Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Update On Iraq’s Insurgency Interview With Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi

 
Iraq’s insurgency continues to make gains across central Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) now just the Islamic State (IS) is in the vanguard of this war, but other groups such as the Baathist Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshibandi (JRTN) and its Military Councils, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, the Mujahadeen Army, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and others are involved. In many areas where ISIS has moved into it is attempting to dominate these other organizations. For an update on the situation is Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi who has extensively researched Syrian and Iraqi militant groups. He can be followed on Twitter at @ajaltamimi.

1. ISIS has been in the headlines during the current surge in violence, but in Anbar it doesn’t seem to have the same hold it does in other provinces. So what groups are active there and what are they doing?

If we start with Fallujah, which has been the city in Anbar the longest out of government hands since January [2014], the media made much of the ISIS parade and hoisting the banner there, but six months later ISIS still doesn’t exercise full control over the area. They are sharing power with a military council, which is composed of representatives of a variety of insurgent groups in the Fallujah area who are backed by local tribesmen. They include the local front-group branch of the Naqshibandi (i.e. the Fallujah branch of the General Military Council for Iraq’s Revolutionaries), the 1920s Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and others. Evidence that ISIS is still somewhat cautious of asserting itself too far is the fact that it hasn’t issued the equivalent of that city charter that it issued for Mosul, which details Islamic regulations like compelling women to wear modest dress, vowing to destroy idols, and so on. The city charter was a very clear indication of a rejection of Baathism equally as much as the “Safavid” republic, which is referring to the Shiite led government. In Fallujah ISIS still doesn’t have a full monopoly on power, but I’m sure its position has grown over time because they have the financial resources to engage in outreach.

If we go further out into the wider Fallujah area, for example like al-Garmah it’s not just ISIS. You have ISIS and their number one rival insurgent group in that area Jaish al-Mujahadeen, which is a nationalist-Islamist group that aspires to overthrow the central government, but is at the same time anti-Shiite in outlook.
The Islamic State holds both sides of the border with Al Qaim in Anbar and Al-Bukamal in Syria and even won the allegiance of members of Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra (Wikipedia)

In terms of the majority of recent gains made by the overall insurgency in Anbar against federal forces I think it is fair to say ISIS spearheaded or went it alone for the majority of those operations. If you look back at the controversy in April surrounding incursions into other areas of Anbar east of Fallujah and Ramadi like Zuba there were competing claims for credit from both ISIS and the JRTN’s front group the General Military Council. ISIS accused the General Military Council of stealing credit for operations, and reminded the other factions that its goal is to build a caliphate and anyone who opposes that project is its enemy. It subsequently emerged via a Military Council spokesman from Fallujah that it was actually just ISIS that carried out those incursions. Secondly, in terms of the recent gains in western Anbar like Rawa, al-Qaim, Ana, and so on it’s apparent that’s been spearheaded by ISIS particularly with al-Qaim. What happened there was once ISIS moved into the town they then went over to the other side of the border into Syria’s al-Bukamal as well, which had been controlled for some time by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. Jabhat al-Nusra, faced with the prospect of ISIS moving into al-Bukamal pledged allegiance to it. For a time ISIS controlled the majority of al-Bukamal, and other factions there basically acquiesced to ISIS’s rule, but it seems renewed fighting has broken out as rebels in al-Bukamal and reinforcements called in from elsewhere in Deir az-Zor province have sought to expel ISIS, which in turn has called up reinforcements from al-Qaim. So I think that’s a clear indication of who is calling the shots in al-Qaim and the other western Anbar towns need to be seen in that light as well. Although I have seen reports that local General Military Council militants operate in western Anbar as well, but again, I think it’s clear the gains in that area have been spearheaded by ISIS.

What’s interesting about far western Anbar is that with the initial wave of breakdown in government control sweeping across northern and western Iraq, rebels from the Syrian side of the border took advantage of the situation to make incursions and seize weaponry to defend themselves against ISIS on the Syrian side of the border, as ISIS had swiftly sent army HUMVEES taken from the Mosul offensive to its Hasakah province stronghold of ash-Shaddadi to be deployed in Deir az-Zor to conquer the remainder of the province.

Captured Iraqi Humvees being transported to Syria by IS (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)


The incursions by rebels from Syria into western Anbar may well have been facilitated by local tribesmen, and historically there are strong links between al-Bukamal and al-Qa’im even as the two localities were separated by provincial boundaries going back to the Ottoman era. Moreover, over the course of last year, the local leadership of at least two local groupings in al-Bukamal (Jabhat al-Nusra and a similarly aligned battalion called Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya) had participated in fighting in Iraq against government forces, working with ISIS in the days before widespread infighting broke out in Syria. However, the case of western Anbar demonstrates a pattern repeatedly seen where other insurgents might create the initial security vacuum but ISIS fills that gap eventually.

