Analysis

What We Talk About When We Talk About Iraq and Syria

(Photo licensed under Wikimedia Commons )

The first weeks of June saw a series of dramatic events unfold in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—the organization that evolved out of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)— fought alongside other militant Sunni groups to rout the Iraqi Army in Mosul and quickly continued on to Tikrit and the oil fields of Baji. At the same time, Iraqi Kurdish troops were able to seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk without a fight. Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, ISIL continues to hold ground in several provinces (namely Raqqa, but with increasing gains in Hasakeh and Deir Ezzor) as it confronts both the Assad regime and other anti-Assad groups contending for power.

While Syria watchers have been focused on ISIL for some time, most did not anticipate such rapid or successful actions from the group in Iraq. As such, Caerus has received a flood of questions about the group—its origins, its ties to al-Qaeda, its current standing in both Iraq and Syria, and what the future holds. Caerus will periodically update this document with new information as events in the region unfold.

Is ISIL one organization or two?
Did ISIL change its name again?
What are ISIL’s origins?
Is ISIL al-Qaeda?
Is ISIL forming a “state”?
Did ISIL defeat the Iraqi army in Mosul?
How corrupt is the Iraqi Army?

Is ISIL one organization or two?

It is one organization, with multiple translations and abbreviations of its name.

In Arabic:

  • Al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham “الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام” -  translation: “The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham”
  • Da’esh “داعش” – the Arabic acronym for ISIL

In English:

  • The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)

The “Levant” is a reference to the eastern Mediterranean, including the modern-day countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Literally “rising” in French, the term refers to the east, where the sun rises. “Sham” is a term for “Greater Syria” referencing the same general geographic region as the ‘Levant’. It is also used colloquially in Arabic to refer to Syria, or Damascus.
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Did ISIL change its name again?

ISIL now refers to itself as The Islamic State. On 29 June 2014, ISIL released a statement declaring a new caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim and “leader of Muslims everywhere.” ISIL also demanded allegiance (or bay’a) of all active jihadi organizations, a move that puts it in direct competition with al Qaeda and its affiliated groups.
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What are ISIL’s origins?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is the present-day incarnation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)/the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Distinct from Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in Syria and no longer officially connected to al-Qaeda, ISIL seeks to build a “Caliphate” (Islamic state) in the Levant and is currently operating across Syria and Iraq.

ISIL’s origins trace back to the group Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, formed in Jordan in 2002. It was later named Tanzeem Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn, otherwise known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) after pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004. In late 2005, its then leader Abu Muzab al-Zarqawi united various jihadist groups under the banner of the Mujahideen Shura Council and instilled a cult of violence that endures in the group today. After Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, his successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were killed by US and Iraqi forces in Tikrit in 2010, at which point the current “Emir” of ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was appointed.

Over the course of their operation, AQI/ISI alienated local Iraqi residents, resulting in catastrophic open conflict with nearly all other Iraqi tribes and militias. In what was known as the “Sahwa” (Awakening) movement, Iraqi communities cooperated with the Iraqi government and US forces to nearly destroy AQI/ISI. By the May 2011 death of Osama Bin Laden, AQI/ISI more closely resembled a criminal gang.

In Iraq, the group slowly re-emerged in the years following Iraq’s 2010 national elections and the withdrawal of US troops. Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, formed a government despite his bloc losing by two seats to Ayad Allawi, a Shiite politician whose bloc included most influential Sunni politicians. Allawi represented the frustrations of many Sunni communities when he complained of Maliki’s “emerging dictatorship” in 2012. AQI/ISI grew in Iraq during this time period out of a complex mix of factors, including Sunni frustration with an exclusionary Maliki government.

Meanwhile, in Syria, violent repression of protests by the Assad regime drove the country into civil war and created the space for Islamist groups to take root. AQI/ISI fighters leveraged their Iraq experience to form Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), whose first attacks occurred in January 2012. The group quickly gained a reputation for being well-organized, fearsome, and skilled. Many fighters, particularly Syrians, came from AQI/ISI and had strong ties with al-Qaeda central.
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Is ISIL al-Qaeda?

In April of 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a long-time AQI/ISI fighter who rose through the ISI ranks and replaced Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as leader after his death in 2010, called on all jihadis in Iraq and the “Levant” to unite under his new banner—ISIL—to form an Islamic state. Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, leader of JN in Syria, rejected the merger and re-affirmed his allegiance directly to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri attempted to intervene, “giving” Syria to Joulani and Iraq to Baghdadi, but his efforts failed to broker an agreement, leaving a wide schism between ISIL, JN, and al Qaeda. While ISIL maintains similar goals and ideological outlook with al-Qaeda, there is no coordinated command relationship between the two groups; and in Syria there is fierce competition between JN and ISIL for local control. JN remains more formally in al-Qaeda’s orbit.
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Is ISIL forming a “state”?

