Who knows the future of ISIS

From ISIS to the Caliphate

Patrick Cockburn presents the first comprehensive account of the events that led to the establishment of the “Caliphate” or “Islamic State” *. This currently extends over northeast Syria and northwest Iraq and dominates an area on the central Euphrates and Tigris, which covers around 300,000 square kilometers, but largely desert.

Three million on the run from IS

The two capitals are Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria and Mosul on the Tigris in Iraq. About ten million people lived in these areas before the war. How many of them fled the Islamic State is difficult to estimate; there are likely to be at least a million in Iraq and two million in Syria.

Patrick Cockburn, who writes for the Guardian and the Independent in Great Britain, was an eyewitness to the emergence of the Islamic State (IS). Over the past few years he has reported from Syria, both under the rule of the government and the resistance, and from Iraq. He knows the inside of the IS only from hearsay, for example from the reports of those who have fled, because only their own propagandists, not foreign journalists, are allowed to "inform" there. Foreign reporter seeks to arrest IS. They are either murdered or treated as hostages and released for millions.

At the beginning the American invasion of Iraq

The establishment of the Islamic State goes back to the intervention of the Americans in Iraq. It was this who made it possible for al-Qaeda to establish a presence in Iraq from their Pakistani and Afghan refuges. There was no such thing in Iraq before the Americans. Mosul and the other cities of the Arab and Sunni Iraqis became centers of resistance to the American invasion. The Kurdish areas in northeast Iraq were always excluded.

During the American occupation, former soldiers and officers of Saddam, who had been dismissed without notice by the Americans, mixed with Islamist fighters in the Sunni Arab territories. Ad-Duri, one of Saddam's vice-presidents, on whose head the Americans had put 12 million people without ever getting hold of him, founded the Nakshabandi army, which still operates from Mosul and in Diyala.

Both of Saddam's sons were tracked down by the Americans in Mosul and shot in fighting. The Nakshabandi are a strict Sufi order that has reconciled and come to an understanding with the Wahabism of Saudi Arabia. If nationalism fails, Islamic solidarity can take the place of national solidarity in the Islamic world. It too can act as a common denominator that unites communities beyond family and tribal solidarities. What ad-Duri apparently knew and practiced.

But alongside his formation and other associations of the dismissed Iraqi soldiers and officers, Islamist groups came together under the trademark of al-Qaeda and with the aim of resisting the American occupation. The Jordanian Islamist activist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi became the leader of one of the most radical groups in northern Iraq's Islamist resistance, which invoked al-Qaeda. He originally called his group “Tawhid wa Jihad”, then it became “al-Qaeda in Iraq”, later, after differences with the Qaeda leadership, “Islamic State in Iraq”, even later after the uprising in Syria broke out, “Islamic State in Syria and Iraq ”(ISIS) and at the end, after the capture of Mosul, the“ Islamic State ”or the“ Caliphate ”.

Demonization of the Shiites as a strategy

It was Zarqawi's idea and that of certain radical preachers from Jordan that he appealed to to declare Shiism to be a major enemy of Sunni Islamism. This was of particular importance in Iraq because the Shiites make up more than half of the Iraqi population. Many Shiites, led by the most influential of their religious scholars, were ready to work with the Americans and, in doing so, to steer towards the goal of a democratic state. They expected that real elections would give their community a majority and thus the leading position in an Iraqi democracy.

For his part, Zarqawi set out to deepen the theological differences and political contradictions between the two religious communities and to sow hatred among them by means of the assassinations. The fighting between the two Islamic denominations enabled him and his family to act as the leader and vanguard of the Sunnis against the Shiite enemies and thereby gain influence among the Iraqi Sunnis.

The incumbent Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, thought the agitation against the Iraqi Shiites that Zarqawi was running was exaggerated. According to his plans, the thrust of al-Qaeda should be directed against the American-led West, not against fellow Muslims of the Shiite denomination. Zawahiri warned Zarqawi and finally declared him no longer a member of Qaeda when he did not allow himself to be dissuaded by the Shiite baiting.

