The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) may have recently cut its name in half, but its fortunes have gained by orders of magnitude, judging by recent developments across a stretch of territory that is now more appropriately referred to as “Syraq.” First, the Islamic State’s (IS) self-appointed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, managed to give a Friday sermon in broad daylight in a major mosque in the city of Mosul, which is home to 2 million people. This is quite the upgrade from Waziristan’s finest cavernous soundstage, and no major transnational jihadist leader – not Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri – has ever dared make so public and conspicuous a showing of himself as this, least of all with American drones swarming overhead. (Adolf Eichmann giving a Nazi rally at the Brandenburg Gate in 1961 might be the equivalent spectacle.)
Yet such is Baghdadi’s confidence that he feels he can appear before his flock without concern for his own safety. Clearly he’s a better judge of Iraq’s current security conditions than are Nouri al-Maliki or the 700 US servicemen who have been dispatched back into the Green Zone. The establishment of the caliphate, Baghdadi said, was nothing less than the executed will of Almighty God. To many in attendance – not mention the hordes of IS admirers watching the sermon on YouTube – this proclamation will no doubt have had a ring of truth to it. IS’s ranks will swell.
Furthermore, Baghdadi’s bluster was met by actual battlefield triumphs. IS has used its considerable haul of US-supplied military equipment – estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars – to advance deeper into Deir Ezzor, where it has largely routed the forces of “official” al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, IS has already expelled 30,000 people from their homes in the town of Al-Shheil (a former stronghold of Nusra), while still another 35,000, who were expelled from the towns of Khasham and Tabieh Jazeera in late June, have yet to be allowed to return (IS wants their “repentance,” their weapons, and their patience for 10 more days to let IS feel “safe” in its in new domain).
Elsewhere, large swath of Sunni tribes, evidently aware of which nutjobs fortune now favors in the Land of the Two Rivers, have declared their allegiance to IS. “The clans of the city of Ishara, and the villages around it… and all of the factions in these areas,” declared one tribal leader, who referred to Baghdadi’s new moniker, Caliph Ibrahim, “announce before God that they will cease fighting with the Islamic State.” This might have something to do with the new caliph’s beatific commandment to treat the tribes with respect and “prioritize forgiveness over punishment.” Or it might just be good business sense.
Already in firm control of the oil fields of Raqqa, IS now stands to assume an additional 75,000 barrels per day in Deir Ezzor, which it will no doubt sell to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Damascus remains IS’s main state financier in spite of its artfully manufactured propaganda about fighting a war on “terrorism,” and in spite of IS’s fire-and-brimstone propaganda about murdering nusayris, and in spite of the Western commentariat’s propaganda that Saudi Arabia is underwriting IS and therefore we must work with Assad and Iran to defeat the bearded men in black. (Iran has been sending virtually free oil to Assad, which means that even under supposedly crippling international sanctions, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still willing to forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars rather than focus his counterinsurgency on retaking Syria’s oil fields. Funny, that.)
Even erstwhile allies-turned-enemies have become allies once more. This week, the Islamist rebel group Liwa Dawoud, in Idlib, decided to re-pledge its allegiance to IS, probably sensing a resurgence of the group in Syria’s north, from which it had been largely expelled in January. IS has already sacked Kurdish villages near Ayn Arab along the Syrian-Turkish border. Sensing this to be as good an opportunity as any, Assad’s forces have moved into Aleppo in an attempt to retake Syria’s industrial second city, which rebels seized two summers ago. The Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah are both said to already be in position in Aleppo for what may be a prolonged but decisive battle.
So far, the regime has retaken villages to the north and neighborhoods to the east of the city, adding to their near-total control over entrances from the south, and its presence in the west. Assad plans to squeeze Aleppo like a carbuncle. And its fall, most Middle East analysts and activists agree, would spell the end of the Syrian revolution. Baraa Halabi told the Associated Press: “You look to the right, and there’s the regime. You look to the left, it’s the Islamic State. We are caught in a pincer.” As ever. And because Assad prefers not to bomb IS unless Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani tells him he must do, we can expect that his army and his Iranian proxies will now use the takfiris as an advance guard in crushing the insurrection once and for all.
Finally, the temporary partnership formed between IS and the Baathists in the Sunni Triangle region of Iraq has disintegrated. According to Reuters, IS has detained between 25 and 60 former military officers and party members of the defunct Iraqi regime, without whose assistance Mosul would never have been sacked in June. Even as the city fell last month, the signs were already apparent that a split was imminent: the Baathists hung portraits of Saddam Hussein and were duly informed to take them down. They also had a lethal shootout with ISIS west of Kirkuk. However, the upper hand, at least for now, belongs to the jihadists. “ISIS called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did,” Shiite parliamentarian Haidar Abadi told Reuters. “And now ISIS is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don’t believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute.”
Everyone has by now learned the name Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN), which led the Baathist arm of the June 10 charge – and arguably the whole campaign itself – into Mosul. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam’s former vice president and confidant (he was the “King of Clubs” in the famous deck of cards handed out to US troops to identify the regime’s dead-enders) founded JRTN during the bad old days of the ancient regime, when Douri was also known for running a stolen car ring that imported European models from the Jordanian port at Aqaba. In Syrian parlance, he’d be considered the ringleader of the shabiha, like that minister-without-portfolio Maher al-Assad. No one knows if Douri is still alive or well enough to lead an insurgency today (he’d be about 72 today, and he’s rumored to have had every kind of terminal illness), but his last public appearance was in April 2012 when he gave an hour-long speech in full field marshal regalia, exhorting Iraqis to unite and rise up against Iranian hegemony.
