The actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) during the last three months indicate, without any doubt, that it is not preoccupied with the battles in Anbar province as much as it is concerned with expanding the scope of its influence to other territories.
Data supporting this conclusion on the Iraqi map of events is evidenced by ISIS stepping up its presence around Baghdad over the last few months. This began with its takeover of the town of Sulaiman Beik (in the north) to its attempted takeover of the towns of Azim and Saadieh in Diyala province, when it headed south toward the Nahrawan region, all the way to Babil and the towns of Jurf al-Sakhr and Museib, with the circle completing itself in areas west of Baghdad such as Radwaniyeh, Abu Ghraib and down to Fallujah. The latter is connected to the arc through cities north of Baghdad such as Tarmia, Dlouiyeh, Samarra and toward the Hamrin mountains on the outskirts of which lies the town of Sulaiman Beik.
This wide circle of ISIS militants around Baghdad as well as their undisputed presence in Mosul indicates that the organization is not depleting its forces in the fight for Fallujah, but, on the contrary, is trying to produce many new “Fallujahs” along this arc that encircles Baghdad.
In this regard, Iraqi security sources seem aware of al-Qaeda’s movements, and have told Al-Monitor that security and military formations are positioned along a concentric arc surrounding the capital.
But this deployment does not seem to only be associated with ISIS’ decisions, since the organization’s chances of creating insecure and volatile environments outside the authority of the state are not great, unless those areas, as in Fallujah, are the scene of clan turmoil or protests.
In other words, ISIS is encouraging Sunni areas along this arc around Baghdad to expound on the Fallujah experience, with the organization taking a backseat to clan gunmen who would lead the protests.
This strategy seems completely different from al-Qaeda’s typical modus operandi, according to which the organization usually attempts to impose its philosophies and use its presence to propagate its brand of the “Islamic state.” Therefore, ISIS relinquishing its leadership role in Fallujah and its decision to dispatch other factions to conduct similar operations in Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahuddin and north Babylon confirms the fact that the organization now is cognizant — more than at any other time — of the social and religious makeup of Sunni regions. It is thus trying to avoid provoking them; attempting instead to exploit them for its benefit as long as doing so falls in line with its ultimate objectives.
Going back to the political roots of the crisis in Sunni areas in general, including Anbar, we find that the widening chasm between the state and inhabitants of Sunni regions afforded ISIS an added advantage. Namely, it gave the organization an ability to agree with the clans and inhabitants on a mutual goal, even if the actual differences between Sunni clans and ISIS were greater than those clans’ disagreements with the government.
The organization’s ability to export the common goal around which demonstrations were held throughout 2013, and its ability to deepen the Sunni sense of marginalization and exclusion — or even to use the Fallujah events as proof that the clans could, if they wanted, lead a wide-scale uprising that government forces would be powerless to confront — are all palpable factors for ISIS’ expansion on the ground, and its quiet permeation through Sunni areas that, in principle, reject the organization.
This is where the role of the state and the political roots of the crisis come into play. Dealing with the developments only in Sunni areas, and the assumption that the battle is confined to Anbar province, is a strategic blunder that the government might make. Addressing the Anbar crisis, through reaching understandings with the clans, will not assuage the grievances of other areas and ISIS’ exploitation of those grievances, leading to conflagrations similar to the one in Fallujah.
The situation is more complex in Fallujah. The first resolution to the crisis there must start with bringing down the bridges that ISIS has worked to build with the inhabitants, particularly in remote villages and among those adversely affected by the behavior of security forces.
Demolishing those bridges must begin with a strategy predicated on the existence of a state, and not one arising from the existence of a particular government. The state strategy would thus entail the latter redefining its relationship with local inhabitants, regardless of affiliation. And any political, economic, security or social avenues toward that end will pave the way to a permanent solution.