The rapid conquest of large parts of Iraq by the radical Sunny Islamist al-Qaeda splinter group, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has a destabilizing effect on the entire region. ISIL fighters aim to establish a Sunny caliphate along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier, mirroring the eight century Abbasid caliphate. ISIL fighters pride themselves on their brutality and have massacred hundreds of Shiite troops, who they consider heretics. The emphasis on the Sunny – Shiite divide spikes fears for sectarian violence that could spread across the entire region.
The spread of ISIL provoked reactions from all over the world. Especially Iran seems adamant to stop the rise of ISIL and to protect the Shiite sanctuaries in Iraq. On the 12 June several international newspapers reported that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) deployed elite Quds Force units in Iraq to help Iraqi military forces to stop the ISIL advance. On 18 June Iranian President Hassan Rowhani announced Iran would do everything in its power to stop the ISIL advance. The United States has also increased its military presence in Iraq in order to quell the ISIL advance, though it seems unlikely that the US will send troops.
Neighboring countries fear a spill-over of the ISIL-crisis. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated “There is a real risk of further sectarian violence on a massive scale, within Iraq and beyond its borders”. After ISIL took the Iraqi city of Mosul it took 80 Turkish nationals and 40 Indian nationals hostage. Kurds in Iraqi’s northern autonomous region have started to resists ISIL and took control of the city of Kirkuk after they routed ISIL forces. The Turkmen minority in Kirkuk resists the Kurdish control and said they will attack the Kurds if they do not leave. The president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), Arshad Salihi, announced the mobilization of the Turkmen militia in the city and said that if Kurdish Peshmerga forces “refuse to return Kirkuk [to the Iraqi government] we will fight back”. Meanwhile Turkey closed its eastern borders out of fear for ISIL insurgents and Qatar and Kuwait limited ISIL fundraising.
ISIL in Syria
ISIL was founded as ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) in 2004 to fight the American invasion of Iraq in 2004. In 2010 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the leader of the organization, which grew ever more radical. In 2013 ISI became involved in the Syrian Civil War, changing its name to ISIL. ISIL, who had been fighting under the guidance of al-Qaeda, started to become increasingly aggressive in Syria until al-Qaedi leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ousted ISIL from the its ranks in February 2014. By now ISIL had established its own territory in the east of Syria, where it was building an Islamic state.
Critics claim Syrian President Bashir al-Assad intentionally cultivated the presence of ISIL, and al-Qaeda demerger Jabhat al-Nursa, to keep western military intervention at bay. They claim that as the Islamist opposition to the Assad-regime became more radical and violent, the western powers, including the United States, became less inclined to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian population however, wanted to get rid of – what they saw as – the foreign oppressors of ISIL.
By the end of 2013 ISIL was the strongest opposition group in northern Syria. But from November 2013 onwards, seven Islamist opposition groups united into the Islamic Front to oust ISIL from Syria. At the beginning of 2014 ISIL was attacked by al mayor Syrian players, including the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nursa, Hezbollah, the Kurds and the forces of President Assad. Rivals for the future of Syria united to oust ISIL and pushed them towards Iraq.
International response to ISIL
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, stated that the unrest in Iraq “carries warning signs of a civil war with unprecedented consequences for the region”. He added that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was responsible for this unrest because of “sectarian policies of exclusion” towards Iraqi’s Sunni minority. Meanwhile, Iran remains supportive of the Shiite Iraqi government. Referring to Iraq’s holy sites, Iran’s President Rowhani stated “Dear Karbala, dear Najaf, dear Kadhimiyag and dear Samarra, we warn the great powers and their lackeys and the terrorists, the great Iranian people will do everything to protect them”.
Meanwhile, critics claim United States President Barack Obama ordered the American withdraw from Iraq before Iraq was able to take care of itself. President Obama has sent a small number of soldiers to guard the American compound in Bagdad and he is considering airstrikes against ISIL. US spokesman Jay Carney said “The President made clear that in his view … there is not a military solution to Iraq’s problems”. British Prime Minister David Cameron stated that ISIL militants in Syria and Iraq were the “biggest threats to national security that exist today”. Britain announced it will reengage diplomatic ties with Iran in order to battle ISIL.
Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has urged Sunni leaders to denounce ISIL, he said “I call upon the tribes to renounce those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agenda’s”. After ISIL fighters took the city of Kirkuk, they posted pictures of alleged mass executions of Iraqi prisoners on the Internet, sparking a huge outcry in Iraq. Many men are now volunteering to fight ISIL. ISIL forces took control of large parts of the northwest of Iraq, including Mosul and Kirkuk, and have reached Bagdad. The situation is unfolding as we speak.
Sources: Al Arabiya I, Al Arabiya II, Al Jazeera, Daily News, De correspondent, RadioFreeEurope, Reuters, The Guardian I, The Guardian II, The Guardian III, The Huffington Post