By now, you know that the abbreviation stands for Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (Sham is the Arabic name for Damascus and it refers to the larger region dominated by Damascus, which is historically known as the Levant, hence the alternate abbreviation ISIL used by some publications).
They became well known for their brutal mass executions, which they meticulously film and upload to various sites, for their harsh and strict Sharia rule, which they impose immediately on populations they control, for their ruthless persecution of their opponents, for their popularity among the Western Jihadis, the disaffected "useful idiots" in search for the meaning of life, and for their incredible wealth, estimated to be in the range of several billion dollars.
Is ISIS An Al Qaeda Franchise?
ISIS is supposed to be an Al Qaeda franchise. But besides acting like the true heirs of the apocryphal Hashishin and thereby cementing the image of Muslims as "the barbaric and bloodthirsty other" they are very different from Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliated groups.
You may object to the term franchise but it is accurate, as AQ is a true franchise operation: the corporate headquarters provide the brand, the ideology and the advertising tools for global recruitment. And they let the franchisee run the local store as they see fit. AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq), AQIM (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, AQAP (Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula), AQIM (Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia) and Jabhat al Nusra (al Nusra Front) in Syria are all franchise operations (the same can be said of al Shabab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria or Lashkar e Taiba in Pakistan and a bunch of others but they are peripheral to our discussion).
The global aim of AQ operations is to overthrow their local governments, which they see as aligned with Western -read infidel- interests and supplant them with a true Jihadist administration. By that they mean a system as close as possible to what they believe was the rule in 8th century Mecca and Medina (hence the denomination Salafi).
As they pursue this goal zealously, they refuse to form alliances with infidels (even though Bin Ladin started out as a CIA collaborator) but they work with other Jihadi groups when it is advantageous for them.
ISIS hardly fits the regular AQ mold. And therein lies my fascination. I have a feeling their plan goes beyond butchering and terrorizing people or creating a genuine caliphate. They seem too cynical for their actions and stated aims to be taken at face value.
What Is Different About ISIS?
First off, it is the only AQ affiliate to leave the organization. The supreme leader of ISIS, (a shadowy Iraqi thug by the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) is said to be the founder of AQ in Mesopotamia, then of AQ in Iraq.
But a couple of years ago, he decided to call upon the AQ affiliate in Syria, the Jabhat al Nusra (al Nusra Front) for them to accept his leadership and join his new outfit called ISIS. The guy who runs Jabhat al Nusrah (A Syrian thug by the name of Mohammed al Joulani) asked Ayman Zawahiri, Bin Laden's number 2 and the current CEO of AQ, whether it is a good idea.
Zawahiri said no. Al-Baghdadi's response was to declare his independence.
Thirdly, to my knowledge, ISIS has never engaged Syrian government troops. You read this right. In fact, largely because of that, many Syrians believe that the organization was created and is being sponsored by the current Syrian government. They simply do not seem interested in defeating al Assad. Their goal appears to be to create a new government in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra stresses the fight against Assad, while ISIS tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory. Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. And while Nusra, despite its large contingent of foreign fighters, is seen as a home-grown problem, Syrians at the border frequently described Da’ash as foreign “occupiers” in their country.Fourth, the military successes of ISIS in Iraq hide many surprising elements.
In 2013, ISIS fighters were numbered around 7,000. Since then, their ranks swelled with new recruits and defections from other Jihadi groups. But ISIS is still not a huge army. Yet a few weeks ago, they faced a much larger and reasonably well equipped force and destroyed them in record time.
How could that be?
We later found out that ISIS forces were joined by former Baathist soldiers and the joint group was led by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, the former Vice President and and Deputy Chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council.
Think about that for a second.Referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s fighters, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the Naqshbandia group, said, “They couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups.”In some areas under militant control, including areas around Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, he said, “there are definitely pockets where the Naqshbandias are wearing the pants.”
The most Jihadi group of all Jihadi groups fights together with Baathist soldiers and accepts the command of one of Saddam's generals. Incidentally, al Douri is the highest ranking Saddam ally to evade capture and he is the leader of the Army of the Men of the Naqshibandi Order (JRTN). No one could explain how he avoided capture for over ten years in an occupied country.
Moreover, it turns out that the ISIS supreme military tactician is a Chechen by the name of Tarkhan Batirashvili:
Noticed how his name sounds Georgian?
The next bizarre part of the ISIS puzzle involves the Jihadist credited with being the ‘military mastermind’ of the recent ISIS victories, Tarkhan Batirashvili. If his name doesn’t sound very Arabic, it’s because it’s not. Tarkhan Batrashvili is a Russian - actually an ethnic Chechen from near the Chechen border to Georgia. But to give himself a more Arabic flair, he also goes by the name Emir (what else?) Umar al Shishani. (...)According to a November, 2013 report in The Wall Street Journal, Emir Umar or Batrashvili as you prefer, has made the wars in Syria and Iraq “into a geopolitical struggle between the US and Russia.”
Incidentally, his father and grand father are all church-going Christians. Apparently, from Georgia they were sent to Syria and Iraq through Turkey with the active collaboration of Georgian, Turkish and American intelligence services.Jeffrey Silverman, Georgia Bureau Chief for the US-based Veterans Today (VT) website, told me that Batrashvili “is a product of a joint program of the US through a front NGO called Jvari, which was set up by US Intelligence and the Georgian National Security Council, dating back to the early days of the Pankisi Gorge.” (...)Silverman maintains that Jvari in Rustavi, near the capital, Tbilisi, gathered together Afghan Mujahideen war veterans, Chechens, Georgians and sundry Arab Jihadists. They were sent to the infamous Pankisi Gorge region, a kind-of no-man’s lawless area, for later deployment, including Iraq and Syria.
