In 2014, the Islamic State (IS) established its caliphate, which mostly stretched over large parts of northern Iraq and Syria. Brutal conduct and aggression, with the use of terror and suicide bombers, as well as despotic internal rule, have put in place a broad coalition to fight this group. The military struggle is now intense in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Many will probably be killed and cities destroyed in the weeks and months to come.
- How could IS grow so big?
- What is life like in the Islamic State?
- Who are the parties in the alliance against IS, and with what motives and dilemmas?
- What is the basis of international law for being able to fight IS?
2: When IS emerged
According to SOURCEMAKEUP, IS grew out of the chaos in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 and with inspiration and help from Al Qaeda . When the uprising in Syria in 2011 developed into a civil war, IS also established a “department” – Jab hat Al Nusra – there. In 2013, the leadership of IS believed that they were so well established in Syria that it was not necessary to have a separate department there. Therefore, Jabhat Al Nusra (Nusra Front ) should be shut down and conform to IS.
This led to protests – and divisions, even fighting, between IS and the Nusra Front. But it was IS that had the greatest success both militarily and propaganda-wise during 2014. IS is thus known for being good at using modern media – social media, YouTube…
IS’s success during this period is not necessarily due to the fact that IS was very strong and skilled, but just as much to the fact that their opponents were weak . This became particularly clear when IS moved forward and captured the city of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The Iraqi army, which was superior in number of soldiers, collapsed and fled due to poor leadership and poor fighting morale.
At the same time, IS managed to build alliances with a number of tribal leaders in both Syria and Iraq. Many of these were – like most Sunnis – bitter about how they were treated by the new Shiite regime in Iraq. The tribal leaders became valuable allies of IS. In this way, IS also secured revenues from oil production and smuggling , because IS was dependent on local tribal leaders to manage the oil fields they conquered in eastern Syria.
In addition, IS could supply itself with the banks in the cities they conquered and they collect taxes and duties on the production and sale of goods. The military success, which is also due to the fact that several former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army and security apparatus have joined IS, led to the capture of large quantities of weapons.
The military success, the establishment of the caliphate and – strangely enough – the great brutality of IS, appealed to many angry and frustrated Muslims. This mind springs from many factors, such as lack of work and education, authoritarian regimes and lack of opportunity to be heard, corruption and in Europe also discrimination. Therefore, the number of foreign fighters – non-Syrians and non-Iraqis, who wanted to fight for IS, such as technicians, doctors and people with military expertise, grew .
Estimates of foreign fighters have varied over time, but the highest estimates mention up to 30,000. Of these, between 4,000 and 5,000 are estimated to come from Europe. Some of these have contributed important expertise to IS, while others have been pure cannon fodder – ie they have been sent to the front with minimal training and poor equipment.
The Police Security Service (PST) assumes that approx. 90 young Norwegian Muslims have traveled to Syria; most have ended up with IS. Of these, almost 20 have been killed, about 30 have returned to Norway, while about 40 are still in Syria or Iraq. About 10 percent of those who have traveled from Norway are women.
3: Life under IS rule
Life in the IS caliphate is not happy. IS has attracted many Muslims from other countries by promising work, wages and welfare schemes. They should also be allowed to participate in building the ideal Islamic society or experience martyrdom. This could probably be tempting when IS was successful.
But an extremely strict and fundamentalist variant of Islam is practiced – Salafism in combination with jihad, so-called Salafi jihadism. IS believes that anyone who does not understand Islam just like them is an infidel and can be killed. They also interpret Islamic law strictly and literally and govern the caliphate according to sharia law. Therefore, corporal punishment and executions – public and for fear and warning – are common.
Women can not move outdoors without full coverage. The women who have come to support IS quickly find out that they either have to get married or live in miserable conditions with other women. The brutality of IS is both part of their understanding of Islam and propaganda warfare. Undoubtedly, the brutality also worked to intimidate opponents, as happened when the Iraqi army collapsed at Mosul in 2014. But at the same time, the brutality could lure supporters to the caliphate.
The brutality, lack of freedom and the decline of IS have gradually made many disillusioned . After attracting many foreign fighters in 2014 and 2015, perhaps as many as 2,000 per. month, the number of new foreign fighters dropped drastically from January 2016. This decline may also be due to the fact that the authorities in Muslim countries – and Europe – have become better at detecting and stopping some of those who want to travel.
