The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq, has a special project and is happy to work without partners unless they agree to work under its umbrella. ISIS will not hesitate to sacrifice everything in order to fulfill this operation. It is ready to carry out bloody conflicts with its closest allies should it sense that they are hindering the operation. In contrast, ISIS will not be reluctant to shake hands with its worst enemies if it senses that this would serve its aims.
After the Sunni Awakening of 2007-2009, ISIS lost a great deal of the power and areas of control it had upon the announcement of the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in October 2006. This state used to stretch from Baghdad to Diyala, Salahuddin, Ninevah, Babil and Anbar. However, after two years of war, ISIS had to isolate itself to try to absorb the blows that have been pounding against it from all sides. Things culminated with the death of ISIS emir Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and his minister of warfare, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, in a military operation by the Iraqi security forces in April 2010.
Many of the armed factions in Iraq participated in the formation of the Sunni Awakening [movement], which under direct guidance from the leadership of the American occupation forces fought against ISIS. These included the Islamic Army, the Mujahideen Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, Hamas of Iraq and many other factions. These groups were mushrooming on Iraqi territory in the wake of the US occupation and the ensuing chaos and instability.
It is worth noting that two of the armed factions back then, Ansar al-Islam and the Naqshbandi Army, did not fight against ISIS under the umbrella of the Sunni Awakening nor any other wider movement. Ansar al-Islam started fighting ISIS independently in 2004, through the establishment of the Hamzah Battalion and then the Anbar Revolutionaries Brigade in 2005.
Three factors enabled ISIS to regain its power after the severe blows it had been dealt by the Awakening forces that almost toppled it.
The first factor is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the position of Abu Omar and proved that he has impressive military and security expertise. Second, one ought to mention the policy of eradicating the Baath Party by the Iraqi government, as it allowed ISIS to attract a large number of Baath-affiliated civilians and [military] officers, including senior officers with combat expertise. However, it should be noted that those officers had joined the ranks of ISIS based on new Salafist convictions and not out of their old Baathist ideologies.
Thirdly and most importantly, the US administration and the Iraqi government changed their direction as they sought to dismantle the Awakening groups and eliminate their leaders. ISIS leaders took advantage of this fact to make a strong comeback in the Iraqi arena during the period between September 2009 and April 2010, which witnessed major operations by ISIS.
Nevertheless, ISIS still suffered from lax security in its structure, which had led to the death of its previous emir, who was replaced with Baghdadi.
While ISIS was gradually regaining its power, other factions were either handing their weapons to the government — in order to be able to participate in the political process — or were being attacked by the Iraqi army and security forces, and other forces were trying to ease the situation with the Iraqi government based on the directives of the countries supporting them.
We can say that by 2012, the majority of the armed factions had been absent from the Iraqi arena, except for Ansar al-Islam, the Naqshbandi Army, and Ansar al-Sunna.
While the opponents of ISIS blame the organization for its approach to fighting all those that are not in line with its ideology, some believe that ISIS is not the only reason behind the disappearance of the armed factions. They argue that the lack of funding and support and the desire of other factions to engage in the political process were among the reasons that put an end to the plethora of armed factions in Iraq.
The developments in the crisis in Syria — where ISIS was eventually fighting alone against the rest of the jihadist factions [and the regime] — were mirrored in Iraq and in the relationship with ISIS and the remaining group, particularly Ansar al-Islam.
The relation between the two movements begun to strain in light of mutual assassination attempts by the leaders of both sides; meanwhile, there had been leaks about a rapprochement between Ansar al-Islam and the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri.
It is widely believed that ISIS rejects any rapprochement between al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam, as this is seen as a direct threat to the state it intends to set up on both sides of the border between Syria and Iraq.
As for the Naqshbandi Army, it seemed strange for some — after the events in Mosul last week — to describe it as Baathist and to claim that it has been allying with ISIS in the attack on Ninevah. Some media outlets have gone as far as to claim that the Naqshbandi Army had been leading the battles behind the scenes.
However, new reports emerged claiming that there has been a disagreement between ISIS and the Naqshbandi Army because of ISIS’s policy of applying Islamic Law.
The truth of the matter is that the relationship between ISIS and the Naqshbandi Army is one that is ambiguous and unclear. This perhaps was the reason behind the claims of many that the Baathists have a major role in what is happening in Iraq.
However, this confusion in the relations between both sides does not suggest that there is an alliance between them. It is in fact based on the approach of the Naqshbandi Army not to fight with any internal group. Instead limiting its relatively few military operations to fights against the American occupation only. It should be noted that in the eyes of ISIS, the Naqshbandi Army militants are infidels given the fact they are first of all Baathists and Sufis.
In this context, it is important to note that two months ago, some media reports quoted statements attributed to a source close to the Naqshbandi Army, who confirmed that his group had issued a fatwa to "eliminate ISIS militants everywhere." This is further proof that both sides were at loggerheads a few weeks before the latest attack on Mosul and therefore it is not conceivable to believe that an alliance might have been formed.