Civil wars in Iraq and Syria have merged, with one Islamist group, ISIS, fighting government forces regionwide. ISIS, fundamentally, is not a terrorist organization (like Al Qaeda in Iraq, e.g.), but is rather an old-fashioned insurgency. With perhaps 1000 Chechens in its ranks, ISIS has proved to be more than a match for the Iraqi military, routing federal forces in central Iraq, and now targeting Iraqi Kurdistan, while pushing west and south of Baghdad. They also control one-third of Syria, despite the efforts of the Assad regime and other insurgents.
Iraq no longer exists. Iraqi Kurdistan might as well be called Kurdistan: it’s an independent country in all but name. (Turkey has signaled its willingness to accept a Kurdish state on its southeastern border.) It is also democratic, and reasonably liberal by the (low) standards of the region, enjoying substantial popular support. Quite unlike the government based in Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan has a functional military. During ISIS’s Northern Iraq Offensive, Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered and repelled ISIS from Kirkuk, and has held it ever since – while the government based in Baghdad lost Tikrit and Mosul.
More than 8 years since it took power, Iraq’s Baghdad-based, Shia-dominated central government remains weak and corrupt. While Iraqi politicians squabble over who their next prime minister should be, ISIS has taken control of the majority-Sunni central region in and around the cities of Tikrit and Mosul (about one-quarter of Iraq), leaving Iraq’s federal government in control only of the majority-Shia area running southeast from Baghdad. Ominously, the Iraqi military has been almost completely ineffective against ISIS, losing ground to them steadily since June.
Though Syria is a battlefield, with ISIS controlling one-third of the country, Assad’s forces have held together through more than 3 years of fighting. Unlike Iraq’s military, Syria’s has proved effective in the field, albeit that they have no qualms about sacrificing civilians to gain ground. The government of Syria likely has the personnel, hardware and will to remain in the fight through at least the medium term.
Demographics tell much of the story. Though it was dominated for decades by (secular) Sunnis under Saddam Hussein, Iraq has a Shia majority, concentrated from Baghdad southeast to the Gulf; a large Sunni minority (35%) in the center, running to the Syrian border; and a significant Kurdish minority (15%) along the Turkish and Iranian borders in the mountainous northeast. Inversely, Syria has a Sunni majority – though it’s been dominated for decades by the (secular) Shia-Alawite Assad family. Syria also has a Kurdish minority (9%) along the Turkish border.
Not surprisingly, ISIS, a fanatical Sunni organization, has quickly gained ground in central Iraq and northeastern Syria, amidst a majority-Sunni population. ISIS is now moving against the Yazidis, a Kurdish group stuck in no man’s land, in an area somewhat outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. Though they are under the nominal authority of Iraq’s federal government, the Baghdad-based regime is unable to come to their aid. Indeed, Baghdad is itself at risk of being encircled, as ISIS captures Sunni towns on its western and southern flanks.
The facts are grim – on Monday the Field Guide moves on to its analysis, to formulate a coherent US foreign policy in the post-Iraq era.