Wahabi Shia hatred

But Zarqawi could count on the sympathy of Saudi Arabia. The Wahabi doctrine, which determines the Saudi understanding of Islam, was hostile to the Shiites from the start. The founder of their doctrine, the scholar Ibn Abdul Wahhab (died 1793), considered them "polytheists" because of their veneration of the twelve imams, who are in fact sacred to the Shiites.

Early Wahabi fighters from Arabia, already then under the political leadership of the royal house of Saud, plundered the Shiite sanctuary of Karbala in Iraq in 1801, massacred many of the residents and destroyed the Shiite holy places - much to the horror of the Sunni state power of the time, of the Ottoman Sultan of Istanbul, who subsequently punished the Wahabi people.

Later, the oil wealth gave the Saudi power a tremendous boost and with it the influence of its variant of Islam, Wahabiism. Their theologically justified aversion to Shiism was given new nourishment when Khomeini made a breakthrough in Iran in 1979 and created an Islamic state with Shiite tones there.

The Saudi rule in Arabia saw in him a political threat. She therefore supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq in his eight-year war against Iran (1980-88). When Saddam fell in 2003 and a Shiite-led state emerged in Baghdad under the American occupation, the Saudis saw this as an increased threat. In Saddam's time, the Iraqi army had been their best protection against Iranian power.

The Saudis decided, as the supreme power of all Sunnis, to fight against the danger which they saw as a result of the Iranian-Shiite expansion. From the Saudi perspective, all Shiite Arabs under Iranian leadership are threatening to rise up against the Arab Sunnis. Saudi Arabia itself is home to a Shiite minority who live in the region of the most important Saudi oil production areas.

A first Shiite-Sunni underground war

Indeed, Zarqawi and his successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, who went by the war name Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, unleashed a bloody civil war between the Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis. It was ruthlessly fought in 2007 and 2008 in the mixed areas where Shiites and Sunnis had previously lived together peacefully. The most important of the mixed areas were Baghdad and the religiously mixed province in the northeast of the capital, Diyala.

Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike in 2006. But his anti-Shiite activity was continued by his successor. He was also killed by the Americans in an attack on his shelter in April 2010. The next successor was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, actually Ibrahim Badri from Samarra, the current Caliph Ibrahim. He holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Baghdad and, prior to his appointment as head of his combat community, served as the chairman of the Islamic oversight committee of the Islamist resistance group Zarqawi.

New strength from the uprising in Syria

The Americans and the Sunni tribal leaders allied with them, the so-called "Sahwa", pushed Zarqawi's combat group and his successors back, but were never able to completely eliminate them. Their fighters gained power through the events in neighboring Syria. They were able to spill over to the Syrian side of the border and for this purpose received funds from Saudi Arabia, probably initially state and private sums of money, later - after 2013 - probably only private ones.

Patrick Cockbrun points out that the Americans gave the Saudis a free hand after the terrorist attack in New York, although they themselves tried to prevent capital flows to al-Qaeda. The Saudis were not even included in the American war against al-Qaeda. As is well known, twenty pages of the official report on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were declared secret and never published. There is reason to believe that these pages or parts of them deal with the Saudi contribution to the New York assassinations.

In Syria, it was the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi formation that benefited most from Saudi and Gulf funding. The goal for Saudi Arabia was to bring down Bashar al-Asad in order to end the old alliance between Syria and Iran that has existed since the time of Khomeini. In Saudi eyes this is a Shiite alliance because they classify the Alawite community on which the Alawite Asad family is based as Shiite.

In reality, the alliance began as a political alliance against the common enemy of both states, Saddam Hussein. It later received a Shiite accent due to the fact that the axis between Iran and the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon runs through Syria. Hezbollah is indeed a Shiite party and fighting community. It is based on the Shiite Lebanese. Hezbollah was brought into being in 1982, the year of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, initially with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Nusra Front, founded by ISIS

The Syrian-Islamist combat group of the Nusra Front was founded in the second half of 2011 as the Syrian branch of the Iraqi combat group of al-Baghdadis. It started its activities with bombings in Damascus and other places. Bomb attacks are a highly developed specialty of the anti-American and then Sunni-Iraqi resistance, which was then directed against the Shiite government of Baghdad. Terrorism.

In January 2012, the Nusra Front came to the public for the first time through a video. It soon became one of the most active and successful fighting groups against the Asad regime. With the money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the fighters streamed to her. In February 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a statement calling on the Nusra Front to submit to his leadership. He referred to their original establishment by ISIS.

But the leader of the Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, refused to recognize Abu Bakr as chief. The dispute reached before Zawahiri, and after an unsuccessful attempt at arbitration, Zawahiri decided that the Nusra Front had to fight in Syria and that the formation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis, which was now called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), should be responsible for jihad in Iraq. Abu Bakr did not want to comply with this decision, and a rift broke out between him and the Qaeda leadership. Even then, al-Baghdadi argued that the colonial borders between Syria and Iraq should mean nothing to Muslims.

The secession of the Nusra Front

There were no doctrinal differences between the Islamists of the Nusra Front and ISIS. Both were striving for an Islamic state under Sharia, as they saw it. But the strategy of the two groups was different. The Nusra Front primarily sought to overthrow the Syrian Asad regime; after its overthrow, the Islamic State was to be founded in Syria. ISIS, on the other hand, set out to create a "state" as soon as possible that could serve as the core of the desired Islamic state.

When, during 2012, the Islamist combat groups, together and with mutual support, made significant progress in the Syrian eastern areas on the Euphrates and beyond the Euphrates, ISIS took advantage of this to secure territory for itself. Raqqa, the only provincial capital owned by the opposition, was taken jointly by ISIS, the Nusra Front, numerous other Islamist groups and parts of the non-Islamist Free Syrian Army (FSA).

But after the conquest, ISIS operated purposefully in such a way that it drove the other combat groups out of Raqqa and was able to establish a monopoly of power there for itself. The other groups set out to give priority to the fight against Damascus. ISIS gave priority to the establishment of its own territory in the far east of Syria, with the fact that ISIS came from Iraq and always kept an eye on its position in the eastern neighboring country of Syria.

Did Damascus spare ISIS?

How far the rumors of the epoch that the Syrian Air Force spared ISIS and its barracks and primarily bombed the other combat groups were true cannot be determined with certainty. But it is clear that ISIS served Damascus in two ways: on the one hand, to confirm the Syrian propaganda according to which Syria had become a victim of foreign terrorists, and on the other hand, by breaking the dispute between the two most efficient wings of the Islamist resistance, between Nusra- Front and ISIS, Damascus could only be of use.

This dispute turned into a war within a war from December 2013, when open fighting broke out between ISIS and the other Islamist Syrian combat groups. ISIS was forced or induced to vacate its positions west of Aleppo and move to the eastern parts of Syria, the Euphrates Valley and Jezira. This first appeared as a setback for ISIS, but later turned out to be a strategic retreat. It took place because al-Baghdadi always kept an eye on his position in Iraq alongside the Syrian fighting, and because his formation there remained active, initially primarily with bomb attacks.

Discrimination against the Sunnis in Iraq

The political situation in Iraq developed in favor of ISIS, so much so that it should bring the Islamic State a further increase in power after it was promoted by the Syrian struggles. This came about through the overly one-sided Shiite policies of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Maliki, himself a Shiite and once a major member of the Shiite underground opposition against Saddam, relied on the Iraqi Shiites and suspected the Iraqi Sunnis of terror and resistance against his government. This was partially true, but originally only applied to a small fraction of the Iraqi Sunnis.

The Shiite position of power in the army and security forces that al-Maliki promoted - and with it the opportunity to channel the state's oil rent into their own channels - as well as growing discrimination against Sunnis, even against Sunni dignitaries in government and among them Members of the government first drove the Sunnis to non-violent demonstrations in Ramadi and other centers of Iraqi Sunnism.

Explosive tensions in Iraq

These continuous demonstrations had no effect on the government. It began in December 2012 and ended on December 30, 2013 when the largest of the protest camps in Ramadi was forcibly disbanded by the security forces classified as Shiite. Already earlier, on April 23, 2012, there had been violence in the town of Hawija, where the security forces shot at least 42 demonstrators.