ISIL has engaged in a number of activities in an effort to hold territory and develop a proto-state, imposing taxes and supporting welfare programs and limited public works. They have created a charter outlining new rules in the territory they control, establishing social services, providing religious education, and developing new police and justice systems. There are reports of “jihad taxes” on local businesses in Mosul, with ISIL openly functioning as a “shadow state.”And some have argued that they effectively control territory from Raqqa province in Syria through Deir Ezzor and Hasakeh to Anbar (and now Nineveh) province in Iraq. Several contacts in Syria report that the group has established an embassy in Aleppo City, and fighters in the group burned their existing passports and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in propaganda videos. Their drive to establish border crossing points between Iraq and Syria in southern Hasakeh Province also indicates engagement in core activities of a state.

And while colloquially people know them by their acronym, Da’esh, they prefer to be referred as simply Dawla, or the state.

Yet for all of these “softer” governance efforts ISIL still largely relies on coercion, especially in Syria, where its brutality is well-documented. For example, ISIL began its control of Raqqa City with a public execution of three Alawites in the town center. It regularly and publicly executes and crucifies Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldiers and various “enemies” to suppress dissent. While ISIL shows growing awareness of the importance of addressing civilian needs in Syria, such as public works projects, this is not their normal modus operandi. “They just take from people in Syria,” explained one activist from al-Tabqa, who noted that ISIL restricts the flow of basic goods like flour and electricity to punish communities under its control. ISIL has also largely banned cooperation with international relief agencies like the Red Crescent, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching many besieged communities in Syria.

This coercion is in contrast to JN, which has engaged in substantial efforts to provide aid and services to local communities, such as delivering bread in the southern province of Deraa, repairing roads in Idlib, and providing bus services in Aleppo City. JN has also avoided targeting minority communities and made an effort to minimize damage to civilian areas during military attacks. These efforts indicate an evolution from their AQI predecessors, moving away from nihilistic coercion toward a more Hezbollah-like model that blends military strength and local governance.

It remains to be seen whether ISIL will continue to develop its administrative functions providing services and protecting local civilians—as it claims to be doing in Mosul—or whether ISIL will revert to form in Iraq and govern as it does in Raqqa (and as it once did in Anbar).
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Did ISIL defeat the Iraqi army in Mosul?

We identified a number of institutional and political challenges that left the 2nd Division of the Iraqi Army—which bears primary responsibility for military operations against ISIL in Neneveh province where Mosul is located—vulnerable to the sudden collapse it experienced in early June. Corruption, neglect, and a shortfall of combat-effective resources and personnel crippled the Iraqi military’s capability and widened ISIL’s range of strategic options in Nineveh.

There is no doubt that ISIL has grown militarily in the past four years, while nurturing alliances of opportunity with other Sunni militant groups in Iraq (alliances that already show signs of fraying). But that was not the sole cause of their recent gains in Mosul and Tikrit. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) did not collapse overnight: they had been failing for over a year before they finally crumbled on June 10th. In areas such as Fallujah, it took extended guerrilla operations and urban warfare to keep out government forces, but in Mosul, Tikirit, and other recent ISIL offensives, retreat was voluntary and disorganized rather than forced by similarly heavy fighting. In fact, many soldiers reported their positions collapsed without a shot fired. The army left behind weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and no government opposition to ISIL within Mosul itself.
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How corrupt is the Iraqi Army?

In the Iraqi army, leadership at the division level maintains enough sway over logistics and pay to embezzle and extort lower ranks. Many officers see their units as businesses with reliable revenues rather than combat outfits. “You don’t earn a [commanding position]: you buy it,” a Captain in the Iraqi Army commented. The administrative structure of Iraqi forces aggravates this problem. For example, high-ranking officers are supposed to budget food purchases for their soldiers and deduct money for them out of their salaries. In practice, officers pocket most of this money, and establish revenue quotas for subordinates. Soldiers in Mosul often had to purchase their own food and water from civilian markets and cook themselves, introducing additional duties into already undesirably long working hours. Practices such as selling valuable fuel on the civilian black market and the embezzlement of money meant for food reduce readiness and willingness to fight. “[Corruption] takes more than soldiers’ food rations. It takes their dignity and self-respect as well,” an Iraqi officer explained. These units are left with a command climate where illicit payments are more important than effective operations or combat performance.

Although many forms of corruption are detrimental to soldiers, some create mutually-beneficial arrangements. Higher-ranking officers often keep absent soldiers on the payroll, offering soldiers the opportunity to leave or never even report for duty in exchange for pocketing a portion of their salaries. Consequently, many estimates of Iraqi force strength include these absent soldiers, dubbed “aliens.” Not only do these practices reduce manpower, they also undermine the unit cohesion of soldiers still on the battlefield. In Mosul this was further compounded by ISIL assassinations of soldiers returning from leave. For many, incentives to desert or go AWOL became compelling.

On paper, the 2nd Division appears modern in structure with overwhelming advantage in manpower and firepower. In practice, these units are undermanned, underequipped, undertrained and lack adequate morale for the strain of prolonged urban operations or maneuver operations against ISIL.
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