|ISIS-controlled territory as of June 2014|
Between June 6th and June 9th, Iraq’s second largest city was taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The adolescent Islamic group splintered from al-Qaeda in April of 2013 and has carried out attacks throughout Northern Iraq and Syria since.
ISIS has been successful on both their Syrian and Iraqi fronts. During their siege of Mosul, ISIS defeated the US-trained and 15-times-as-large forces of the Iraqi government. Images from the battle show signs of desertion by both the Iraqi army and local police. ISIS emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been able to hold the largely Sunni regions north and west of Baghdad as well as establishing interim governments lead by ISIS officers. The rebel group’s forces have been numbered at under 1,000, but their swift and brutal tactics, along with support from Sunni tribal communities, have allowed them to maintain course. Currently ISIS controls Fallujah and Tikrit, as well as large swaths of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria. Their goal is to form a caliphate stretching from the Lebanese Mediterranean to the Zagros Mountains of Iran.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham continue making political and economic gains in pursuit of their explicit goal, taking Baghdad, Kurdish forces in the north have seized their opportunity to gain control of “Kurdish Jerusalem”, the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk, which lies just outside of the Kurdish autonomous region, was a landmark victory for Kurdish Iraqi’s who seek to forward their own goals of a united and independent Kurdistan. The Kurds were able to regain their historic capital in the midst of turmoil and government desertion brought upon by ISIS operations in the area. Unprecedented gains by the Kurds and the inability of the Iraqi government to assert any sort of authority near Kurdish populated regions make the image of Kurdistan all the more vivid.
Iraqi Kurdish troops, known as the Peshmerga, maintain representation within Iraqi parliament. Shoresh Haji, who represents the Kurds within the Iraqi government, praises the Peshmerga’s reclamation of Kirkuk, but maintains that the Kurds must work with the Iraqi government to fend off ISIS, and use their support as leverage for Kurdish interests in the Iraqi Parliament. According to Haji, the unrest in the north presents, “…an opportunity we cannot ignore”.
Both the Peshmerga and ISIS seem to be benefitting from the Iraqi government’s inability to maintain stability, but for hundreds of thousands of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the future remains bleak. The Syrian crisis has created an estimated 2.8 million refugees. Of that number, 200,000 found shelter in Iraq. On top of these 200,000, almost 500,000 fled Mosul after fighting broke out. The dysfunction of the Iraqi government offers little to be optimist about for those displaced by the recent surges of violence in their temporary homes.
The splintering of Iraq, marked by the military and political ambition of ISIS and the Peshmerga alike are a testament to the futility of long-term solutions for stability. It is not only governments in the Middle-East that seem prone to this ideological splintering. ISIS themselves were shed from formal al-Qaeda ranks. This disintegration can be seen taking place within the Taliban as well. On Sunday night the TTP or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, carried out attacks at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, leaving at least 34 dead. On Tuesday, the group was involved in more attacks at Jinnah Int’l, this time targeting the Airport Security Forces Academy. The TTP maintains ideological differences with the Afghan Taliban, and have themselves experienced mutiny within their ranks with the Meshud faction deciding that they no longer wished to be affiliated with those who employ tactics such as ransom, extortion, and mass killing.
Iraq is now a splintered state, with each splinter seeking its own path. Should they realize their goals, it would mean the end of contemporary borders In the Middle-East. Factionalization, while it has crippled the very governments militants like the TTP or ISIS fight against, is a virus that infects indiscriminately and carries the same side effects. The mission of Islamic rebel groups and their interpretation of the Koran is subject to their leadership. Should the interpretations contradict each other, it can mean conflict and even war. Similarly should the ideologies of factions within militant groups fail to be cohesive, it could mean the end of an otherwise successful campaign.