The Splintering of Iraq

June 18, 2014

Shi’ite militias have mobilized in Iraq to battle the Sunni insurgent group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Shi’ite gunmen have marched through Baghdad and taken control of a town northeast of the capital to stage a battleground to stop the advance of the fundamentalist group.

ISIS has taken a full province, Nineveh province, including Mosul (the second-largest city in Iraq) and parts of three others.

The Iraqi army is falling apart, but it’s being bolstered by Shi’a militias responding to a call to arms by the most influential Iraqi Shi’a cleric in the world (Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani) who said that people should take up arms to defend against this group. He said, “He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honor will be a martyr.”

ISIS in Iraq

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said the government would arm and equip citizens who volunteer to fight. Al Maliki has declared a state of emergency and claims he’s been given all powers to fight this threat. According to his critics, however, al Maliki is the reason that ISIS has been so successful in winning Sunni allies in Iraq, because al Maliki has ruled in a very sectarian and corrupt way. He’s a politically embattled figure.

Al Maliki has pushed out a lot of influential Sunni leaders, and that’s why ISIS is getting the support that it has right now, because a lot of the Sunni community in Iraq feels marginalized and afraid of the al Maliki government.

As I said in a post yesterday, ISIS has taken advantage of a wave of Sunni anger in Iraq, and ISIS has gained allies among Sunni tribal leaders, ex-military officers under Saddam Hussein, and other Islamist groups in Iraq. The authority ISIS wields in Iraq is not yet part of a larger monolithic whole; rather, ISIS relies on divergent Sunni tribes, organizations, and groups that can be antagonistic and even violent towards one another.

Most of the ISIS fighters in Iraq have poured over the border from Syria, and many come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main reasons for getting involved in the war in Syria has been its grievance that the Syrian regime is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. 

ISIS must retain popular Sunni support in Iraq to ensure that other Sunni groups are willing to work with them if ISIS hopes to maintain its hold on Iraqi territory. However, it is unclear if that support will last.

Some Sunni clerics in Mosul and Tikrit, which are under the control of ISIS, have been executed by ISIS insurgents for not showing allegiance to the organization. ISIS militants are said to have executed around 12 leading clerics in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. According to Al Alam News, an imam in Mosul’s Central Mosque was executed for refusing to join ISIS insurgents in their cause. Executions have also been reported in Tikrit.

Meanwhile, refugees are flowing into the Kurdish north from Mosul and surrounding areas. The Kurds are taking disputed territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army, including a border point with Syria.

Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region.  It has its own system of laws and governance, and it has long wanted its own independent country. The Kurds are also fighting ISIS, but they are taking advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi military at the same time. The Kurds are taking the territories they feel should be part of their future state, including Kirkuk and this border point.

Last week, ISIS used the social media device Twitter to announce that it had executed 1,700 Shi’a soldiers, and it has tweeted graphic pictures of the executed to support its claims.

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Jabhat al Nusra in Syria

April 22, 2013

As I explained last week, al Qaeda in Iraq has announced an official merger with the Syrian based jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra.

This marriage has already begun to affect that state of opposition within Syria and the involvement of outside powers.

Jabhat al Nusra is increasingly following a foreign agenda within Syria. In the areas of Syria where Jabhat al Nusra has gained control, the group has instituted Sharia courts, created a morality police, banned alcohol, imprisoned women in their homes, forced women to wear the full veil, and flown the black flag of al Qaeda. Understandably, tensions between the jihadist group and other rebel groups have flared – especially around access to resources and for control of governance in rebel-held areas. These issues of power are paramount, because they highlight Syrians grappling with both imported ideologies and with understandings of Islam that are new to them.  

Syria-Jabhat-al-Nusra

Some members of Jabhat al Nusra are showing signs that they are worried about a Syrian backlash. Abu Mohammad al Golani, a Jabhat al Nusra leader, denied knowledge of al Qaeda in Iraq announcing the merger. Instead, he stressed that Jabhat al Nusra is a local group that will continue to operate under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra. In a video statement, al Golani pledged allegiance to al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri, publicly recognizing the group’s loyalty to al Qaeda, but rejected the idea that Jabhat al Nusra was merely an arm of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Issues of governance have eroded Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in opposition circles. Following its formation, the group was originally praised for its operational effectiveness and distribution of humanitarian aid. Popular support for Jabhat al Nusra was so high that, following the United States designation of the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, protests broke out across Syria on their behalf. People shouted the slogan, “We are all Jabhat al Nusra.”

