BEIRUT: The militant group ISIS has spearheaded a lightning offensive in Iraq and set off alarm bells in world capitals, anxious about the rising threat of Al-Qaeda militancy.
But experts say the dramatic developments don’t reflect sweeping gains by a small group of fighters too extreme for even the central Al-Qaeda leadership. And while the insurgency is routinely described as a “Sunni” phenomenon, it is far from generating a single group that can claim to speak in the name of Iraq’s second-largest community.
Juan Cole, an Iraq expert, recently published on his blog “seven myths about the radical Sunni advance in Iraq,” which he termed a “pluralist urban rebellion” and not a categorical victory for the extreme ideology and policies of ISIS.
At least two large categories of non-ISIS insurgents have surfaced, in the form of ex-Baathists and tribal groups, and for Cole, the fall of Mosul can’t be explained by thousands of army and security personnel in Iraq’s second-largest city fleeing from a relatively small number of ISIS militants.
“A few thousand troops were facing hundreds of thousands of angry urbanites and were in danger of being overwhelmed,” Cole wrote, arguing that the explanation of “popular uprising” and not Al-Qaeda offensive appeared to make more sense.
Speaking to the U.S. program “Democracy Now” Cole also described the advance as a result of ISIS using its cells in Sunni cities to coordinate “with other groups, including secular and socialist groups, like ex-Baathists, to stage urban uprisings against the Maliki regime and its security forces.”
“I think that this is a very complex phenomenon and an expression of popular discontent, and not just a series of military advances” by ISIS, he added.
The developments in Iraq, experts say, are the result of at least several dozen groups coming together to benefit from policies of premier Nouri al-Maliki’s government that worked to alienate Sunnis. ISIS is for now the most visible element of the insurgency, but it is working in cooperation with a dizzying range of local actors, shadowy networks of Salafist Iraqi Sunnis, as well as representatives of leading tribes and the remnants of the Baath Party.
For Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, “many other armed Sunni actors are involved in what has become, in effect, a Sunni uprising.”
“ISIS may be the largest force involved [with about 8,000 fighters in Iraq], but it is far from sufficient to take and hold multiple urban centers,” he wrote in an article for CNN.
“It is still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating Sunni population. But this ‘relationship’ is by no means stable and should not be taken for granted. The militant group has consistently failed to retain popular support, or at minimum, acceptance,” he said.
When ISIS coalesced in Syria last year, it fairly quickly generated widespread resentment and revulsion as it launched a reign of terror in areas where it gained control of territory, targeting both rebel militias and civilian populations.
The tension exploded at the beginning of the year into a bloody mini-war pitting ISIS against a whole range of mainstream and Islamist Syrian rebel groups, in fighting and violence believed to have killed at least 6,000 people.
“Mosul residents might be praising the current stability and ISIS-subsidized bread and fuel prices,” Lister wrote, “but once the public flogging, amputations and crucifixions begin, this may well change. In fact, it is not surprising that tribal elements are already preparing to force ISIS from captured areas.”
Experts and commentators have also identified the remnants of “sahwa” tribal groups as one partner of ISIS. Ironically, the sahwa groups fought the predecessor of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq, during the U.S. occupation, amid wide-scale popular resentment of Al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology and its tactic of bombing civilian areas and places of worship.
Another principal actor is Saddam Hussein’s former confidante Izzat Ibrahim Douri, believed to be based in Mosul. The former No. 2 man in the Iraqi Baathist regime was never caught by the Americans and has been active as an insurgent leader for the last decade.
In another irony, Douri forged ties with the Sufi movement – despised by many who follow Al-Qaeda-style ideology – and formed a group called the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order. Although Douri leads a Sufi-inspired group, it has played a leading role in the fighting – some reports refer to Douri as enjoying a level of clout that rivals ISIS in today’s Iraq chaos.
Another group that has been active in fighting the Baghdad government is a group called the General Military Council of Iraqi Rebels, claiming followers in various towns and cities.
The group shares the objective of fighting the pro-Shiite policies of Maliki but it avoids explicitly sectarian rhetoric, and demands the humane treatment of prisoners of war – in stark contrast to the summary execution of soldiers carried out by ISIS in Salaheddin province.
The difficulty of separating Al-Qaeda from the broader insurgency is also one of the principal reasons why countries such as the U.S. are aware of the difficulty of targeting one group, ISIS, without antagonizing a whole range of other insurgents.