ISIL in Iraq Series: New enemies challenge ISIL’s continued advance

ISIL in Iraq Series: New enemies challenge ISIL’s continued advance

ISIL has conquered substantial territory in past weeks, but also gained new enemies. The increased focus on and military contra against ISIL means that the group cannot continue for long. This article is part of a GRI series on ISIL, Iraq, and the Middle East.

In the coming months, the gains made by The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will unravel as internal divisions and the backlash of regional actors comes into full force. The Syrian civil war, which allowed ISIL to grow rapidly, will also lead to its decline.

The Syrian civil war and ISIL’s lifespan

It is a common occurrence that when a country borders another, which is in a state of civil war, the likelihood for the first country to also succumb to civil war increases dramatically. This is certainly true for Iraq. Already ridden with political and sectarian tension, the trigger in this case was the grinding civil war in Syria.

ISIL has allied itself with a coalition of Iraqi Sunni militias. This armed faction has grown throughout the duration of the Syrian civil war despite efforts by the Free Syrian Army to stamp it out.

Within Syria, the fierce fighting in the border town of Al Bukamal is one example where a tough three-way battle is still being waged between the Syrian government, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIL. A collection of Syrian rebel groups called the Islamic Front is still regularly calling for foreign assistance and is actively engaging ISIL at every turn.

However, with ISIL’s capture of armored vehicles, heavy weapons, and cash in Mosul, the fight for the moderate Syrian rebel factions will only get harder. These weapons are no doubt being transferred back to ISIL’s Syrian front.

Cooperation with the Syrian government to sell oil on the black market will allow ISIL to pay its fighters with hard currency. However, other rebel groups also control some of the oil infrastructure and gas resources in the Deir ez-Zor province of Syria. This includes Jabhat al-Nusra, the Kurdish YPG, and the Islamic Front coalition. Though ISIL dominates the oil trade in eastern Syria, renewed pressure from other Syrian rebel groups and the Iraqi government may scale back their control of these resources.

ISIL is only gaining more enemies

So far, ISIL has been useful to Assad’s regime in distracting the FSA. However, it is only a matter of time before they outlive their usefulness. The head of the al-Quds division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major General Qasem Soleimani, just arrived in Baghdad to advise Maliki’s beleaguered government. Iran, the primary backer of Assad’s regime, may very well signal to the Syrian government that is it now time to up the ante on ISIL in Syria.

With the recent exodus of Iraqi Shia volunteers fighting in Syria, the Syrian government – and Hezbollah – will begin to increase the number of assaults on ISIL. This move will serve the Iraqi government and will relieve the FSA. With the Syrian government and Hezbollah stretched thin, it is possible for the FSA to retain some of the territory they have lost in Syria.

The current state of Iraq’s government and military

Just as the Iraqis struck ISIL fuel convoys inside Syrian territory last April, they will continue to do so now. In addition to intelligence support from arriving US military advisors, we will see the expansion of drone strikes and special operations in the Anbar province and in Syria. ISIL will become increasingly vulnerable and under constant pressure, just as al-Shabaab has in in Somalia.

While Maliki’s future as Iraq’s Prime Minister is uncertain, a wiser choice would be Ayad Allawi, whose multi-sectarian political coalition, Iraqiya, won large support in the past. This would do much to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq. However, since the 2010 parliamentary elections, this coalition has largely been sidelined by infighting and breakaway factions compared to Maliki’s State of Law coalition.

ISIL and Iraq’s Sunnis

It is clear that ISIL did not succeed without the help of Iraqi Baath party officials from the former regime of Saddam Hussein. Led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the Naqshbandi army has hidden out for years in Syria.

However, cooperating with ISIL will not last long. The Naqshbandi have reportedly been promised a return to power. The group’s secular, nationalist ideology will, at some point, clash with Islamist group’s harsh imposition of Sharia Law. News of skirmishes between the two sides is already emerging.

Low-tech conflicts have raised international alarm bells before. In 2008, an army of two thousand rebels riding technical vehicles rolled into N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. The Sudanese-backed rebel groups fought the Chadian government forces, but with intelligence and logistical support from France, the government forces routed the invasion.

This example illustrates that, while low-tech conflicts are not going away anytime soon, blitzkrieg-style warfare, when waged by non-state actors, cannot hold ground in the long run.

This is not to say ISIL will be eradicated completely, but now that they have the full attention of the international community, their capture of large cities in Syria and Iraq will not last indefinitely. This campaign will not be easy by any means, but Iraq will eventually find a political accommodation with the Sunni community and regain control of lost territory.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris