Hassan Hassan writes: Earlier this year, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) [aka ISIS] suffered major defeats by various rebel groups in Syria, it raised a defiant slogan: “Remaining and expanding”. A few months later, the slogan does not look as detached from reality as it used to. The group, arguably the most brutal in the region, is now in control of large swathes of lands stretching from Aleppo to Raqqa to Deir Ezzor, in Syria, and from Ramadi to Fallujah and Mosul, in Iraq.
The group’s remarkable successes defy basic military instincts. Consider the type of adversaries ISIL has fought since December. It fought the Iraqi army, backed by battle-hardened Shiite militias as well as Sunni tribal forces, in Anbar. In Syria, secular, Islamist and Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels fought ISIL in Aleppo, Idlib and Deir Ezzor, with little success except in Idlib. And yet, the group is still as strong as ever.
So the pressing question is: how can this numerically small group control large areas in two countries? Three main reasons can be identified for its resilience and expansion.
The first is the inconsistency of its opponents. In Iraq, the revival of the group since it was essentially wiped out in the wake of the country’s civil war in 2006 and 2007 was made possible in large part due the imprudent policies of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. The biased anti-terror laws as well as the tendency to employ sectarian rhetoric in military campaigns against militancy in Sunni areas, as he did in his speech in December, have estranged the Sunni population, which has played into ISIL’s hands.
These policies lead Sunnis, even while they dislike ISIL, to feel they have no stake in fighting ISIL or resisting its presence because the government is just as bad. Additionally, there is a growing sense among Shiites that they have no stake in fighting in Sunni areas and leaving their areas exposed to danger. That leaves the Iraqi government forces with little appetite to face a brutal and resilient militia. [Continue reading…]