To begin with, IS paid its fighters reasonably well compared to other militia groups in Syria, thanks to the large revenues they managed to secure. This enticed a number of Syrians and Iraqis – and foreign fighters – to jump off from other militias and over to IS. But as the international coalition against IS has succeeded in tightening its economic grip, IS has lost revenue . Thus, they have had to lower salaries and other benefits to their warriors and bureaucrats.
For IS has an extensive bureaucracy. After all, they want to build a state . Which will provide roads, hospitals and schools. And the police and the judiciary. They have also managed some of this, but the continuous warfare has eroded the forces – economically, militarily and morally. So it is no wonder that IS at the end of 2016 is on the defensive.
4: Two capitals
In Syria, IS secured control of the city of Raqqa in January 2014, a city with approx. 250,000 inhabitants. In June 2014, they captured the million- strong city of Mosul in Iraq. It was in Mosul IS ‘leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph . But even though Mosul is a larger and more important city, Raqqa has become the administrative center of the caliphate . Both cities are now under massive attack .
If IS’s opponents succeed in driving the group out of Mosul, there will be a major setback that will also reduce IS’s presence and further influence in Iraq very sharply. It is still the battle for Raqqa that will be the most important.
The fighting for Mosul is already fierce. Perhaps many hundreds of thousands of inhabitants will flee the fighting. The danger of significant civilian casualties is very great. Unfortunately, the world community does not seem to be preparing for the humanitarian consequences of this offensive. But the recapture will also raise questions about who will run the city – the Shiite government in Baghdad or local Sunni Muslims? And what role will the Kurds and Turks demand to play in this important city?
5: Who is in the coalition against IS?
Those who fight against IS form a very complex coalition . They also have conflicting interests. Therefore, it is not certain that all parties in this alliance agree on how best to fight IS. So who is in this coalition ?:
IN IRAQ : The government of Iraq, which is dominated by Shia Muslims and quite closely allied with Iran. The government will re-establish national control over all of Iraq and defeat a group that considers Shiites to be infidels and has carried out inhuman attacks on the country’s civilian population.
Allied with the government are a number of Iraqi Shiite militias , who see IS as much as a religious as well as a political opponent. These groups themselves have many abuses of conscience against Sunni Muslims in Iraq.
The Kurdish forces , the Peshmerga, are also linked to the Iraqi government . They are organized by both the major political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish self-governing authority. Norwegian soldiers have been involved in training these secular Kurdish forces. The Kurds have their own agenda and will secure their autonomous territory against being taken over by the Iraqi government forces when IS is driven back.
IN SYRIA : Most armed groups in Syria are also opposed to IS. This is in itself a broad but very uncertain alliance . Several of these groups are themselves Islamists and occasionally in conflict with nationalist and secular Syrian groups. And they are also busy fighting the regime in Damascus – almost in a kind of two-front war .
It is the Kurdish groups in Syria that have been at the forefront and been most effective in the fight against IS. The largest group – the PYD – and its two militias (YPG and YPJ) have inflicted significant defeats on IS, in alliance with the international coalition.
The Syrian regime is also opposed to IS, but also seems to have had an implicit tactical cooperation with IS against other opposition militia groups.
6: The regional international actors
Iran – the central Shiite country – is a major enemy of IS because it is the Assad regime’s most important ally . In addition, Iran has great influence in Iraq and trains – and leads – several of the Shiite militias.
Turkey has long called for a regime change in Damascus and supported the armed opposition groups. At the same time, Turkey wants to prevent the Kurdish groups in Syria from gaining more influence. PYD is very close to the Turkish-Kurdish group PKK. The PKK is a terrorist group in Turkey’s eyes and is also on the US and EU terror lists. The Kurdish areas in Syria are located up to the border with Turkey. The area is divided and the Syrian Kurds want to conquer the intermediate area to create a cohesive Kurdish area.
Turkey does not want to fear that this may inspire Turkish Kurds to intensify their struggle for independence or autonomy. The areas can also become base areas for the PKK. Therefore, Turkey has also given a kind of indirect support to IS because IS is in battle with the Kurds. Weakened Kurds are seen as a boon by Turkish authorities. The United States sympathizes with Turkey in this view, but still supports the YPG militia because they have been most effective in the fight against IS.