Rebel commanders recognize the importance of distributing humanitarian aid as a mechanism for influence and power in the areas that they control. Jabhat al Nusra has gotten a widespread reputation for providing better services to citizens and for more properly distributing aid. This has given the group an established degree of authority in its operational areas. Yet other rebel groups have become reluctant to cede authority to Jabhat al Nusra and these groups now use humanitarian aid as a means of countering their influence.

Clashes for power and authority between Jabhat al Nusra and other rebel groups are becoming more widespread, and Jabhat al Nusra recently fought the Farouq Brigade for control of portions of Syria’s Raqqa province.

Jabhat al Nusra, being seen as an al Qaeda affiliate instead of an indigenous Syrian opposition group, will continue to erode  the organization’s authority and influence in that country. Jabhat al Nusra must retain popular support and ensure that other rebel factions are willing to work with them in order to maintain its preeminent position within the opposition.

Despite al Golani’s attempts to reaffirm Jabhat al Nusra’s Syrian identity, the merger announcement will likely continue to enhance existing fractures between the organization and other opposition groups. This does not bode well for Jabhat al Nusra’s continued popularity.

Other non-jihadist opposition groups may be able to assert a counter-authority if they are able to demonstrate the same level of operational effectiveness as Jabhat al Nusra. This is one of the reasons behind the United States’ announcement two days ago that the U.S. will double its aid to Syria. The Obama Administration hopes that, by giving other rebel groups aid, it will further weaken Jabhat al Nusra’s standing in the country as well as disrupt al Qaeda’s attempt at creating a refuge in Syria.

A Syrian activist group claims that 6,000 people were killed in Syria during the month of March. If true, this would make March the most deadly month yet in the two year-old civil war. 

This number comes from the British-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory gave figures of 1,486 rebels and army defectors and 1,464 Syrian army soldiers killed, along with 2,080 civilians, 298 of them children and 291 women. In addition, the group listed 387 unidentified civilians and 588 unidentified fighters.

Syria6000

An increase in regime artillery could be to blame for the increased death toll: for example, airstrikes from the Syrian air force have had an uptick. 

The United States has stepped up its training of the Syrian opposition. The U.S. has also increased providing non-lethal aide to the Syrian rebels including body armor, communications equipment, and food rations. 

The Jordanian army has grown its role in training Syrian rebels as well. Jordan would like to set up a humanitarian zone in the southern part of Syria where the two countries share a border. Jordan hopes to employ former Syrian police and army defectors as peacekeepers for the zone. 

Plans for a humanitarian zone come as rebels have gained significant amounts of land along Syria’s border crossing with Jordan. The Jordanian government is apprehensive over which factions of the rebellion will ultimately control Syria’s border, however.

An Islamist leaning faction wielding power along the border could complicate Jordan’s plans for the area. A humanitarian zone could be installed in a matter of weeks, and such a place could slow the thousands of people flowing across the border into Jordan. But, this would only occur if Syrians felt the area was safe to stay in. If Islamists ran the zone, there are fears that Syrian refugees will refuse stay there, and Jordan’s government is desperate to relieve the refugee flow into their country. 

The Islamist element of the Syrian opposition is complicating more than just plans for a humanitarian zone. There are concerns across the Middle East and here in America that Islamist portions of the opposition could get their hands on some of the heavy arms being given to the rebellion. This gives the Syrian conflict the capability of spilling over Syria’s borders and destabilizing the entire Middle East region along the Sunni/Shi’a divide. 

Many of the Islamists in Syria come from al Qaeda and affiliated groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. These groups promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. One of al Qaeda’s main grievances with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. 

The civil war began in mid-March 2011 with mass protests in Deraa as part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’.

Estimates for the number of killed vary depending on the source, and the United Nations has stopped providing regular numbers due to lack of reliable information.

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