What started as a crackdown against democratic protests three years ago, has become a region-wide conflict that now has Iraq descending back into chaos. The countries of the region — along with the United States and various non-state actors — all have a hand in creating this moment, as money, fighters, weapons, and a desire to control the Middle East have come together to produce an extremely volatile and terrifying situation.
What has made the Syrian conflict so difficult to respond to has been the fact that the situation has refused to be tied down as just a civil war. In addition to the top-line fighting between the Syrian government and rebels who’d like to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, there’s also a proxy war ongoing between Sunni-majority states in the Gulf and Shiite-majority Iran and its allies. There’s also struggles for dominance among the rebels, who fight each other almost as frequently as the Assad government these days. Add in disagreements between the countries united against Assad over just which of the Syrian rebels to finance, and the reason a simple solution for the conflict hasn’t been developed becomes more understandable.
And standing out among all of this now is the attempts of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — to establish its own state within the region. ISIS managed to takeover the city of Fallujah in January, hold it against Iraqi army efforts to dislodge it, and in the last few days take over both the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit. The former al Qaeda affiliate is literally fighting every other actor in Syria in the process, whether through direct fighting or through proxies, diplomatic battles, or other forms of conflict that don’t involve actually shooting at each other. The confusion inherent in this situation is mapped out, as best as possible, in the below chart from ThinkProgress:
CREDIT: Adam Peck for ThinkProgress
As can be seen in the chart, ISIS is the most committed to taking on every single other actor. Their single-minded focus on creating an Islamic state in the “Greater Syria” region — which generally is considered to include Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan — has led them to completely ignore the borders drawn between the modern states that lie on the territory. As a demonstration of their commitment to the metaphor, ISIS fighters on Tuesday symbolically bulldozed a wall between Iraq and Syria.
The spread of ISIS throughout Iraq has been enough to link up portions of the territory they now hold with the regions they control within Syria as one map that has spread across the internet since yesterday shows. “The conflict is one and the same as far as they’re concerned,” Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, told Business Insider. “It’s about restoring Sunni dominance after what they regard as Shi’ite oppression, and resorting power to what they would regard as rightful Islam.”
ISIS’ assaults on Mosul and other areas have made things much easier for the terrorists to continue erasing the border between Iraq and Syria. Among the items that ISIS picked up from the fleeing Iraqi security forces — who American spent $20 billion training — are U.S.-made weapons and armored Humvees, along with aircraft from the airport it captured. ISIS fighters also freed all the detainees held in Mosul’s prisons, in a repeat of last year’s assault on Abu Ghraib, upping their numbers yet again. Reports also indicate that ISIS may have managed to loot as much as $400 million from the banks of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Slate’s Joshua Keating, citing terrorism experts, wrote that in capturing Mosul on Tuesday, ISIS may actually be on its way to completing its goal of establishing its own country.
In its fight against everyone else for the future of Syria, ISIS has definitely made itself some enemies. And in a conflict where actors are working together even as they try to kill each other, a common enemy is something that can be exploited. When consulting with CAP experts on the connections drawn in a rough draft of this chart, ThinkProgress was actually told that it needed to be more complex. In particular, the chart above is accurate in that the main groups within Syria fighting against Assad — Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and ISIS — are all fighting against each other. But the FSA and the Islamic Front also are in direct communication with each other in planning attacks against ISIS, sharing a communications center to launch their strikes, even as just miles away members of the Front attack FSA fighters and take over warehouses of Free Syrian Army supplies.
As Iraq struggles to take back its cities from ISIS, the region — including countries not in the above chart such as Jordan and Lebanon — are desparetly attempting to determine how best to aid Baghdad. Iran is now calling for international support for Baghdad as the United States mulls its response. But solutions seem hard to come by given the impossibility of sealing the border between Iraq and Syria now as the civil war continues to attract arms, money, and fighters. “The disaster is that Iraqis are fighting on both sides of the Syria conflict,” said Maysoon al Damlouji, a secular Sunni politician, told the Financial Times on Wednesday. Iraq is now part of the struggle for Syria’s future, whether it wants to be or not.