2. Let’s go to Mosul. There ISIS came in, but then people were speculating how they could take such a large city, so it obviously must have been working with other groups. Then afterward as you mentioned it issued a code of conduct for the city, so it’s pretty clear that ISIS led that attack. Who else is operating in Mosul?

IS parade in Mosul with captured ISF vehicles (via Alexandre Massimo)

If you look at the initial claims that were made in Mosul it was that the western half of the city fell, and from there the rest of the city fell out of government hands. The problem is the other insurgent factions tend not to admit to coordination. If you just read the ISIS Ninawa provincial feed you would think that it was just ISIS who seized those areas. On the other hand, the General Military Council, which as I said is the Naqshibandi (JRTN) front group, issued a statement saying that “all” the rebel factions in Mosul liberated the western side of the city. If you look at past evidence from before the fall of Mosul it is clear that other factions besides ISIS took part in the fall of the city most notably JRTN and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam. However I think there the gains were still spearheaded by ISIS. Secondly ISIS seized the bulk of financial assets and new military equipment in the city.

If you look at the way these groups present themselves in Mosul there’s been lots of evidence of ISIS parades in the city since its fall, while the evidence from the other groups has been more about showing the weaponry they captured or destroyed. The General Military Council’s output has featured destroyed Army HUMVEES for example. I have no doubt these other groups like JRTN and others played an auxiliary role in the capture of the city, but I’d stress it was an auxiliary one. The city charter issued by ISIS indicates a clear intention in the long run to exert sole control over the city. I think they will be able to do so because they’ve made so much money from the area from extortion and so on. We also have to consider that recent pledge of allegiance of dozens of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam members to ISIS. ISIS and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam clashed many times in Mosul, but I would say that ISIS had the upper hand in the clashes because it had better weaponry, more manpower, and better finances. I think it is quite clear that members of these other insurgent groups are fearful of ISIS’s power. While evidence currently suggests that ISIS hasn’t fully implemented the terms of their city charter particularly with regards to alcohol and cigarette smoking and so on, it has to be noted that the same was true of Raqqa, which is ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria. For some time ISIS didn’t fully implement its vision of Islamic law in that city either. For example, for many months before they gained full control of the city in January of this year, ISIS was putting up billboards stipulating that women should wear the hijab according to sharia [i.e. niqab], but that didn’t become prevalent until ISIS seized full control of the city. So I think there are clearly other factions in Mosul, but ISIS is the major faction there, and they have the means to reach out to the locals, and have the bulk of the weapons. In the scenario of future infighting in Mosul ISIS would likely succeed in completely expelling other insurgent groups from the town, and I think the longer the other insurgent groups tolerate ISIS then the more difficult it will be for them to dislodge ISIS.

3. After the fall of Mosul insurgents moved south. In Kirkuk almost the entire western half of the province fell, so who is doing what there?
Image posted on social media when idea of Jamaat Ansar al-Islama and Jaish al-Mujahadeen cooperation was proposed in Kirkuk (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)
Kirkuk's Hawija used to be a Naqshibani stronghold but IS has now asserted control over it (AFP)

Kirkuk is interesting because areas like Hawija have traditionally been associated with JRTN. So for example, the Hawija protest site from last year was managed by Intifada Ahrar Al-Iraq, which is the activist wing of the JRTN. In particular an interesting trend more recently was this output from Jamaat Ansar al-Islam and Jaish al-Mujahadeen suggesting brotherhood and coordination in the Hawija area. That seemed to be a trend dating back to April. There were these hints of forging a closer relationship between those two groups as a counter to ISIS. There were apparent proposals of a cease-fire between ISIS and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in April, but those failed because ISIS ultimately sees itself as a state and wouldn’t except third party independent arbitration of their disputes with other groups. So there was that dimension. There has also been evidence of JRTN activity in particular in the seizure of army bases and weaponry, and the destruction of Iraqi Army equipment. Again I think you see the same pattern coming where again ISIS places emphasis upon raids and hoisting their banner. So you’ve seen ISIS raising their banner at Sulaiman Bek and also Hawija in the main square and they held a parade there. I’d say that is indicative of the pattern I mentioned above where the other insurgent groups might play the initial role in destabilizing government control and seizing an area and creating a vacuum, and then ISIS moves in and fills that gap with an emphasis upon the urban areas. So in the urban area of Hawija ISIS seems to have asserted itself. To give a parallel example at the Fallujah Dam [in Anbar], which was initially seized by JRTN in January [2014], ISIS later filled that gap.
Jaish al-Mujahadeen video in Hawija, Kirkuk driving a captured Iraqi Army T-55 tank (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

4. Salahaddin appears to be where most of the heavy fighting is going on. The Baiji refinery has been attacked over and over again, Samarra is a really important city for the militias because of the Askari shrine there, and the Iraqi forces just launched an operation in Tikrit. What’s going on there?

