chiefly because the Assad regime is “a magnet pulling in jihadis from different Muslim countries in the world,” and Assad has become a “symbol” of Sunni oppression in the minds of thousands of young people in the world who are signing up to go and fight him.

During the last month or so, IS has captured or taken control of 435 miles of territory, stretching from its western-most end on the fringes of Aleppo across northern Syria into the east, including some Sunni-dominated areas of northern and western Iraq. Its conquests end at the fringes of Baghdad. Wherever it goes, IS sets up various Islamic administrative entities staffed by its fighters and sympathizers including Sharia courts and “hisba” offices for enforcing Islamic rules and “Daawa” offices whose aim is to aggressively spread its Islamist ideology, which often includes violent practices.

Ford attributes much of Assad’s success to the forces of Iran and the weapons of Russia, while Andrew Terrill, a professor of national security affairs and Middle East specialist at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, said that Iran has been providing money, military aid and advice to Syria. Tehran has also encouraged the Lebanese Hezbollah to fight there in an effort to support the Iraqi Shiite militias, many of whom have return to Iraq to fight IS. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) al-Quds force is very extensively involved in training pro-Assad forces, but has deployed no troops in Syria.

The Sinister Convergence

Now that the Syria conflict has merged with the Iraqi conflict, the increased power of IS has become a more direct threat to the interests of the United States.

Ford claims that Assad’s survival has proved a magnet for the Sunni fundamentalists intent on overthrowing him. An Iraq under the direction of IS would pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies. Following the declaration of a caliphate by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a flurry of surrenders by rebel and tribal brigades in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province gave IS significant chunks of territory. These victories and advances changed the balance of power in that province. But the IS triumphs have not gone smoothly in some areas. Local resistance has begun to challenge IS’s control in the province. Unfortunately, the challenge has been too localized to constitute a major threat to IS, but to Middle East experts, the presence of such groups means that they may yet consolidate into an effective resistance.

US intelligence and think tank analysts whom Truthout spoke with agreed that IS cannot be taken lightly. It is a Sunni organization and Sunnis staff its military forces, plus IS has excellent strategy and tactics and possesses real tenacity. The quick progress of IS as it seized broad areas of territory in northern and eastern Iraq is due mainly to the Naqsbandi Order, staffed by ex-military types and related secular elements. The forces of IS also include Muslim mystics and loyalists who now support Saddam Hussein’s former vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who evaded capture after the US invasion. Wayne White, a former senior State Department official, described Douri as “one of the original Bolsheviks of the Baath Party coup of 1968 and who loyally served Saddam Hussein until Saddam’s fall in 2003.” Douri appears to be in frail health, according to Terrill. Douri’s forces are getting strong support from the Muslim Scholar’s Council, led by Hrith al-Dari and his son Muthanna from Baghdad’s Umm al-Qura, according to Ford. Another player is the Islamic Army made up of officers and soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, which is mainly secular and uses religion as a cover for its activities and legitimacy.

The ISIS is now officially calling itself the “Islamic Caliphate,” and is trying to establish its dominance over the Arab countries, Iran and North Africa, while also claiming to be bent on liberating Palestine. What does this new title mean? Very little.

After the US invasion of 2003, some of Saddam’s military used a religious cover for their resistance activities, with a cleric at that time declaring, “All Islamic struggles . . . are part of one organized effort to bring back the Caliphate.” This statement appears to forget that Saddam’s secular regime was anathema to Islamic fundamentalists. The declaration of a caliphate that was recently invoked by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, partakes more of myth than reality. The last caliphate, established in Istanbul in Turkey, had no connection either to the Umma or to the Muslim community, had no endorsement from the Umma, or blood connections to the Prophet. In 1925, the Caliphate was abolished by secular Muslim Mustapha Kemal without any Western involvement.

But in the Middle East, a religious sect is often not about “the individual relationship with the supreme being,” but more about “the group you belong to and whose members are more to be trusted than members of other social groups,” Terrill said.