Which brings me to the fifth contradictory fact about ISIS: the connection to Turkey. There were some reports that Turkey allowed training camps for ISIS to be set up in Turkey but I think the bulk of them were in Jordan. However, it is clear that Turkey opened its borders to ISIS fighters and allowed free circulation of Jihadis, arms and supplies. For its part, ISIS tried to occupy strategically located towns to control border access. They also harassed PYD, the Syrian arm of the PKK, to please Turkey and massacred civilians in Rojava.
The cooperation between Jihadis and Turkey was so cozy that, when Seymour Hersh claimed that Turkey helped Jabhat al Nusra with that infamous Sarin attack, it sounded quite credible. (Apparently, there were questions but the allegations stuck.)
Turkey's reasons to help out ISIS may be stupid enough. What is curious is the fact that, as Daniel Pipes (a neocon with whom I disagree on probably everything), noted, ISIS has been working hand in hand with a government it decried as infidel.
The final contradictory fact about ISIS is its ethnic cleansing through terrorism. They are not interested in winning hearts and minds. They do not want people to convert. They want them gone. There have been reports that they force Alewites, Shiites, Christians, Turkmen and any other opponents to flee the regions they control by executing a few representatives in a public and brutal fashion.
Interesting strategy for a group aiming to build a caliphate.
What is ISIS Doing?
Let's add up the facts.
No attacks on Syrian government troops. Check.
Attacking other Jihadis. Check.
Joining forces with Baathists, the secular and ruthless suppressor of Islamists and with Naqshibandis, a Sunni sect which did not exist in early Islam. Check.
Cooperating and collaborating with a government that admonished Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to accept secularism. Check.
Focus on solidifying power on occupied territories through ethnic cleansing. Check.
What ISIS is doing is to create a new reality on the ground, They are partitioning Iraq and Syria. Or to put it in historical terms, they are revisiting the Sykes Picot agreement. They are creating three ethnically defined regions, one with Kurds, a second with Sunnis and a third with Shiites (or Alewites in Syria).
What is strange is that this "nation building exercise" is undertaken by "foreigners." As noted above, Da'ash or ISIS is widely considered a foreign occupying force. Its soldiers are from different Arab countries, France, Britain, the US, Turkey, Chechnya, the Balkans, North Africa and various African countries. They have no roots in Iraq or Syria and they have no affinity with local allegiances. Consequently, they have zero chance to build and maintain a Sunni state in these regions.
You might think that they are ruthless and well armed, therefore they may be able to hold on to power but history already gave an answer to that proposition. If you remember, when General Petraeus was the supreme commander of coalition forces, Al Qaeda became a serious force in the Sunni areas of Iraq by exploiting sectarian rivalries and manipulating Sunni bitterness.
Petraeus' strategy was to give money and arms to local tribes for them to fight and get rid of Al Qaeda. It worked so well that AQI almost disappeared. The same strategy would work perfectly well with ISIS.
Most rebels and Syrians are prepared for a second war against ISIS, though they disagree whether to do so now or—assuming that happens—“when Assad goes.”The fact that former Baathists and Naqshibandis were credited with ISIS' military victories in Iraq is a telltale sign of what the future reserves for ISIS.
A better question is this: Who benefited from the new reality on the ground?
Oil and Kurds
Before ISIS attempted to establish its glorious and largely bogus caliphate, Iraqi Kurds were in a bind. They were sitting on large deposits of oil, which they could not sell freely because of Baghdad's objections. Since bypassing Baghdad meant supporting the breakup of Iraq, the US had to officially side with the central government in that regard.
Barzani's solution was to involve Exxon Mobile and Chevron in the extraction of oil on the one hand and to have Turkey finance and build a pipeline with a 400,000 barrel/day capacity on the other.
The problem was that after the Turkish border the KRG pipeline has to be connected to the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline as there is no other way to carry the crude to the port of Ceyhan. However, legally, all oil that arrives to Ceyhan through that pipeline belongs to Iraqi government.
You can see the problem. ISIS provided a multifaceted solution. Actually, the completion of that pipeline and the shipment of the first 1 million barrel and the Northern Iraqi offensive of ISIS are separated by a couple of weeks.
ISIS and its brutal tactics meant that the Kurds suddenly appeared as the only credible force that can stand up to these barbaric Hashishins. And they did. Moreover, when ISIS occupied Mosul, KRG cleverly responded by moving to Kirkuk. Previously, Kirkuk was in a legal limbo and its fate was going to be decided by a referendum. That referendum never took place. Now, with ISIS looming on the horizon, KRG simply and quietly made this oil-rich city part of its regional government.
And here is the clincher: as soon as the Kurds moved in to Kirkuk, they began building a link from their KRG pipeline to Kirkuk - Ceyhan pipeline.
And then they went to Washington to plead their case:
My long term readers know that my working hypothesis is based on the desirability and the stabilizing effect of Kurdish and Palestinian statehood for the US. However, although I always maintained that both Syria and Iraq would cease to exist as they are now, I never knew how this was going to happen.“We need support and help,” Fuad Hussein, Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, said this week at an event in Washington hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We’re not receiving money from Baghdad anymore, so we need financial resources.”Mr. Hussein said he thought the Obama administration was reconsidering its policy toward Kurdistan’s increasing demands for more autonomy, if not outright sovereignty. “We feel they are ready to listen,” he said.So far, though, the administration has been steadfast about preventing Iraq from breaking up, though analysts say it might be open to increased autonomy.With Kurdish oil flowing through the new pipeline to Turkey, though, some analysts fear the debate over independence is in danger of being decided by facts on the ground. (my emphasis)
ISIS has just provided the answer.
I am not sure how they managed to "change the reality on the ground" so perfectly, but it almost makes me want to believe in outlandish theories.