Will ISIS’ Advance in Iraq Shift Dynamics of the Syrian War?

In the northern province of Raqqa, Syria, female students wear full face veils (niqabs) in accordance with sharia law enforced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which  took control of the area last fall. (March 31, 2014/© Stringer/Reuters/Corbis)

The swift and destructive advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Iraq could affect the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, as ISIS’ seizure of Iraqi military equipment and financial resources is likely to give the group a comparative advantage over other rebels in Syria, said Dr. Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Pierret, who has advised US, British, and other Western governments on the Syrian crisis, spoke to me by telephone on Monday, June 16 about ISIS’ advance in Iraq and its implications for the Assad regime, Syrian rebels, and the response of key regional players.

In the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, ISIS has been fighting against other rebels in an effort to gain full control of Syria’s eastern flank. According to Dr. Pierret, ISIS’ seizure of Iraqi armored vehicles and of over $400 million during its advance toward Baghdad could tilt the balance, both materially and psychologically, in favor of the terrorist group.

“There is also a symbolic dimension here,” he said. “ISIS victories in Iraq have provided the group with some prestige,” which, he said, ISIS could use to render other rebel groups like al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) more hesitant about fighting against it.

An ISIS-controlled eastern flank would not only weaken the other rebels; it would also bolster the regime’s claims that it is engaged in a fight against terrorist forces, and that it can function as a partner for the West in this fight, Dr. Pierret said.

At the same time, if the Iraqi government manages to deploy a counter-offensive—possibly with Iranian and US assistance—ISIS may end up being “extremely busy” in Iraq and “being forced to redirect its military resources” there, he said, in a situation that “Syrian rebels could exploit.”

Dr. Pierret noted that al-Nusra Front and the FSA could use the vacuum to their advantage, by recapturing those areas around Deir ez-Zor that they have lost to ISIS.

“In Deir ez-Zor, rebels were fighting on two fronts: against regime forces in the city and in the countryside against ISIS,” he said. “So, a weakening of ISIS across Syria would be a positive development for the rebels,” and by extension, a setback for the Assad regime.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


What is driving ISIS and their aggressive expansion in Iraq, and how is it affecting the sectarian balance there?

Well, ISIS is exploiting widespread discontent among Iraqi Sunnis toward the policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they blame for authoritarian and pro-Shia sectarian policies, including the deployment over the last months of Shia militias to quell rebellion in Sunni provinces. So, that’s the main factor behind the success of the ISIS offensive: It’s the fact that ISIS managed to get the support of the quite broad Sunni constituency. It’s not a strictly ISIS offensive.

Regarding the impact on the sectarian balance, I think it’s a bit too early to tell, and it will really depend on the reaction primarily of Iraqi authorities. Of course, it seemed that Iraqi authorities have no other option than to fight back militarily against ISIS, but the key issue is to what extent they will try to reach out to Sunni groups that do share resentment against the government but do not share ISIS’ maximalist agenda. Reaching out to these groups would be necessary to separate them from ISIS. And I’m afraid that if no such attempts occur, we are heading toward full-fledged sectarian war in Iraq.

And of course, it’s precisely in order to prevent this from happening–to prevent moderate Sunnis from detaching themselves from ISIS—that ISIS is deliberately trying to inflame the situation. We saw that yesterday [June 15] with mass executions of Shia prisoners of war and threats against the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. On the other side, the Maliki government and its allies, especially Iran, may be aware of that need to reach out to moderate Sunnis in Iraq. But that doesn’t meant they will be able to do it, because breaking with previous patterns of political power, breaking with authoritarianism, with sectarian vices, is certainly not easy. And in particular, making the Iraqi state more inclusive towards Sunnis will not be an easy task for the current authorities.

Could you tell us how you think these recent developments relate to the group-split with the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, which is still active in Syria?

Well, the split I think has allowed ISIS to prepare its current operations in Iraq. So after ISIS split with al-Nusra Front in April 2013, ISIS gradually abandoned all military operations against Assad’s forces. And they concentrated on building their quasi-state in northeastern Syria at the expense of the rebels. They expanded within rebel-held areas. This has provided ISIS with strategic depth and resources—in particular oil resources—as well as resources from looting that have allowed ISIS to prepare its current offensive in Iraq.

ISIS has been fighting for control of Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor for months now. What will be the effects of ISIS’ recent victories in Iraq on this campaign?

Just as a reminder, ISIS was expelled from most of the province of Deir ez-Zor in the first weeks of 2014. They mounted a counter-offensive starting in April this year, and seized large parts of the province—to the extent that a few days before the fall of Mosul in Iraq, ISIS was besieging rebels inside the city of Deir ez-Zor, which is divided between insurgents and regime forces.

So what’s the impact of ISIS victories in Iraq? The most obvious one, and one that was widely advertised by ISIS itself, is that they made significant seizures of military hardware in Iraq, as they seized armored vehicles from the Iraqi army; they sent some of them inside Syria, so this will inevitably bolster ISIS military efforts in Deir ez-Zor and give it possibly some advantage over other rebels. It’s been widely reported that ISIS seized significant financial assets in Mosul and that will also reinforce ISIS military capabilities in eastern Syria.

