Media coverage of events in Iraq is by and large pretty poor, reporting day to day events without giving much needed context. Strategy Page performs a public service by giving briefings that provide a fantastic overview of just what is going on. In their latest briefing they explain who the Sunni terrorists are who have grabbed so much of Iraq:
ISIL began as ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) after 2004 and was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq back then. By 2010 ISI was almost destroyed due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. But after U.S. forces left in 2011 the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent ones like ISI.
After 2011, as the Iraqi Shia were turning on the Sunni Arab minority, there was a rebellion against a minority Shia government in Syria, led by the Sunni Arab majority there. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq were linked by culture and sometimes family links with the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria. The rebellion in Syria got ISI thinking about forming a new Islamic Sunni state out of eastern Syria, western Iraq, Baghdad (historically the seat of Sunni power in the area, despite it now being half Shia) and Mosul. Actually this also includes Lebanon and all of Iraq, but this was kept quiet initially. This decision had ISI spending a lot more time and effort recruiting in western Iraq after 2011. ISIL was created in 2013 when ISI sought to become the dominant rebel group in Syria by persuading men, especially foreigners, from other Islamic terrorist groups fighting in Syria to join a new, united Islamic terrorist group called ISIL. This caused problems because of the harsh way ISIL treated civilians and anyone who opposed them. ISIL relished the publicity their atrocities received. But al Qaeda knew from bitter experience (in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turned the Islamic world against you. The bad relations between ISIL and all the other Islamic radicals in Syria reached a low point in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January 2013) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with ISIL unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. That was because the merger was announced by ISI/ISIL without the prior agreement of JN leadership. Many JN members then left their JN faction to join ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI/ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. By January 2014 this had turned into all-out war between ISIL and the other rebel groups in Syria.
That was not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis finance al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that are now at war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL is crippling rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home. This includes local members of ISIL. All this sounds somewhat bizarre, with Saudi Arabia funding missionaries that create Islamic terrorists who become uncontrollable and seem to overthrow the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Absurd it may be, but it is a familiar pattern in this part of the world where religion and politics have long been intertwined in absurd and tragic ways.
The Saudis have been dealing with Islamic terrorism within their borders since the kingdom was formed in the 1920s and were able to quickly defeat the 2003 al Qaeda offensive. At first al Qaeda terrorists appeared capable of doing some serious damage in Saudi Arabia. In 2003-4, they made four major attacks. These killed 68 people, including twelve Americans. But most of the dead were Saudis, and this turned the population against the terrorists. All the planned terror attacks since then have been aborted by security forces, usually via tips from Saudi civilians. Most Islamic terrorists have now fled the kingdom. Despite this a large minority of Saudis still support al Qaeda, but it’s the majority who do not and that makes it nearly impossible for the terrorists to operate in their “homeland.” Killing civilians will do that, and al Qaeda has not been able to figure out how to fight without shedding the blood of innocents. So the innocents are taking their revenge. Meanwhile there is still support for groups like ISIL inside Saudi Arabia and ISIL has been recruiting for Saudi men to go fight in Syria and Iraq.
Taking Mosul was crucial to the ISIL plan for regional and world conquest. Mosul was part of Turkey until 1918, when the victorious Allies took Mosul province, and its oil, away from Turkey (to prevent the Turks from financing an effort to rebuild their empire) and gave it to the newly created Iraq. In the 1980s Saddam Hussein, again feuding with the Kurdish majority in northern Iraq, killed or drove Kurds out of Mosul and invited poor Sunnis from the south to move in and take over. After 2003 the Kurds came back seeking to regain their stolen property and control of Mosul. The Sunni Arabs there did not want to give up their new homes as they would be destitute if they did so. So the fighting was vicious and the Mosul Sunnis were glad to get help from ISIL and other Sunni terror groups. But now most Mosul residents are feeling the impact of the ISIL take over as new lifestyle rules have been issued forbidding many things Westernized Iraqis take for granted.
The current ISIL offensive in Iraq is, so to speak, a mile wide but an inch deep. It worked more because of the demoralizing impact of corruption in the Iraqi government (especially the armed forces). The troops and police, most of them Shia, felt abandoned and mistreated (often not paid or provided with essential supplies because of corruption) by their own government. ISIL concentrated their terror attacks on the security forces, to the point where the losses from these attacks plus the bad leadership and poor treatment the soldiers and police suffered caused many of them to flee a large scale series of ISIL attacks. Because of this the main task of the returning American troops is to quickly measure the extent of damage done to the armed forces by three years or corruption and mismanagement. When U.S. forces were in Iraq there were American advisors at all levels of the armed forces. In addition to advice, these American officers and NCOs also reported incidents of corruption and the U.S. was able to take these complaints to senior members of the government and keep the stealing, and the negative impact on military performance in check. Once the Americans were gone the stealing was out-of-control and the security forces began to decline. It’s uncertain how long it will take to get things put back together. There are still some capable units, but not enough to take care of all that needs to be done.
The Sunni Arabs can’t defeat the Shia majority as long as the Shia are armed and have outside support (mainly from Iran and the United States and, quietly, Saudi Arabia). The U.S. also encourages the Sunni Arab Gulf States (especially Saudi Arabia) to oppose Iraqi Sunni Arab efforts to regain control of the country (as some form of dictatorship because the Sunni don’t have the votes to get elected.) The U.S. also restrains the Iraqi Shia from turning on the entire Sunni population, as happened from 2006-8 and drove a third of the Iraqi Sunni out of the country and nearly as many from their homes to get away from the Shia death squads. Despite what the United States and the West wants, events in Arabia follow a different rhythm. Right now the local support for ISIL is just not there except among the Sunni minority.
Go here to read the rest. ISIL clearly lacks the conventional military strength to take Baghdad, a huge metro area of some seven million people. They are currently attacking economic targets with some vague hope of encircling Baghdad and starving the population into submission. Considering Shia numbers, their various militias and the support of Iran, such a strategy does not have a prayer of success. ISIL has grabbed a lot of headlines, but ultimately their prospects for long term success in Iraq are very bleak. What may happen ultimately is that responsible Sunni leaders, already appalled at ISIL’s habit of brutally murdering Sunni as well as Shia civilians, may ultimately start their own movement against ISIL, like the anti-terrorist Sons of Iraq movement successfully fostered among the Sunni by the US during the Surge. This might lead to a loose confederation in Iraq, with Shia ruling the south and Baghdad, the Sunni in the center, and the Kurds in the north. That of course would require far more statesmanship than has thus far been seen among the Shia dominated civilian leadership of Iraq. Whatever the ultimate future of Iraq however, ISIL long term has no part in it.