ISIS in Iraq: Sectarian Tsunami or Regional Rivalry?

Iraqi soldiers

While the US, EU, and Russia were squabbling over the future of Ukraine over the past few months, the West Asia region was in stalemated position with the Syrian crisis nowhere near resolution and a sense of fatigue and frustration setting in throughout the region. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Iraq underwent its parliamentary elections on April 30, Egypt elected Fatah Al Sisi in a rather one-sided presidential election, and President Assad contested and won presidential elections in a ‘no contest’ election in Syria. In Iran, the nuclear talks were proceeding well, although not without the occasional hiccup. And, towards the western edge of the Levant, the prospects of Israel-Palestine peace had virtually broken down after the Palestinian rival factions Hamas and Fatah announced the formation of a unity government in April, causing Israel to withdraw from the peace talks in protest.

In midst of all these developments in the region, the shocking news of Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams (ISIS) taking over Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul on June 9 caught the world by surprise. The fact that a group of few hundred Sunni militants could take over a large city, drive out state forces and force the army to surrender in hordes was most unexpected. As the details started pouring in, it became clear that the problem was much bigger and threat much larger than anticipated. Once again, like the Arab revolutions popularly dubbed as ‘Arab Spring’ had taken everyone by surprise in 2011, this too was a gross intelligence failure. The Iraqi government soon expressed its inability to cope with the ISIS onslaught, calling for international help and the United States to conduct airstrikes on ISIS targets. The ISIS march, threatening to reach Baghdad, was ultimately halted north of the capital near Samarra, home to the Al Askaria Mosque, one of the most holy shrines in Shia Islam, reportedly with the help of Al Quds troops despatched from Iran.

The present crisis does not seem to be a one-off terrorist strike, and has all the makings of a much larger conflict. The Iraqi government is unsure and is looking nervously at the evolving situation and praying for help, while the region and the international community are weighing in their options. As the crisis unfolds and steps are taken to resolve the threatening security situation, a few questions need to be answered: Why did the ISIS launch its offensive now?; Is this crisis a manifestation of deep-rooted sectarian divide in the region? And if yes, could this sectarian tsunami permanently alter the shape of the region as the world has known for over a century?; Is this crisis only a sectarian conflict or is it a manifestation of regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia coming to the surface in light of a resurgent Iran?


ISIS on the Move

It would be wrong to say that the ISIS offensive has been launched with the capture of Mosul. In fact, ISIS has been actively targeting key locations, both in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, for over a year now. In Syria, the capture of the eastern city of Raqqa in August 2013 and the continuing battles in the province of Deir-el-Zour were a part of an ISIS offensive. In Iraq too, the group has overrun the cities of Falluja and Rammadi towards the end of last year. In fact, the writ of ISIS has extended over the Iraqi province of Anbar for the past year.

The present crisis does not seem to be a one-off terrorist strike, and has all the makings of a much larger conflict.

However, the timing of the major offensive towards Baghdad has both internal and external dimensions. Iraq underwent parliamentary elections on April 30 and the results handed over a clear majority to the Shiite parties with the total of all Shiite parties coming to 181 in a 328-seat parliament. Noor Al Maliki’s State of Law party emerged as the single largest party with 92 seats. Despite this, Maliki was unable to form the government for the third time mainly due to lack of trust and support from fellow Shia parties. There was thus a state of indecision and political uncertainty in Iraq. Also, the Sunnis and the Kurds, feeling deeply marginalised, did not want the return of Maliki to power. It could be one of the reasons to explain the Sunni public support received by the ISIS during its offensive in Mosul and southwards. Also, in Syria, President Assad won the presidential elections in a virtual ‘no contest’ in June thereby putting to rest any chances of early reconciliation. Although Jabat-ul-Nusra in Syria and ISIS in Iraq had not formally agreed to merge last year, their goals seemed to converge; to overthrow the existing Shite regimes. This internal dynamic was compounded by other significant developments in the region too.