There is also a symbolic dimension here in the sense that ISIS victories in Iraq against the Shia-dominated and Iran-backed government have provided the group with some prestige, which ISIS could use to render rebel groups more hesitant about fighting them, about fighting ISIS. And the reaction to that is that anti-ISIS Syrian rebels are emphasizing the fact that what is happening in Iraq is not just an ISIS campaign against the government—it’s a much broader Sunni uprising.

That’s what could favor ISIS in eastern Syria, but one should also emphasize the fact that anti-ISIS Syrian rebels have also crossed the border and seized some military hardware from Maliki’s army, although at a much lower scale. They may also benefit from a limited increase in strategic depth, because the border cities have fallen in the hands of Iraqi insurgents. So that may be helpful for Syrian insurgents in the region.

Another important issue is that with the counteroffensive in Iraq by Iraqi government forces and with possible involvement on the part of Iran and the US, ISIS may end up being extremely busy in Iraq and consequently being forced to redirect its military resources towards Iraq. That’s a situation Syrian rebels could exploit.

Now that ISIS is busy and refocusing its military expenditures and strategy on Iraq, do you think this will be seen positively in Damascus by the regime?

I’d say quite the contrary. I think the Syrian regime welcomes any strengthening of ISIS inside Syria simply because the growing strength of ISIS in Syria over the last year has considerably weakened the rebels, because the rebels were fighting on two fronts.  That’s very clear in Deir ez-Zor, where they are fighting in Deir ez-Zor city against regime forces and in the countryside against ISIS. So, a weakening of ISIS across Syria would be a positive development for the rebels.

On the other hand, a victory by ISIS against the rebels in Syria and especially in the province of Deir ez-Zor would be actually a positive development for Assad for two reasons. First because it will be faced with an enemy, ISIS, that does not consider fighting regime forces a priority. And second, being in a direct face-to-face with ISIS would bolster the claims of the Assad regime that it is a partner for the West in the fight against ISIS. Whereas, in fact, Assad has hardly been fighting ISIS for a year.

Let’s assume this scenario actually takes place. What could this mean for the regional balance of power?

If ISIS manages to hold ground, we would have a kind of a new de facto state entity. It will not change the balance of power in the region in the traditional sense because whatever military spoils ISIS gains, it will never be a proper match for the militaries of the neighboring states. ISIS can send car bombs, but they cannot invade a country that has armored units and an air force and all that. But the change will more likely come from reactions by other states and quasi-sates in the region.

We already see how the Kurdish regional government is expanding significantly, notably by seizing the city of Kirkuk. Iran will inevitably be more directly involved in Iraq. They are reportedly already sending forces inside Iraq. They may be forced to divert resources from Syria and there are already reports of pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militiamen leaving Syria in order to join the battle in Iraq, which is rather bad news for the Syrian regime. But there are also more positive aspects for Iran, likely rapprochement with the US.

Assad, as I mentioned, will be and is already trying to portray himself as a credible anti-ISIS partner. He’s intensified airstrikes against ISIS targets in the north of Syria, which were rather exceptional in the past. Syrian rebels will certainly try to do the same and to appeal to the West on the basis that they are in fact the only force that has brought some military defeats upon ISIS last January by expelling them from the northwestern part of Syria. And we may also see Turkey adopting a more assertive, maybe more aggressive, policy on its border to prevent any kind of spillover.

Since you mentioned a possible US-Iranian response, how do you think the United States and/or the United Nations should respond to the current crisis?

Given the nature of ISIS, and especially the very maximalist agenda of the organization, it’s not an organization that seems amenable to negotiations. So, it seems there is no alternative to providing some form of military support to the Iraqi government. But at the same time, this should be conditional on commitments on the part of the Iraqi government to engage in reforms in order to address the reasonable demands of the Sunni population for political inclusion. This should be done, because it will allow many Sunni groups to detach from their current de facto alliance with ISIS.

Obviously, this is what the US administration has in mind and is willing to do, but the problem is that the leverage of the US government over the Iraqi government in order to push for political reforms is and will be proportional to the level of US military involvement in Iraq. That’s where the problem lies.  As we know, the Obama administration is very reluctant to be involved militarily abroad, so it’s likely that it will opt for rather minimal involvement in Iraq, and in such circumstances, there will be a strong temptation to outsource the fight against ISIS by relying on the local forces that have the means and the will to engage in a full-fledged war with ISIS. These forces are basically the Shia component in the Iraqi military, Shia militias in Iraq, and Iranian forces.

Here we see the problem: All these forces may be able to defeat ISIS militarily, but their action is likely to further alienate broader Sunni constituencies, and the political impact of such an option would be exactly the opposite of what is needed.

Do you think there is any potential for UN involvement in this process, or do you see this as primarily a US-led effort?

Well, militarily I don’t see any country willing to send troops on the ground and blue helmets under UN supervision because it would be an extremely risky mission with troops that would be very vulnerable, so I don’t think this is a realistic prospect. But I definitely think there may be a role for the UN in terms of political mediation between the Iraqi government and responsible Sunni political forces in Iraq. That’s definitely an idea that should be considered.

Dr. Thomas Pierret, thank you so much for being with us on the Global Observatory today.

Thank you.

Ramy Srour is the Assistant Web Editor at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @Ra_Srour.