In Syria, al-Baghdadi’s operations have usually not been directed at the Assad regime, according to Terrill who said that al-Baghdadi’s forces are mostly fighting al-Nusra and other potential rivals in the northeast. Syrian human rights groups maintain that there have been 7,000 people killed in this intra-jihadi fighting – including civilians killed in the crossfire. Al-Baghdadi makes such extensive use of terror, crucifixions and beheadings that he seems more able to intimidate Syrian citizens than his rivals. He seems to be winning in Syria since al-Nusra is abandoning territory, and many al-Nusra members are changing sides.

The Caliphate declaration of al-Baghdadi prompted a hurried flurry of surrenders by rebel and tribal brigades in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province which conferred large swaths of territorial control to ISIS, but IS does not have full control of Fallujah nor does IS have any concrete way of unifying the Sunnis in the field. In fact, the influence of IS varies widely among the separate groups. Some members of IS forces are very religious and they may want an Islamic state, but not an Islamic state patterned on IS. Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that no Iraqi or tribal leaders wants to see Iraq divided into warring statelets. Their goal is to keep the nation intact. In other words, the alliance between IS and Iraqi Sunnis is a marriage of convenience and nothing more. What the Sunnis do want very badly is a reformed Iraqi government free of Maliki.

According to US intelligence sources, various Sunni Arab groups are embedded with IS – some 16 in Mosul – which include the Jihad Reform Front Group, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and three more, whose military skill, combined with the weakness of the Iraqi security forces, enabled IS to take the city of Mosul so quickly. The ties between these groups are based on shared staunch anti-Maliki sentiment, differing degrees of opposition towards Shiite rule and a desire to obtain justice for Sunnis.

It should be noted that whatever ground IS has taken in Iraq, it has kept. Every piece of real estate captured by IS remains firmly in control of that group in contrast to the incompetent, tardy and ineffectual counteroffensives mounted by the Maliki government. Not only did IS capture territory and seize cities and towns, it also grabbed and exploited resources, cleaning out banks and seizing 52 US-supplied artillery pieces with GPS aiming systems. They also captured hundreds of US-supplied Humvees and large amounts of ammunition in their march across Iraq. The 155mm guns have a range of 20 miles which means that many Iraqi cities still in government hands are within range of IS positions. From its current territories, IS is likely to head northward into the Kurdish-held territories, and towns such as Tuz Kormato and Singar, sites that are likely to be bitterly contested, US intelligence sources said.

Many of the Sunni residents of Iraq seem to believe that the greatest threat to the Iraqi population is the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Sunni members of Saddam Hussein’s army – and members of his regime’s political group – were secular, not Islamic fundamentalists. That’s why the pre-2003 war allegations from the Bush administration charging that Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 were “ludicrous,” said White, the former State Department official. He added, “The only country in the region to or through which no al-Qaeda cadres fled in their diaspora from Afghanistan was Saddam’s Iraq because to his people, Muslim militants were anathema (i.e. kill on sight).”

During the US invasion, the Sunnis and al-Qaeda had a brief alliance that resisted the US occupation. But as early as 2004, the tribes wanted to partner with US forces to end abuses by al-Qaeda in the Sunni Arab community that included the disruption of the tribes’ ancient smuggling routes and the foreign terrorists’ demand to marry young tribal women. The result was a US-financed rebellion that did enormous damage to al-Qaeda because the tribes pinpointed al-Qaeda targets for the US military, which destroyed them.

The results of that operation were negated by the Bush administration’s support of Maliki, whose government has proven a horrific failure. Instead of forming a government that wanted to reconcile conflicting political groups, including the Sunnis who wanted to obtain influential and significant posts as they had enjoyed in the past, Maliki widened the breach between the two factions. According to White, Middle East expert Gary Sick – who teaches and hosts a site on the region – and others, the current anti-Maliki rebellion is not simply a collection of “former regime dead-enders.” Once again, the Sunni tribal elements that had earlier fought against al-Qaeda have joined the revolt in order to restore Sunnis’ standing in Iraq. For example, figures such as Hatem al-Suleiman, a prominent Sunni leader in west Anbar Province, have put off fighting IS until Maliki steps down.