This had led to further fatal clashes in several other Sunni towns - always against the background of bloody bomb attacks in Baghdad and in the Iraqi south, which were primarily directed against Shiite targets. Several hundred fatalities were to be mourned by the end of April.

In July 2013, ISIS managed to storm the Iraqi prisons of Taji and Abu Ghraib and free over 500 prisoners. Many of them were old fighters of the Sunni resistance. Double suicide attacks, one shortly after the other, broke open the prison gates and allowed ISIS stormtroopers to enter.

After the dissolution of the protest camp in Ramadi at the end of 2013, the first armed men appeared on the streets. These were probably more tribal people than ISIS fighters. But al-Duri’s Nakshabandi army, mentioned above, also played a role. For ISIS, the forcible dissolution of the protest camps and the beginning of the armed resistance that followed them may have been an indication that the Sunni population of north-west Iraq was ripe for an uprising against Baghdad and the Shiite-dominated government there.

In January 2014, ISIS, supported by Sunni tribesmen, occupied the two most important cities, Fallouja and Ramadi, in the Iraqi desert province of Anbar, which borders Syria. Despite several offensives, the Iraqi army did not succeed in driving the insurgents out of the two cities. Despite this situation, parliamentary elections were held in April; the rebellious province of Anbar was largely excluded. Maliki won the elections, but only with a relative majority. Even after these elections, the ISIS fighters and their allies were able to stay in the two cities. The army shelled them from outside, but they could not conquer them.

Army collapses in Mosul

In June the following succeeded ISIS fighters - there should have been only about 7,000 - surprisingly to take Mosul and in the wake to occupy almost all of the Sunni cities of north-western Iraq. The city of Mosul had been a rallying point for all forces of the Sunni resistance against the Americans and later against the Maliki government installed by them since American times.

A long line of smaller Islamist combat groups, together with tribal people and former officers and soldiers of Saddam Hussein who had been concentrated in Mosul, helped ISIS take the Iraqi troops stationed in the city by surprise. The senior officers of the newly formed Iraqi armed forces were the first to take off their uniforms and fled to the nearby Kurdish areas. The governor of the city and its province followed them. The soldiers, without command, without orders, and with insufficient ammunition and food, did the same.

Corrupt Iraqi forces

In discussions with senior officers about how this debacle could happen, Cockburn received the answer: "Corruption, corruption, corruption!" He describes what this corruption meant for the army set up and equipped with billions of dollars by the Americans. The upper officer's posts were for sale. It took hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to get it. An officer who argued that he didn't have that much money was told to take it up in the bank. Once a senior officer, he would have no difficulty paying off the debt at a profit.

It did (and may still do) by declaring greater numbers of soldiers than were actually on duty. They bagged the expenses for the bogus soldiers. The same happened with the supplies for the troops - food, ammunition, clothing and so on - which, on American advice, were made through private delivery companies. Blackmail maneuvers at roadblocks and in prisons, primarily against Sunnis, were carried out at a lower level by soldiers and NCOs. The officers covering them collected their shares.

Another factor that contributed to the ineptitude of the armed forces was the removal of capable Sunni officers from the army command because Maliki distrusted them. He replaced them with his Shiite followers without asking too much about their military qualifications. The main thing was their loyalty to the Maliki regime.

Maliki himself had acted as his own defense minister and interior minister after the 2009 elections because, as he said, no other suitable people could be found. Close confidants of the Prime Minister later took up these ministerial posts. However, the intelligence services and special forces remained under Maliki's direct supervision. They regularly served to eliminate Sunni dignitaries who had initially supported Maliki as part of the governing coalition. The judiciary was also subservient to Maliki.

Conquest of Northwest Iraq by ISIS

After the attack on Mosul in June and July, ISIS was able to advance rapidly south, taking control of almost all cities up to shortly before Baghdad. Samarra remained under the government, and from Samarra the army tried to retake Tikrit. This seems to have failed after several offensives and some hasty declarations of victory. The armed forces were forced to withdraw from the vicinity of Tikrit. In Diyala, ISIS reached the provincial capital Baaquba, but was unable to stay there.

