Why did ISIS turn its back on Damascus and Baghdad?
By: Abdulrahman al-Rashed
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were two months ago marching south towards the gates of the Iraqi capital following their capture of the city of Mosul and after they seized control of the Anbar province. Despite that, they did not enter Baghdad. Despite all expectations, they headed north towards Kurdistan! In Syria, ISIS followed a similar course as it turned its back on Damascus and headed east towards Raqqa after it seized the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. ISIS gained an easy victory over Division 17 of the Syrian army’s Brigade 93. This strengthened the belief that the Syrian regime is intentionally giving up faraway areas to ISIS control and is settling with fighting the Free Syrian Army in Jawbar, Rokneddine and Damascus’ suburbs.
The confusing question is: Why did ISIS transfer its men to these faraway areas in Iraq’s Kurdistan and eastern Syria? Also, why hasn’t ISIS fought the regime’s main centres for almost a year now?
What we see on the map is that the terrorist organization seeks to control Sunni-populated areas and ignores others. This makes one wonder. Maybe it wants to establish its state, the caliphate, instead of getting involved in other sectarian areas which will be difficult to control. Or, it could really be working to thwart the revolution in Syria and serve Nouri al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq. This is the widely-held theory which people seem to be convinced of, especially in Syria as many think ISIS is just another organization infiltrated and controlled by the Syrian regime – just as al-Qaeda in Iraq was labeled as the resistance against American occupation.
ISIS loves to attract attention
For an organization that loves to attract attention and declare victories and which defied its rivals in broad daylight, it is illogical to back down from attacking Baghdad or Damascus just because it’s looking for safe faraway areas. Authority, influence and global attention can be garnered by fighting over capital cities. Kurdistan is a mountainous area that will not provide any added value to ISIS even if it achieves some victories in it. The same goes for eastern areas in Syria. These are all marginal areas in the struggle the two countries are facing. At the same time, we see that ISIS is threatening border areas with Turkey and Saudi Arabia – two countries which strongly disagree with the Syrian regime. This again reinforces the theory that the group has been infiltrated by the Syrian regime! Before that, all ISIS’ battles were contained to Iraq’s Sunni provinces.
Perhaps Iraq’s Kurdistan will be ISIS graveyard, especially after Peshmerga forces joined the fight and the United States became involved in the struggle for the first time since the situation deteriorated three years ago. Kurdistan is a rugged region and it will repel foreign organizations like ISIS. ISIS will not be able to influence the political situation even if it wins in some areas.
The political tug of war in Baghdad remains of grave importance because if it succeeds in removing Maliki and assigning a moderate Shiite figure as a prime minister, everyone will unite to fight against ISIS, especially amidst the increased international support centered on the call for a new government.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.