The crucial initial event there was the fall of Tikrit actually, which involved not only ISIS guys coming in from the north, but from the west as well. As I recall the General Military Council claimed involvement through moving in on the southern entrance into Tikrit. Jamaat Ansar al-Islam also posted a photo where they hoisted their banner over one of the entrances to the city. So again I think multiple insurgent groups moved in on the city, but again ISIS seems to have spearheaded the offensive. Since then they’ve asserted themselves by putting their banner up in one of the central points of the city. They also crucially executed hundreds of army soldiers in the Tikrit area. Again in terms of other [militant] output it’s more of the same where the other insurgent groups put the emphasis upon taking new military equipment from army bases, but when it comes to power it’s ISIS who have asserted power within the center of Tikrit.
Jamaat Ansar Al-Islam raising their banner at one of the entrances to Tikrit showing they were involved in taking the city (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

IS's banner in the center of Tikrit shows whose in control of Tikrit (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)
The Islamic State is in the lead in Salahaddin's Baiji, Tikrit and the attack upon Samarra (Defence Point)

Also in Baiji it’s largely under ISIS control again. It held a military parade there. They’re not the only faction within that city, but I think the way things are going they will assert themselves there as they have done in Tikrit.

Samarra is relevant because there had been an offensive into the city only days before the fall of Mosul. The evidence for that suggests that it was an ISIS led offensive. Samarra is also relevant because of the role of Shiite militiamen have been involved in the fighting. Asaib Ahl al-Iraq lost at least one fighter in the defense of the city that [initially] pushed ISIS out. More recently Kataib Hezbollah with their new front group the Popular Defense Brigades also lost two fighters in that area and crucially pro-government outlets like al-Masalah have readily reported on the role the Popular Defense Brigades have played in assisting government forces in the fight to retake Tikrit.

Much of the media reporting seems to be focused on the fight for the Baiji refinery. I think the evidence for that shows that ISIS is involved, but I think other insurgent groups seem to be playing an auxiliary role in the fighting there.

Overall I think Salahaddin province mimics the picture of what’s going on in the other provinces. Again it is ISIS that spearheads most of these attempts to rest these new areas from government control. I think the second most relevant dimension is the role of Shiite militiamen and their concern about the “defense of the shrine” narrative, which has been mentioned previously by Phillip Smyth.

5. Diyala really hasn’t been getting much press, but there’s been fighting there for a while too. So who is active in Diyala province?

In Diyala province again ISIS has been there as well. They’ve played off sectarian tensions there for some time, and that’s going back to at least last year. Shiite militiamen are there as well, and that’s not a new phenomenon. So for example I’ve mentioned before in my work about complaints about Asaib Ahl Al-Haq operating there with impunity, and causing displacement of Sunnis within Diyala province going back to last year. ISIS has played off of that to build local support.
Islamic Army of Iraq fighters hold a Shiite banner captured in Diyala (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

On the other hand, Diyala is interesting because there’s photographic evidence of the Islamic Army of Iraq being active there. The Islamic Army of Iraq is disliked by most of the other insurgent factions because after the U.S. withdrawal it set up an activist wing Al-Herak Ash-Sha’abi as-Sunni, the Sunni Popular Movement, which sought by peaceful means to achieve a Sunni federal region. That was seen as being too moderate by other factions like Jaish al-Mujahadeen that have always been rejectionists towards the central government. Again, the JRTN front, the General Military Council, is there and I’m sure they have been coordinating with ISIS in the contested areas like Jalwala and Azim.