Faced with the threat to the capital, the Shiite community, encouraged by their scholars, mobilized Shiite militias. They armed themselves and some of them were sent to assist the official armed forces. Others took over the surveillance of the remaining mixed areas and Shiite holy sites.

The first Shiite-Sunni civil war in 2007 and 2008 had transformed Baghdad from an evenly mixed city into a predominantly Shiite city. The remaining Sunni neighborhoods now came under suspicion of salvaging secret cells from ISIS supporters. As a result, Sunnis were shot several times by Shiites. Sunnis captured in the prisons of Taji and Abu Ghraib are also believed to have been murdered when prison guards withdrew for fear of the approaching ISIS troops.

Kirkuk becomes Kurdish

The Iraqi Kurds took advantage of the fact that the Iraqi armed forces also evacuated Kirkuk in order to occupy the oil town and its oil fields, which had been controversial for years, and to incorporate them into Kurdish territory, as had been their dream for decades. Their leadership said this was necessary to avoid Kirkuk falling into the hands of ISIS.

Other areas in front of the official Kurdish provinces, in which Kurdish majorities live, were also incorporated into the autonomous regions for the same reason. The areas under Kurdish administration and the protection of the Kurdish troops grew by forty percent. The President of the Kurdish state asked the Kurdish Parliament in Erbil to prepare a plebiscite on the full independence of the now enlarged Kurdish state. It remains to be seen whether this will happen.

On Sunday it was reported that ISIS had forced the Kurdish Peshmerga to withdraw from two cities northwest of Mosul, on the road to the Syrian border, which had been occupied by the Kurds, Sanjar and Zumar. The special Yezidi religious community lives in Sanjar. Some of the Turkmen Shiites who lived in Tell Afar, also north of Mosul, had fled to Sanjar before IS. They had counted on the protection of the Kurdish troops there. Now they had to flee further from Sanjar together with the Yazidis. For IS, both the Shiites and the Yazidis are worthy of death. 200,000 people are now said to be on the run. This is the first defeat that IS inflicted on the Kurdish fighters.

State collapse as a future perspective?

It is also currently uncertain whether Iraq will split into its three components: in the Sunni northwest in connection with the Syrian northeast under ISIS, in a future Kurdistan, and in a southern part of Baghdad downstream. This depends first of all on whether or not the official armed forces of Baghdad and their Shiite auxiliary militias can recapture the northwest. The on-site observer, Patrick Cockburn, suspects that they will not be able to do so. Other assessments are that the Islamic State will prove to be incapable in the medium term of ruling the vast areas that it currently controls by force.

Systematically exercised brutal violence to deter all who do not blindly obey has become the most important instrument of IS rule. The propaganda of the combat group, which is regarded as highly professional, underlines the violence and does not shy away from showing the beheaded and shot dead in pictures of professional quality over the Internet. Sometimes there is even talk of crucifixions. Not only the disobedient and rebels are worthy of death according to IS; it is sufficient to be a Shiite or to belong to other religious communities that are considered unorthodox by the IS, such as the Yazidis mentioned above.

Expulsion of Christians from Mosul

The members of Christian churches who have lived in the Mosul area since the beginning of Christianity were asked to either convert to Islam or to submit to the Muslims of the Islamic State as a second-rate community on payment of special taxes, or finally to leave their homes behind Got to leave. If they do not take any of the three options, they are threatened with "the sword".

They seem to have mostly taken the third route and evacuated their homes. These fell to IS. The subordination of Christians and Jews as secondary communities to the Islamic is the rule in force in the Islamic Middle Ages in accordance with Sharia law. In practice, it was handled very differently depending on the ruler and the prevailing circumstances.

IS is now trying to translate the theory of Sharia law into a narrowly restricted practice that is applicable under all circumstances. This can only succeed in the present under the pressure of extreme brutality and the fear it spreads. In order to maintain this, blood probably has to flow constantly. The "Caliph" Abu Bakr will have no objection to this. It will even be necessary and welcome for him to consolidate his power.