After the United States left Iraq, “Maliki couldn’t wait to see us leave,” said Terrill: Anxious to consolidate his hold on power, the Iraqi prime minister began to curb, frustrate and marginalize the Sunnis. He quickly threw the Arab Awakening back in their faces, refusing to pay the Sunnis. He denied the Sunnis jobs. Sunni Iraqis have, for years, reported a pattern of harassment, random arrests and illegal imprisonment. Plus Maliki insisted on giving key positions to Shiites, including in the Ministry of Interior and the Iraqi Army. By always making Sunnis feel small and subsidiary, Maliki’s government forced the Sunnis into a rebellion in Sunni-dominated provinces to the north and west of Iraq where they established a new alliance with IS. Until then, the Sunni Arabs, despite the secular leanings of many, had no place to go to find effective allies against Maliki. To them, the government is the real enemy.

Resistance to Maliki is catching on. Members of the Sunni Arab political class, largely white-collar Muslim Brotherhood types and wealthy businessmen such as Athneel al-Nujaifi, the former speaker of parliament and former governor of Mosul, have already become Maliki opponents. Another point to remember is the fact that this is not a religious war. Sectarian tensions have always abounded in the Middle East. “The sectarianism has been here for a long time,” said Arab political analyst Ziad Ajeel. “The Kurds refused to be ruled by the Arabs. The Shia refused to be ruled by the Sunni. Now the Sunni don’t want to be ruled by the Shia. Iraq’s history confirms that you cannot achieve your rights without the use of weapons. And that is the problem with Iraq.”

But others don’t see it that way. Sick pointed out in a recent email for his Middle East site that while the story has been portrayed by the media as being all about religion and military developments, the current struggle is mostly about politics. The political points at issue include “access to government revenue and services, a say in decision-making, and a modicum of social justice.”

Sick said that ISIS and its allies “have triumphed because the Sunni populations of Mosul and Tikrit and Fallujah have welcomed and supported them – not because of IS’s disgusting behavior, but in spite of it.”

Can IS Govern?

In assessing IS’s prognosis for future success, it pays to remember that it is not a popular, grassroots movement, but one the power of which rests chiefly on massacre, exploitation and plunder. Many Iraqis consider IS a menacing entity even as they temporarily support it because it is effective. IS campaigns have displaced more than half a million people, and IS and Sunni forces have already begun to persecute Iraq’s minorities such as the Shabaks, Yezidis, Shiite Turkmen and Christians living in farmland and villages in the surrounding Nineveh Province. Besides Mosul, some 20 towns and villages populated by minorities in Nineveh have been seized by militants, as well as one in Kirkuk Province and several more around the town of Tuz Khurmato that have been targeted to produce political uniformity.

As the Maliki government has crumpled, areas of the north are now divided between the Kurds – who have expanded their autonomous region by as much as 40 percent – and IS.

Peaceful Coexistence or New Oppression?

IS advances are also acting to accelerate Iraq’s de-facto partition and hastening demographic changes that can never be restored. The true dilemma for Iraqis trying to live under the rule of ISIS is this: You must accept its extremist doctrines which moderate Sunnis claim misrepresent the true doctrines of Islam. But IS doesn’t take “no” for an answer. In fact, IS uses very gradual, sophisticated tactics to coerce the publics in the areas that are at war with it. For example, according to, the surrender of a large number of local rebel and tribal brigades to ISIS in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province were far from spontaneous, but were the result of unhurried, meticulous work that forged an agreement on the terms of a peaceful occupation. Apparently, a large number of local leaders “sought to avoid an armed takeover by ISIS forces and agreed to a set of ISIS-imposed conditions for the peaceful surrender of rebel forces.” The chilling part comes when you read what the deal requires: “the repentance of residents and fighters, the relinquishment of personal weapons, and a full civilian evacuation of surrendered towns for a period of 10 days.”