Also Saudi Arabia has wanted a regime change in Damascus, not least because this would weaken Iranian influence in the region. They have therefore supported the opposition, including a number of Islamist militias. But Saudi Arabia denies supporting IS. That is probably true, but rich private Saudis have apparently contributed financial support. In addition, some opposition groups – almost like pure war profiteers – have sold on to IS weapons they have received or conquered.
Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shia Muslim group that is allied with both Iran (equipped and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards) and Syria. Eventually, Hezbollah has supported the regime in Damascus with significant, well-trained forces, sometimes led by Iranian officers. They have helped repel the Syrian opposition in several places. This group is also fighting against IS.
In addition, other countries in the region have been involved in various ways, partly by funding different opposition groups and partly by standing up for the international coalition.
7: The Great Powers
The United States supports the government in Baghdad and trains the Iraqi army. The United States has also long called for regime change in Damascus and has provided political support to the opposition, especially the nationalist, secular and / or democratic ones. Attempts to train selected militia groups have proved less successful. Far more important is the bombing campaign against IS that began in the autumn of 2014 and which has helped drive IS back.
RUSSIA is an old ally of Syria, but when the unrest began in 2011, Russia was not able to give full support to the regime. This has changed and today Russia is a direct player that sends material to Syria and supports the regime with fighter jets and direct air strikes. Nevertheless, the main attacks are not aimed so far at IS, but at the other parts of the opposition.
The EU is trying to facilitate negotiations between the Syrian regime and large sections of the opposition, while several of its member states are directly involved in fighting – airstrikes – against IS and training of the Iraqi army and Kurdish and Syrian opposition forces. Norway is also involved, as we are involved in training Peshmerga forces in Kurdistan, Iraqi government soldiers and Syrian opposition forces (in Jordan).
8: A complicated game and many trade-offs
The conflict in Syria and Iraq has been compounded and thus involves very many actors – often with very different values, interests and objectives . That is why the alliance against IS is so fragile.
For TURKEY has shown itself willing to live with IS when appropriate, precisely because the Kurdish PYD / PKK is a common enemy. At the same time, Turkey can not watch the Iraqi government forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga drive IS away without having a hand in the game. It can reduce their influence and good relations with Iraqi Kurds (who are organized in a different way than the Syrians and do not share the PYD’s radical political ideology). Turkey also does not want Iran to have too much influence in northern Iraq and Syria, or in the region as a whole for that matter. While IRAN wants to fight both IS and the rest of the opposition in Syria to support its important ally, the Shiite regime of Bashar Al Assad.
The United States, for its part, also does not want greater Iranian influence in the region. The United States has a common interest with Saudi Arabia . But the United States is also committed to its ties with the government in Baghdad – which is leaning towards Iran. The United States must therefore support Iraq in a way that at least limits Iran’s influence. At the same time, the United States has put considerable pressure on Turkey to close its borders with Syria in order to prevent the flow of materiel and foreign fighters to IS. But Turkey has to some extent followed its own interests and looked through the fingers of IS activities in the border areas, because US pressure is limited. Turkey has an important trump card – military bases the United States needs in the fight against IS. So Turkey can be said to both support (indirectly and cautiously) and fight IS. The latter has become a more important priority after IS carried out suicide terrorism in Turkey as well.
SAUDI ARABIA does not seem to take the same considerations into account, but also does not want IS to succeed . For IS has declared Saudi Arabia an ideological enemy. And IS ‘ideological-theological standpoint has a certain appeal among young opposition Saudis. Therefore, IS is also a kind of “internal enemy” in the eyes of the Saudi regime.
This complicated situation is not made easier by the fact that the international law basis for the fight against IS is problematic . Not least, it is problematic for an international coalition to attack an enemy in the territory of another state – Syria – without either Syria’s approval or mandate from the UN Security Council. The coalition is invited by the government in Baghdad and can therefore legally fight IS in Iraq, but not in Syria. Russia, for its part, has been invited by the regime in Damascus and is therefore legal in Syria.
9: What will happen?
In all likelihood, IS will be beaten militarily and driven out of towns and villages in both Iraq and Syria. But that does not mean that IS will disappear. The group can change into a “classic” guerrilla group, as they have behaved before. In addition, they are likely to continue their brutality and use of terror , including suicide bombers against civilians in both Syria and Iraq. There is also a possibility that IS will step up its terror campaign against countries that are part of the international coalition. It is thus possible that the situation in the Middle East will again be reflected in more terror in Europe as well.