Douri reactivated JRTN in 2006 after Saddam’s execution. Michael Knights has studied the group, which is in fact a Sufi religious order, and compared it to a kind of Arab Freemasons. Nevertheless, because its ranks drew from ex-security personnel who, after de-Baathification, were left with two means of supporting themselves apart from joining the insurgency – agriculture or the black market – JRTN has remained incredibly well-funded, well-staffed, and well-integrated into the social fabric of the Sunni communities in the Tigris River Valley. It has worked with jihadists before. “[I]f JRTN did have a problem with the locals,” Knights wrote in a recent profile of Douri for The New Republic, “they sub-contracted mass casualty attacks to Al Qaeda fighters, for instance killing many of their tribal rivals in Dawr with a massive car bomb in December 2006.”
Col. Derek Harvey, America’s top intelligence analyst of the Iraqi insurgency, named Douri, along with another high-ranking Baathist, Muhammed Yunis al-Ahmed, as two masterminds behind it. The underground nature of Saddam’s vast security apparatus – replete with paramilitary organizations such as the Baath militias and Fedayeen Saddam – became crucial to the clandestine guerrilla warfare that erupted when American troops arrived in 2003. According to Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor’s The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, which is the definitive history of the Iraq war, “Networks for safe houses and arms caches for the paramilitary forces, including materials for making improvised explosives, were also established throughout the country.” Saddam even inaugurated the “Gafiki project” dedicated to building IEDs and “small backpack-size bombs,” which were subsequently put to deadly use against the foreign occupiers and are no doubt being used again against Maliki’s Iraqi Security Forces and Suleimani’s Shia militias.
And here we encounter an unmistakable yet seldom remarked-upon fact about IS’s triumph in recent months. While it is certainly the case that the group owes its good fortunes to the miscalculations and complicities of Assad and Maliki, a deceased Arab strongman deserves just as much credit for creating a welcome environment for jihadism. Those now partnering with IS, if not joining up with it, originated in Saddam’s own patented brand of factory-made fanaticism.
True, the dictator had suppressed Sunni Islamism in the 1970s and 1980s – the Muslim Brotherhood especially – but then, like all Arab strongmen, he tried to co-opt the phenomenon as a bulwark against his real and perceived enemies. The 1990s saw Iraq’s “Faith Campaign,” a period perhaps best symbolized by his addition of the slogan “God is Great” to the Baathist Iraqi flag. Douri, despite being Sufi, was the senior Iraqi official placed in charge of this state-sponsored inoculation of religious fundamentalism, the goal of which was to fuse Salafism – then seen as a safeguard against the more dangerous Brotherhood – with Baathism. The plan was a mixed success. Some graduates of the Faith Campaign did indeed take to the contradictory Baath-Salafism cocktail, while others took so well to the religious ingredient that they abandoned entirely the secular ideological chaser. Many in this latter camp went on to commit terrorist attacks against the regime that spawned them.
Both the Baath-Salafists and the “pure” Salafists would join the anti-American insurgency; both would also be facilitated by the dying dictatorship in Baghdad. In 2003, Saddam issued a doomsday directive, known as his “emergency plan.” He instructed his Baath networks that, “God forbid, the Iraqi Command falls to the coalition forces: American, British and Zionist,” they should destroy their official headquarters and go to ground, conducting guerrilla attacks and sabotage campaigns against the occupiers, and using the Iraqi black-market to purchase weapons to do so. These networks were also instructed to assassinate high-level clerics given the likely contingency that previously monitored and controlled imams would become militant leaders in their own right. The terrorist franchises that emerged from this doomsday directive would bedevil coalition forces for nearly a decade. Many of the insurgency’s architects would also find shelter next-door, in Assad’s Syria.
Douri and Ahmed – Col. Harvey’s designated brains trust for the insurgency – were both given refuge in Syria following the US invasion of Iraq. This was the ironic coda to decades of mutual suspicion and outright enmity between the Baath parties of Damascus and Baghdad. Saddam, for instance, had sheltered Michel Aflaq, the founder of the Syrian Baath, while Hafez al-Assad rather fancifully referred to himself as the president of both Syria and Iraq. But now Douri and Ahmed were desperate and made a bold proposal to Hafez’s son and unintended heir: that both Baath parties should merge to expel the Americans and reconquer Iraq under a united banner. Bashar rejected this offer, instead opting to subordinate the Douri and Ahmed clans to his own Syrian-minted Iraqi Baath syndicate.
Assad also personally oversaw Syria’s contribution to the jihadist anarchy just getting started across the border. In the early days of post-invasion Iraq, Bashar’s brother-in-law and intelligence chief, Assef Shawkat – killed by Syrian rebels in 2012 – was tasked with facilitating and manipulating the exiled Iraqi Salafists created by the Faith Campaign and who were now angling to wage holy war on their native soil. Douri, consigned more to an outcast status in Syria, cultivated JRTN using plundered cash reserves from Iraq. Col. Joel Rayburn, a former US military intelligence analyst in Iraq who has written a forthcoming history of the conflict, told me that he doesn’t think Douri was “very well supported by Assad” at all; he maintained his own guerrilla army.