Mustafa Fahs

ISIS: the opposing scenarios of Iraq and Syria

It is no longer possible to convince Iraq’s Sunni community that what is happening in Iraq is a fight against terrorism

An Iraqi Shiite fighter from the Popular Mobilization units poses under a sign reading "Lions of Najaf" during a training exercise in the Iraqi city of Kufa on 23 March 2015. (AFP/Haidar Hamdani)

The delayed conclusion of the battle to wrest Tikrit from the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) has revealed just how big divisions in the region are. Engagements in the city, which have exposed the divergent stances and priorities of regional actors, were supposed to have blanket support from Iraqis, Arabs, Muslims, and regional and international powers. ISIS constituted a danger to the states and peoples of the region, and the world as a whole.


At the gates of Tikrit, an enormous number of questions and considerations came to light. Conflicting internal and foreign interests blew up in everyone’s faces, and the fighting either stopped or slowed down for a large number of reasons, some of which were combat-related and others logistical. The most important factor contributing to this recession in the fighting, however, was regional demography.


It is no longer possible to convince Iraq’s Sunni community—Sunni Arabs in general or Sunni Muslims around the world—that what is happening in Iraq is a fight against terrorism. Several issues have gradually reversed the situation in Iraq’s cities in favor of Islamic State supporters; firstly, the Popular Mobilization militias have mimicked its practices. If the Popular Mobilization militias continue to act the way they have been, support for ISIS will only increase. There has also been a strong presence of Iranian commanders and troops, the most prominent among which is the direction of battles by Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani and his open and provocative appearance in Salaheddin Province.


The relationship between ISIS and the residents of areas under its control in Iraq differs from its relationship with its Syrian subjects. This is because the structure of the group in Iraq is not the same as its structure in Syria. Tehran became aware of this contrast from an early stage, and as a result has participated enthusiastically in eliminating ISIS in Iraq but has refrained from doing so in Syria, for a number of reasons.


In Iraq, 80% of ISIS members are Iraqis; they are the ones who give the orders, and they live in their own home environment. Most of them are former Baathists who lost their privileges after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the dissolution of the Iraqi Army. Armed extremist groups were exactly what they needed, so they allied with them and took advantage of their resources, using them as a tool to launch attacks against local authorities and the central government in Baghdad. For their part, Iraq’s local authorities failed to convince Baghdad to change the way it was treating the inhabitants of areas under their jurisdiction. This helped draw attention away from the conduct of the former Baathists; it made them more acceptable, and justified relying on them to confront the oppression and intentional negligence of the former government (especially Baghdad’s refusal to include the inhabitants of certain areas in political decision making.) Consequently, the Baathists were able to work their way into oppressed areas and succeeded in making residents of these places acclimate to their presence. Eventually, they finished their preparations and moved under the cover of ISIS to form the “caliphate state.” In various Iraqi areas and cities inhabitants were then forced to submit to the group. Now, they are caught between two fires: on one side they face ISIS and the aspirations of its Baathist contingent; on the other they face Baghdad and the goals of Tehran’s supporters.


The battle for Tikrit has led to a reversal of expectations. It has also drawn attention to the fact that the battle for Mosul will not be easy. That battle will have a high material, human and moral price. Underestimating it will cost Iraq its unity. The dilemma now lies in the difficulty of separating the residents of Sunni cities from the Baathists of the former regime. Separating these cities from ISIS will also be nearly impossible as their residents fear they will suffer what other cities have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias, and the central authorities are not providing any means of guaranteeing their safety. They feel that they are the victims of a process of systematic demolition led by Tehran. The goal, it seems to them, is to subdue Iraq once and for all and tear it away from its Arab surroundings.


ISIS has managed to succeed in Iraq because, for the most part, the situation there is a product of local reactions to oppression and the revenge-taking of Iraqi Baathists who either committed atrocities under Saddam or reject Shiite domination of Iraqi decision making. So, it could be said that in its current form a large section of the Islamic State’s Iraqi wing is an offshoot of the Baath Party. It has considerable support in Sunni-majority cities, especially Mosul, which for the moment sees the group as the only alternative to revenge-driven Shiite militias. The inhabitants of these cities are still waiting for another Sunni force to be formed that can defend them against ISIS—the remnants of the Baath Party and the Shiite militias, a force that can also impose partnership conditions on the central government.


In Syria, the number of locals included in the Islamic State’s overall command structure is less that 50% and most of its leaders came from abroad. Most Syrians occupy the group’s fourth rank, and are only sparsely represented in the third. First and second rank leaders hail from Europe, the Maghreb and the Caucasus, and are known to use violence to make locals submit to the type of life they believe is appropriate. What unsettles ISIS commanders in Syria is the existence of alternatives. The inhabitants of areas under the group’s control have the option of seeking help from opposition factions and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). These forces could form an alternative to ISIS that would provide protection from its tyranny and the tyranny of the Assad regime. Unlike in Iraq, Syrians in areas under ISIS control are from one social and sectarian environment. What sets the Syrian and Iraqi situations apart is that in Syria there is an alternative to ISIS that could lead the battle to defeat it and fill the void it leaves behind. All this alternative needs is support. There are no ideological or doctrinal differences between the inhabitants of Syria’s cities and this force. In Iraq, everyone rejects submission to Shiite militias as an alternative to ISIS or another Sunni force manned by the inhabitants of ISIS-controlled areas, such as the former Awakening Councils or the promised National Guard.


For Tehran, eliminating ISIS in Syria without including Assad in the process is a strategic danger that would enable the revolution to regain locations it lost. The vanquishing of ISIS in Iraq, on the other hand, is necessary, but there must be a Sunni partner to give legitimacy to the victory. For Iraq’s Sunnis there can be no victory over ISIS and the Baathists as long as there are no guarantees of national partnership and connection with Arab states.


Mustafa Fahs tweets @mustafafahs


This article has been translated from the original by Ullin Hope


An Iraqi Shiite fighter from the Popular Mobilization units poses under a sign reading "Lions of Najaf" during a training exercise in the Iraqi city of Kufa on 23 March 2015. (AFP/Haidar Hamdani)

It could be said that in its current form a large section of the Islamic State’s Iraqi wing is an offshoot of the Baath Party."