But in the medium term an obstacle will arise. How many people will be able and willing to live in the Islamic State under these circumstances? The "medieval" methods of rule should lead to a "medieval" economy, and a central question will be how and how long such a "medieval" economy can finance and sustain an army with modern equipment. The power of IS currently depends solely on the power of the guns.

The mistakes of western politics

Cockburn's account of the genesis of IS also goes into detail about the chains of errors in the outside world that led to today's result. He sees the origin of the chain of disasters in the illegal American war against Iraq, fueled by government fraud against its own people, and in the inability of the Americans to initiate the democracy they have promised in Iraq. This led to the proliferation of Islamist ideology in Iraq.

Cockburn also names the mistakes made in Syria. They lay in the misjudgment of the position of the Asad government. In western countries, the prevailing assumption was that the Sunni majority of Syrians would bring down the regime in the course of the uprising against Asad and force Asad to resign. At the same time, the Syrian opposition, initially non-violent, expected the Western outside world to rush to its aid and bring about the overthrow of the ruler, as had happened in Libya.

However, Libya was also a miscalculation, as it later turned out. The overthrow of Ghaddafi in August 2011 did not lead to democracy as expected. The armed militias that fought against Ghaddafi and other armed groups that had availed themselves of Ghaddafi's weapons depots took real power. They refuse to obey the elected governments and they are increasingly using their armed force to fight one another, thereby dragging the country into civil war against the will of the vast majority of its people.

No other Libya in Syria

This debacle in Libya, in turn, contributed to preventing the NATO powers from intervening in Syria, as the “moderate” forces of the Syrian resistance had hoped and expected, according to the FSA and the Syrian government-in-exile in Istanbul. Even the poison gas attacks in the Damascus area, which the USA had publicly called the “Red Line”, did not lead to Western intervention. A Russian move prevented this, together with the war weariness of the allies.

The Islamist forces in Syria, especially the most radical among them, organized themselves without counting on the help of the Western world. They were able to do this because of the aid from Saudi Arabia and that from the Gulf States. This in turn flowed abundantly due to the Saudi feud against Iran. This feud, in turn, led Iran to actively support Damascus.

And there was a third tier of proxy wars in Syria. It took place on the axis of the revived Cold War between the United States and Russia. As an ally of Russia, Damascus benefited from this.

Prospect of chaotic future

According to Cockburn's assessment, Damascus is now making slow progress against the deeply divided insurrection. The slowness is due to the fact that Damascus only has a few operational combat troops and has to protect them. Therefore, the regime pursues a slow tactic of siege the urban strongholds of the resistance from a distance with artillery and bombing, sometimes lasting months, sometimes years.

This tactic naturally leads to the destruction of the besieged cities and towns, one after the other, and to the death or flight of their civilian populations. In recent times, negotiations between besiegers and besieged have in some cases resulted in surrender-like compromises. About free withdrawal of the last fighters of the resistance with their individual but without the heavy weapons. This saved lives on both sides. Cockburn attributes this to the war weariness of both opponents.

He expects that the Damascus government will hardly be able to recapture those parts of the country's far east that are now mainly in the hands of IS. But he warns that unpredictable developments could also occur.

Maliki as a dubious key figure

Despite Maliki's election victory last April, no government has yet come into being in Iraq. Maliki insists that he wants to form the new government. But many critics, including among the Iraqi Shiites, accuse him of being responsible for ISIS 'war successes. Without his discriminatory policy towards the Sunnis they would not have come about. The US has declared that it can only provide decisive aid to Iraq if the country is given a government that also includes the Iraqi Sunnis.

The Sunni allies of IS are also of the opinion that Maliki's policies have driven them to the side of IS. The more sharply IS accentuates its policy for the realization of a bloodthirsty Sharia state, the less comfortable these allies feel. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already demanded the oath of allegiance and unconditional obedience and the surrender of their weapons from them in the name of the caliphate.

If Maliki can form the next government in Baghdad, this will make a defection of the allies from IS unlikely or even impossible. If Maliki were to leave, however, a reconciliation of the non-Islamist Sunnis with the government of Baghdad would be more conceivable. Such a reconciliation would pull the rug out from under the caliphate.

* Partick Cockburn: The Jihadis Return. ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, OR Books, New York and London 2014