What Is Going On In Iraq? As Kerry Holds Talks and ISIS Advances, An Explainer

Over the past two weeks, the radical Islamic group known as ISIS has mounted an astonishingly successful sweep through Iraq. ISIS has taken control of Mosul, the country’s second-biggest city, and is rapidly advancing toward the capital city of Baghdad. The Iraqi government has been wholly ineffective in fighting off the advance, and there’s talk that the conflict could develop into a full-blown civil war.

But wait, back up. What’s ISIS? How did this happen, and why? Is the U.S. going to invade Iraq again? Here’s what you need to know about the developing conflict in Iraq.

What is ISIS?

ISIS is a group of Islamic extremists that wants to establish a radical Sunni theocracy in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. It was founded in Iraq in 2004, shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, as the local branch of al-Qaeda, and had some success before being driven out by U.S. forces. In 2014, al-Qaeda actually disowned ISIS — and this isn’t a joke — for being too extreme.

It has an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people in its ranks, and is completely unabashed in its brutality and violence: In June, the group tweeted pictures of its members massacring unarmed civilians and captive Iraqi military members. To “celebrate” the world cup, ISIS tweeted picture of a decapitated victim’s head accompanied by the message, “this is our ball.”

While the majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslims, ISIS is Sunni. More on that later.

Did they just take over Iraq?

Not yet, although that’s their ultimate goal. On June 10, the group launched a massive push to retake several regions in Iraq, and there are two reasons everyone is talking about this.

First of all, both U.S. intelligence and the Iraqi government were caught completely flat-footed by the offensive. Nobody saw it coming.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, ISIS’s campaign was shockingly successful — it retook two cities, including the second-largest in the country, in two days, and now controls an area roughly the size of Belgium (yes, the country). The group’s success has some analysts arguing that it’s already partially accomplished its goal of establishing a radical Islamic state, and that it may have the potential to significantly expand this new state’s borders.

Doesn’t Iraq have a military to prevent something like this from happening?

There are a number of factors that paved the way for ISIS’s conquering of Mosul and Tikrit.

  1. The Iraqi army is largely undisciplined and often simply unwilling to fight. It’s faced massive desertions since ISIS’s offensive, and has often left in such haste that ISIS has been able to seize its weapons and equipment. In one early incident, a group of 30,000 Iraqi soldiers were confronted by just 800 ISIS members; the soldiers immediately fled.
  2. The Syrian civil war, which ISIS has effectively leveraged to its advantage. Syria is basically in complete chaos now, and ISIS has used that chaos to seize small but important spots of territory in the country. This allows ISIS troops a “back door” through which to retreat when fighting gets tough in Iraq, and vice-versa. It’s also given it access to weapons and money in Syria to use in its operations in Iraq.
  3. The withdrawal of U.S. forces, which left the inept Iraqi military as the strongest pro-government army in the country.
  4. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is a Shia Muslim who has persecuted Sunnis during his time in power and thus created a powerful recruitment tool for ISIS, which wants to set up a state based on Sunni Islam.

Is there support among Iraqis for ISIS?

A recent report from Mosul by the Financial Times found that “many of those interviewed said they preferred life now,” after the ISIS invasion, to life under al-Maliki’s regime. Part of this is due to a clever strategy on ISIS’s part: While it has seized areas of Iraq, it isn’t actually governing those areas. Rather, it’s turned governing authority over to local Sunni leaders, who have an existing relationship with the residents and aren’t as militant in their ideological enforcement of Sunni Islam.

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How does the Sunni-Shia split factor into all of this?

Entire books have been written about the conflict between Sunnis and Shias, but in short, it boils down to a 7th-century dispute amongst Islamists about who the true successor to the prophet Mohammed was. That created two different sects of religious followers, and the rivalry and mistrust between those two sects factor into almost every conflict in the Middle East today.

The majority of Muslims in the world today are Shia, but almost every Islamic government is run by Sunnis. Iraq is an exception; al-Maliki is Shia, and during his time in power, has treated the Sunni minority very poorly (by, for example, detaining peaceful protesters who were demanding more representation in the government). This explains, in part, how ISIS has been able to convince Sunni Iraqis to join its ranks.

An interesting implication of this division involves Iran, which is also governed by Shias, and has no desire to see a new radical Sunni state come into power. The U.S. doesn’t want ISIS to gain power either; as a result, there’s a possibility, however small, that the U.S. and Iran may actually cooperate in some way to combat ISIS.

What’s the U.S. position here? Are we going to reinvade Iraq now?

Well, the Obama administration certainly doesn’t like the fact that radical Islamists are massacring innocent civilians and threatening to take over the entire Middle East, particularly after U.S. troops spent ten years trying to stabilize the country. But there’s also zero appetite for another U.S. invasion, either in the government or amongst average Americans. About the only people pushing for another invasion are those who orchestrated the war ten years ago (and, arguably, deserve some of the blame for the current crisis).

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So far, Obama has struck a middle path, sending 300 military advisors to the country to try and assist the Iraqi government. He ruled out sending in more combat troops but did leave the door open for airstrikes, saying that “we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

Still, almost every U.S. analyst agrees that the administration has very few options here, and that the few options that do exist are terrible. Here’s a round-up of the naysayers.

Is ISIS going to win?

The situation doesn’t look good. ISIS is well-funded (when it swept through Mosul, it looted the city’s banks), well-armed (partially due to the fleeing Iraqi army leaving its U.S.-provided weaponry behind), and surprisingly well suited to win the hearts and minds of Sunni Iraqis. There’s no easy solution to this, and the fact that the crisis has managed to get the U.S. and Iran talking about potential military cooperation speaks volumes about the lack of viable options for pushing back ISIS.

Image credits: Getty, BBC