There’s a third element at play as with the Kirkuk area with the Kurdish aspirations to use this opportunity to take the disputed territories. I’m not saying it is wholly opportunistic. I think most people in practice would prefer to see a place like Kirkuk and some of these Diyala areas come under KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] control rather than insurgent control, but nonetheless one has to remember that this is not a recipe for stability in the long run because the Sunni insurgent groups hate the central government, but that doesn’t mean they look favorably upon the KRG either. Interestingly, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam has some Kurdish members although it is mostly Sunni Arab now, but it considers the KRG and peshmerga apostates. So neither in Kirkuk nor in Diyala will simply having the peshmerga in these contested areas lead to stability in the long run as long as the Sunni Arab insurgency is so active.

6. Northern Babil province has been under insurgent control for a while now. The security forces have launched operation after operation there saying that it is cleared, and then go right back in a week or two later.
In northern Babil's Iskandiriya, Jurf al-Sakhr and Musayib it is just the Islamic State carrying out attacks (IraqSlogger)

Babil province is interesting because it is essentially just ISIS. There is no evidence to suggest that other insurgent groups are operating there, and more over the evidence shows that ISIS has been active in these hot spot areas both now as ISIS and as its predecessor the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) for a number of years now even during the height of the Surge when there was still a large U.S. presence. The security forces were not able to build sufficient trust with the local population to crackdown on ISI or ISIS. In the same way that ISI and ISIS were never dislodged from Mosul ISIS and its previous incarnation have been in Jurf al-Sakhr and Iskandiriya and Musayib for a long time. I think that exemplifies a fundamental problem that goes beyond just who is prime minister. Of course the prime minister is the commander and chief of the armed forces, but ultimately what goes on on the ground and how the security forces conduct their operations alienates locals, and I think that is a problem that pervades the entire military culture. That’s not just true of Iraq but of the wider Middle East and North Africa.

7. Lets do the last province Baghdad. Obviously that is the goal of all the insurgent groups to reach the capital and overthrow the government. Are there any other groups that have claimed operations there besides ISIS?

Yes, if we look at Tarmiya and Taji in northern Baghdad province there has been video evidence of operations by the Naqshibandi front group the General Military Council. Also there’s been this minor insurgent brand called Kataib Thwar al-Sunna who have carried out IED attacks in the Baghdad suburbs. However I haven’t seen any other output from them for a couple months now. As a brand it seems like it just doesn’t compete with ISIS. The operations in Taji by the Naqshibandi are primarily mortar rounds and IEDs, and that doesn’t suggest anything like mounting a full-scale offensive on the city in the way ISIS is emphasizing through its rhetoric. ISIS talks about the “greatest battle of Baghdad” is coming for months now, and that was before the fall of Mosul. I don’t think that will succeed. The only likely result of that will be more ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs from the Baghdad suburbs and from the Baghdad belt area. It’s just going to trigger a terrible human cost of mass displacement and killings, and so on.

Summing up where the insurgency is going it can only go so far as Sunni majority areas. They can’t overthrow the central government. ISIS just can’t go in and claim the capture of Baghdad. Of course you’ll have unrest in the Sunni suburbs, but Baghdad is a Shiite majority city. Given the activation of Shiite militias as well it will just trigger bloodshed and displacement of Sunni Arabs, and they’ll just be an even smaller demographic constituent of the city then now considering they are a smaller proportion of the city since 2003. Some areas to look out for would be Saidiya in southern Baghdad that’s one of the few mixed Sunni-Shiite areas of the city that is still left. I think it will go majority Shiite by the end of all this.

On another major concluding note I would add that ISIS’ announcement of the establishment of a Caliphate marks the boldest venture yet in ISIS’ assertion of the primacy of its status and goals in relation to the other insurgent groups. Already prior to the announcement there were signs of a shift towards Caliphate messaging in ISIS’ Iraq discourse, referring to its flag prior to the announcement as the “Banner of the Caliphate” and the rebuke to the General Military Council back in April. Certainly it is a somewhat risky move in increasing the chances of wider infighting in Iraq between ISIS and the other insurgent groups, but as even the Syrian experience should show the chances of substantially rolling back ISIS in this scenario are slim. Generally there is too much willingness to buy into the claims of the likes of [Sheikh] Ali Hatem [Sulaiman] that “tribal” fighters will defeat ISIS or General Military Council claims to have tens of thousands of fighters. Ultimately a real change in the situation would only come about if the U.S. decided to deploy a large-scale ground force but I think J.M. Berger is right that ISIS’ declaration of the Caliphate may complicate things- whether through U.S. airstrikes or a ground force- as it becomes easier to attract global Muslim support if the U.S. is seen to be the power trying to destroy the new Caliphate. Things just got a whole lot murkier. If ISIS’ long-term trajectory is to experience a major decline in its fortunes, then we are talking of a timescale of at least several years, I believe.

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