After this week, it no longer makes sense to think of the civil conflicts in Iraq and Syria as separate events. They are now a single war, both in their operational details and in the broader forces driving both conflicts.
An Al Qaeda offshoot’s major offensive this week shows that the battle lines, and the motives of the various sides in the Iraq and Syria upheavals, have effectively merged — this is one conflict, engulfing the oil-producing heart of the Arab Middle East.
This week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and a major infrastructural hub. Mosul is home to the country’s most important dam, and is close to Iraq’s northern oil fields. ISIS has also launched offensives against Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and Samarra, which is the site of a major Shi’ite shrine. The group nearly has Baghdad encircled.
ISIS began as Al Qaeda’s Iraq franchise, which was all but defeated after the U.S. “surge” late last decade. But the U.S. pullout from Iraq in 2010, followed by the chaos in neighbouring Syria offered the organisation a power vacuum that it could easily exploit. The Syrian safe-haven also gave Al Qaeda in Iraq a newfound sense of purpose. The Sunni terrorist group declared that it was waging jihad against both Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership and the Alawite government of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad.
A resulting dispute over ISIS’s trans-national character, and the group’s increasing assertiveness, convinced Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri that he could no longer control ISIS. The group was expelled from Al Qaeda’s international network in a nearly unprecedented move.
“The conflict is one and the same as far as they’re concerned,” Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalisation told Business Insider of ISIS’s view of Syria and Iraq. “It’s about restoring Sunni dominance after what they regard as Shi’ite oppression, and resorting power to what they would regard as rightful Islam.”
ISIS is now building its presence in Iraq and Syria in a way that links their spheres of control in both countries. Maher told Business Insider that ISIS has consolidated itself in towns around the border. “They’re strategic,” he said. “They have always maintained a bridge to Iraq.”
And they have figured out ways to keep themselves financed and make their Islamic state sustainable. Maher says that ISIS is known for looting and seizing industrial areas and vital infrastructure. During their assault on Aleppo, Syria, in early 2013, ISIS went straight for the city’s industrial district for salvageable materials. ISIS looted Mosul’s banks this week, perhaps taking several hundred million dollars in the process.
In 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq produced a map plotting their takeover of Iraq and Syria’s oil resources, a map that eerily tracks with ISIS’s advances eight years later:
There’s another side to the integration of the Syria and Iraq conflicts. There’s increasing evidence that Iran, the Assad regime’s major outside backer, is thinking of Iraq and Syria as a single battlefield.
Last week, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force — basically Iran’s covert foreign operations arm — was in Baghdad meeting with Shi’ite parliamentarians. Philip Smyth, an expert in Shi’ite militant movements at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, told Business Insider that Iraq has no fewer than seven Iranian-seeded Shi’ite militias modelled after Hezbollah, Iran’s Shi’ite client in Lebanon.
Smyth says that Suleimani’s visit was meant to remind Iraq’s Shi’ite militants that Tehran has their back.
“There’s a strategic interest here, which is Iran’s control of as much of the Shi’ite population as possible and establishing that they are the protective force for these people,” Smyth explains. That means protecting the Assad regime from ISIS through Iranian clients in the Levant — as well as sustaining the government of Nouri al-Maliki through bolstering Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.
And Iran needs Iraq’s airspace, and a friendly government in Baghdad, in order to keep resupplying Assad.
Iraq and Syria are merging into a single battleground. Each country’s collapse has destabilized the other. Previously national concerns, like the removal of the Assad dictatorship or the increasing centralization of Iraq’s government, are now secondary to the larger, trans-national turmoil — a vast regional war that sharply escalated this week.
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