The Sectarian Problem

In regards to the sectarian nature of the crisis, the structure of ISIS, its support from the Sunnis in central Iraq, and its call to drive out the Shiite regime in Baghdad gives it a definite sectarian color. But the true nature of this sectarian tsunami is still to unfold. Already the poles are being clearly marked and occupied. Iran was prompt in announcing its support to Iraqi government giving indications that any support (including military?) would be provided to Iraq upon request. President Rouhani made a public statement saying that Iran would go to any lengths to protect the holy shrines of Shias inthe Iraqi cities of Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya, and Samarra. Reports from the region indicate that Al Quds troops from Iran have already reached Iraq and played an active part along with the Iraqi army in repelling the ISIS offensive towards Baghdad. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has cautioned against any external intervention in Iraq stating that it could spiral into a wider regional conflict. Saudi Arabia along with others in the GCC have already officially been supporting the opposition fighters in Syria. Ideological and financial support to ISIS, a Sunni group, can also be traced back to Sunni regimes. If and when Iran overtly intervenes in Iraq, Saudi Arabia may be forced to act. Turkey, which has borne the brunt of Syria’s civil war, is antagonised too as its consulate was overrun in Mosul recently and could emerge as a major player in the conflict. Other GCC countries would have to take positions, as neutrality may not be an option in such a skewed conflict. UAE has already recalled its ambassador from Iraq on June 19 citing a “dangerous security situation,” and it has also criticized an Iraqi government statement issued on June 10, which accused Saudi Arabia of supporting armed groups in Iraq. Whether UAE and other GCC countries will go with their traditional leader Saudi Arabia or whether some like Qatar will choose a different option will be interesting to see.


Iran Becoming More Assertive

While Iran chose to maintain a low profile in Syria while Saudi Arabia and others openly funded and armed the opposition, the same option is not possible in Iraq. This crisis could therefore spiral out of control if it escalates. Moreover, the possibility that Iraq as well as Syria could fragment into three independent and autonomous regions could fundamentally alter the political maps and balance of power in the region.

Sectarian conflict gets an added onus when the regional rivalry in the Gulf region is taken into account; an equation that pits Saudi Arabia and Iran as two competitors for a leadership role in the region. For Iran, developments in the past few months have been encouraging, though the same may not be true of Saudi Arabia.  Iran is buoyant about the ongoing nuclear talks and the IAEA report of May 2014 too indicated that Iran was complying with the obligations of the interim nuclear deal of November 2013. Iran has been reaching out to Turkey as well as Egypt in seeking a new understanding in the region. Even with GCC countries, despite the traditional hostile relationship between Iran and the GCC, Iran has been successful in moving forward in respective bilateral ties. The close relationship between Oman and Iran is no secret, as well as the fact that the Sultan of Oman played a crucial role in resumption of Iran and P5+1 nuclear talks. The Emir of Kuwait visited Iran in January this year, the first visit to Iran since 2006. Iran and UAE too made attempts to move forward in their bilateral ties despite differences. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visited Tehran in November 2013 and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Abu Dhabi on April 15 this year. Both countries pledged to enhance bilateral relations and trade, with the UAE foreign minister even calling Iran a “strategic partner.” With Qatar too, Iran is finding common ground despite Qatar’s insistence on supporting the opposition in Syria.

Iran is thus resurgent in the region and is looking to consolidate its influence and challenge the leadership of Saudi Arabia. The US-Iran rapprochement has added to Saudi Arabia’s feeling of marginalisation. The only way a resurgent Iran can be stopped is to break the spreading influence across the Levant. Support to the opposition in Syria and a possible role in Iraq crisis could serve those interests well. Reports of Saudi Arabia and Israel finding common grounds to cooperate in light of US supporting talks on the Iran nuclear issue could also be a pointer in that direction.



The crisis in Iraq is thus multi-dimensional; there are many layers of conflict and discontent. Marginalisation of the Sunni population in Iraq, the sectarian fault line being exposed overtly, and the raging regional rivalry in the face of a resurgent Iran are only some of the prominent factors. What Syria failed to expose, Iraq threatens to bring out in the open. If a quick solution is not found to this crisis, the region could be in for a prolonged period of turmoil, uncertainty and violence. Also, if the twin crisis in Iraq and Syria boil over, the fragmentation of these nations could well become a reality, a tsunami which could then swallow in its path other vulnerable nations like Jordan and Lebanon.

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