The effect of this announcement produced a temporary humanitarian crisis in which tens of thousands of displaced persons fled, thus allowing IS to quickly and efficiently “assert full control over a large swath of territory.”Further surrenders allowed IS to consolidate when Free Syrian Army forces pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. In fact, widespread surrender became the fashion in certain areas, and IS began to gather a windfall of weapons left by the enemies’ defeated forces.

IS has learned a lot from other insurrections in history. Right away, it set out to win as many hearts and minds of its enemies as quickly as possible via provision of public services. On the heels of its capture of Mosul, IS fixed the decrepit power lines allowing electricity for 18 hours a day for the inhabitants. IS also began to pay state employees in Mosul, and it is providing water and food for its inhabitants, and trying to end longstanding fuel shortages. Christian and Shiite houses were quickly branded “Islamic State Properties,” and some of those homes were given to people from areas like Tikrit and Diyala, which had been looted.

However, such efforts pose a danger to the stability of a cause. If you stop providing services, your support among the people could well be eclipsed.

At its base in Raqqa in Syria and in other parts of the state, IS takes a cut of all commerce and humanitarian aid. In addition, IS is issuing decrees regarding clothing for women, restrictions on marriage, and housing rental prices. Nothing is too small for IS attempts to regulate and control the populace, and again, money talks. As it stands now, US officials rate the financial situation of IS in Iraq as “dire.” For example, it cannot legally export crude oil and has no machinery in place to estimate the energy requirements of the local populations. The infrastructure of Iraq’s northern oil facilities were in decay before the IS spearhead of last month. Maliki’s security forces have begun to target the trucks used to carry the oil, and such attacks could cause great damage in IS’s revenue. In addition, the oil being sold by ISIS in Iraq is of low quality. Poorly refined, it contains high levels of lead, which can cause respiratory problems in people nearby.

Water contamination is another pressing concern. A rusted pipeline that ran from Kirkuk to the Baji refinery leaked, spilling oil into the Tigris River. The damage from such spills could be catastrophic. IS forces in Deir al-Zor Province have cut its profits to gain a public favorable to it, using the free distribution of gasoline. The windfall profits from Iraqi and Syrian oil prompt questions about the deterioration of the fields. The question must be asked: How will distribution of oil be adjusted so that the locals have access to affordable supplies? No one knows.


Fresh fractures are already surfacing in the Sunni-IS alliance due to the enduring conflicts embedded in Iraq’s history and culture, the civil war in Syria, regional balances of power, and sectarianism – all of which are feeding and deepening Sunni militancy and IS’s drive for more power and freedom from Maliki.

Perhaps most importantly, tensions are already erupting between IS and the tribes. According to White, there have been clashes between tribal elements and IS, and the so-called Nakshabandi Army that contained ex-military types and other secular elements in an area 20 to 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk. Some Sunni factions vigorously oppose IS while others serve it. Terrill said that conflicts between the two are likely, since tribal chieftains do not want “to give up their power to IS forces, nor do they want to see tribal law (where they are important figures) replaced by Sharia law (where they are not important). It is vaguely possible that IS will find a place for tribal leaders within their own hierarchy, but they will find it hard to be flexible enough to give the tribal leaders what they want.”

Plus, it should be noted that IS forces have been fighting in places where local populations are friendly to them. It will be a different matter when they meet the tough and motivated Kurdish peshmerga or Shiite forces in the Shiites’ own regions.

“I think IS has a better chance in Syria than Iraq because people are so tired of living in anarchy and war that they will do just about anything for stability,” one US intelligence source told Truthout. “IS has brought a certain amount of calm to some of the areas it controls. . . . Corruption is also down which is a very welcome development for ordinary Syrians.”

Said Terrill, “Iraqi Sunnis are a little different and much more comfortable with secularism, and would never want to surrender their personal weapons. My feeling is that they can be pushed too far by IS and there could be a real backlash. Atrocious government in Baghdad is what keeps them from pushing back harder. I am sure you have seen the media reports that Arab Sunnis are saying it is better to live under the Kurds than the Islamic State and it is better to live under the Islamic State than the Baghdad government.”

Time will tell.

Countdown is on: We have 8 days to raise $46,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.