February 2, 2015: Strategy Page
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was seemingly invincible and unstoppable in mid-2014. In July 2014 ISIL had recently taken control of Mosul (the largest city in northern Iraq) and was advancing on Baghdad, the Kurdish north and the capital of western Iraq (Anbar province). Similar gains were being made in Syria. All that has changed in the last few months. ISIL still holds the cities of Raqqa (the largest city in eastern Syria) and Mosul in Iraq. But both cities are increasingly rebellious and require a growing number of ISIL gunmen to maintain control. Now ISIL is in retreat in Iraq and Syria. Sunni tribes in Anbar and western Syria are in open revolt and subject to increasingly savage reprisals by ISIL gunmen (often foreigners, which makes the tribesmen angrier). Half the ISIL leadership has been killed by coalition (Arab, NATO and allied) warplanes since August 2014. This air support and a Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish troops, Shia militias and armed Sunni tribesmen have taken back much of the territory ISIL overran in early 2014. American and other Western troops are rebuilding the Iraqi Army and arming anti-ISIL Sunni tribesmen. Iran is training and sometimes leading Shia militias. In Syria ISIL is getting beaten by Kurds, Syrian soldiers and more Iranian trained Shia militias.
While still bringing in new recruits from outside of Syria and Iraq, ISIL has lost the propaganda war inside those two counties and the Islamic world in general. History often repeats itself and in the case of Iraqi Islamic terrorists there is, for the second time since 2007, a major dip in Islamic terrorist approval ratings because of the brutality of Iraqi Islamic terrorists. Back in 2007 it was the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership that was out of control. At the time opinion polls in Moslem countries showed approval and support of al Qaeda plunging, in some cases to single digits. This came after the 2003 invasion of Iraq when al Qaeda managed to take itself from hero to zero in less than four years. Al Qaeda has since recovered somewhat but that kinder and gentler approach did not last and by 2013 the Iraqi al Qaeda (now ISIL) was again losing popular support. That was quite visible after June 2014 when ISIL seized control of parts of Iraq and promptly slaughtered captured Iraqi soldiers and police, mainly because these men were Shia. Then ISIL declared the parts of Syria and Iraq it controlled were the new Moslem caliphate.
Naturally the ISIL leaders running this new caliphate called on all Moslems to follow them in making the new caliphate work. Most Moslems responded, according to subsequent opinion polls, by expressing greater fear rather than more admiration for Islamic terrorist groups, especially ISIL. This was not a radical change in attitude. Earlier in 2014 al Qaeda leadership condemned ISIL for being completely out of control and not to be trusted or supported. Throughout 2104 opinion polls showed Moslems becoming more hostile to Islamic terrorists, seeing them as a cause for concern not as defenders of Islam. The same thing happened back in 2007. Then as now there continued to be young (teens and twenties) Moslem men who saw all this mindless mayhem as an attraction and kept rushing to join the slaughter (most often of themselves). The Islamic world has not been able to control these violent young men or the older men who encourage and organize this violence.
When al Qaeda could not, in 2007, exercise any real control over the parts (mostly Anbar province in the West) of Iraq they claimed as part of the new Islamic State and that claim was the last straw for many Moslems. The original caliphate came apart because the Islamic world was split by ethnic and national differences and the first caliphate fell apart after a few centuries. Various rulers have claimed the title over the centuries, but since 1924, when the Turks gave it up (after four centuries), no one of any stature has stepped up and assumed the role. So when al Qaeda "elected" a nobody in 2006 as the emir of the "Islamic State of Iraq", and talked about this being the foundation of the new caliphate, even many pro-al Qaeda Moslems were aghast. The key allies of the Iraqi Islamic terrorists (the Sunni minority of Iraq), battered by increasingly effective American and Iraqi (Shia and Kurd) attacks, dropped their support for al Qaeda and the terrorist organization got stomped to bits by the "surge offensive" a year later. The final insult was delivered by the former Iraqi Sunni Arab allies, who switched sides and sometimes even worked with the Americans (more so than the Shia dominated Iraqi security forces) to hunt down and kill al Qaeda personnel.
Between then and 2013 al Qaeda in Iraq slowly rebuilt and received a major boost in 2011 when the Sunni Arab majority in neighboring Syria rose up against four decades of Shia dictatorship. While the Sunni Arabs are a minority in Iraq (20 percent of the population versus 60 percent Shia) it is quite the opposite in Syria (15 percent Shia and 75 percent Sunni). The Sunnis are most numerous in eastern Syria and western Iraq which the Sunnis see as one entity divided by artificial political boundaries imposed by Turks and the Western nations that replaced the Turks after 1918. This “Sunnistan” is the northernmost concentration of Sunni Arabs and long subjugated by non-Sunni or non-Arab powers. Turks and Persians (the Indo-European Iranians) have long fought over the area, with the Turks largely in charge since the 16th century. The Turks were Sunni and what is now called Iraq has long been, not surprisingly, a center of the long religious battle between Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.
Ever since al Qaeda showed up in the 1990s they were popular to Moslems in proportion to how far away the al Qaeda violence was. Once al Qaeda began killing people nearby Moslems tended to change their mind and actively dislike Islamic terrorists. Thus in 2013 37 percent of Turks were concerned about Islamic terrorism while by 2014it was 50 percent thanks to increased ISIL violence on the Syrian border and some inside Turkey itself. Similar situation further south where 54 percent of the people in Jordan were concerned in 2013 versus 62 percent now. In Lebanon, where the Syrian violence spilled over quickly after 2011 last year 81 percent were concerned in 2013 Islamic terrorism versus over 90 percent today.
The hostility towards al Qaeda in the region has tainted all forms of Islamic radicalism, including the Shia ones (especially Hezbollah in Lebanon). Yet once Islamic terrorism disappears again (as it does regularly) many Moslems will get nostalgic for those legendary warriors seeking to defend Islam. This is a cycle many Moslems would like to break, but so far the cycle of violence persists.