For millennials, Iraq occupies a unique position in our psyche. We came of age during the long, controversial Iraq War, and along with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, it claimed the lives of many of our peers. Today, the ramifications of over a decade of war are burdens for thousands of us, be it in the form of missing limbs or scarred minds. To add to the suffering, it is becoming clear that neither country has been guaranteed a safe future.
This week reports came in that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had taken control of the Iraqi province Nineveh, in the north. The group has been active in the Syrian civil war, but took the Iraqi military by surprise with the capture of Mosul and Tikrit. The sudden unrest threatens Iraqi security, and attacks are moving closer to the capital city of Baghdad. While the international community grapples with how best to counter the gains, hundreds of thousands of civilians are fleeing the fighting. Just four years after U.S. troops ended military operations, Iraq is on the edge of yet another war.
Here is what you need to know about ISIS and the rapidly growing conflict in Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
ISIS, sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is a Sunni jihadist group that grew out of al-Qaeda. The group began as an Iraqi arm of al-Qaeda, working against US and Iraqi forces. But when the Syrian conflict erupted, the then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) moved in with numerous other foreign fighters. Jabhat al-Jabhat al-Nusra, the specific wing of ISI that operated in Syria, quickly became the strongest and most disciplined extremist force in Syria, which raised concerns about a post-Assad future.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISI, wasn’t content with the work being done by al-Nusra and expanded ISI to include Syria. ISIS, however, quickly fell out with both al-Nusra and al-Qaeda over the level of brutality the group was showing. Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, broke with ISIS over differences in ideology and tactics. ISIS was no match for al-Nusra and other extremist forces, leading many to believe the group was falling apart. But that was disproved this week with the wave of new attacks in Iraq.
Despite being known for violence too extreme even for al-Qaeda, ISIS has used tactics other than just brute force to win favor with Sunnis in captured areas. Reports suggest that al-Baghdadi is using a two-pronged approach, ordering fighters to try to work with and co-opt Sunnis using dissatisfaction with central rulers to win them over to his side while carrying out attacks to take more territory. ISIS has also challenged the authority of al-Qaeda, claiming ideological superiority. The group is better equipped than Iraqi forces, and experiences in Syria have given them effective strategies for both fighting and holding territories.
ISIS versus Iraq
The conflict in Iraq started months ago, with ISIS operations in Fallujah and Ramadi. But this week the world took note when the city of Mosul fell and attacks spread throughout the north. On Wednesday night, Tikrit was captured by ISIS forces. Although the oil refinery between Mosul and Tikrit has so far been held by Iraqi forces, the latest win places ISIS within 56 miles of Baghdad.
As ISIS takes control of areas, they have released hundreds of prisoners believed to be likely to join their forces. Fighters have raided military bases, stolen millions of dollars from banks, and overrun police stations. Meanwhile, Iraqi forces have reportedly left their posts and been replaced by Kurdish fighters. The oil rich city of Kirkuk has been said to be held entirely by Kurdish forces, with no Iraqi troops in sight.
The Iraqi government sought a state of emergency on Wednesday, but with more militant groups joining the assaults and the taking of Tikrit, it does not seem likely to have any impact. An estimated 500,000 have been displaced by the violence, with more refugees expected as fighting moves closer to the capital. NGOs in the region are already stretched to breaking by Syrian refugees, and the humanitarian crisis will only be exacerbated by the sudden influx.
Although the international community has condemned the violence in Iraq, concrete steps to counter the gains and restore stability have yet to be taken. Turkey has called on NATO in the wake of Turkish consulate workers being taken hostage by ISIS fighters, but a plan has not yet been made and it is unclear if other member states will assist. In the US, Congress has pinned blame on President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, saying troops were unprepared to take over operations.
Meanwhile, Iran’s President Rouhani has made a statement supporting the Iraqi government and vowing to assist in Iraq’s fight against terrorism. But the government has not made clear if they will offer military support. With the Iraqi military struggling to adequately combat the oncoming ISIS forces, statements of support amount to very little. If the international community doesn’t pair action with words soon, it’s possible Baghdad will fall into ISIS hands and an even larger crisis will erupt.