For about six months, the Iraqi army has been conducting a large military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The latter not only repelled the attack, but in the past few days launched a series of invasions it called “Enter through the Door.” Those invasions targeted the cities of Samarra, in Salahuddin province, and Mosul in Ninevah.
This comes in conjunction with ISIS fighting great battles against what it calls the “Golani-Awakenings Alliance” in Syria’s eastern region. That raises serious questions about the strength of ISIS because it has been fighting for many months and on several fronts without losing the ability to launch new attacks. What is ISIS relying on? What are the parties and states that support it? And how can it go on in light of the many battles waged against everyone in both countries, Syria and Iraq?
ISIS started in Iraq under the name of Islamic State of Iraq. Then it expanded into Syria and became the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. It took Syrian territory as a major center for itself, while the importance of Iraq decreased due to field conditions. That change was consecrated when ISIS entirely took control of Raqqa after it expelled the other factions there several months ago. There is information that ISIS considers Raqqa its main capital and has taken a number of measures to prove that, such as having its most important military, religious and security leaders move to Raqqa. ISIS even opened “embassies” in Raqqa to some regions affiliated with ISIS.
Organizationally, ISIS considers the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq as one land that is part of a single state. ISIS is fighting in both countries according to that vision, which is based on “expansion,” a term that has become one of its most important principles and objectives. So it was natural for the border between Syria and Iraq to see back and forth movements of ISIS elements according to its field and organizational needs.
This vision is driving ISIS to fight fiercely against the “Golani and Awakenings Alliance” in Deir ez-Zour to control the border areas with Iraq, so as to ensure supply lines of ISIS and to ease of movement between the “two parts” of the state, especially since ISIS controls large swathes of the Anbar desert, which is adjacent to the Syrian border.
As if the Syrian arena is not complicated enough, the ISIS “expansion” strategy came to make it even more complicated. It led to the overlap of the warring parties in both countries.
It should be pointed out that the Iraqi army is not alone in standing against ISIS in Iraq. There is also the Ansar al-Islam organization, noting that this organization now has a branch in Syria, in particular in the Aleppo countryside. And there is information that Ansar al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra are cooperating against ISIS.
Abu Dhar al-Iraqi, the ISIS emir in al-Mayadin in the province of Deir ez-Zour, was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra and released in April as part of a deal between the two parties. He said in videotaped testimony that Jabhat al-Nusra’s grand mufti, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, asked him to communicate with the leaders of Ansar al-Islam to re-establish an al-Qaeda branch in Iraq.
Moreover, two weeks ago Qahtani issued a statement apologizing to Iraq’s Sunnis for the crimes in which he participated when he was an ISIS official. He specifically apologized to Ansar al-Islam, which makes it likely that the two parties are truly cooperating.
After six months of fighting on several fronts without any party being able to defeat it in either Syria or Iraq, ISIS announced a series of invasions called “Enter through the Door,” in a clear message that ISIS was still strong. It is striking that when ISIS attacked Samarra last week, it used, for the first time, heavy weapons such as rocket launchers. This indicates that ISIS has the means to transport military equipment from Syria to Iraq, and suggests that ISIS feels very strong in Syria as it confronts the “Awakenings” in Deir ez-Zour and can do without some of its weapons and send them across the border to its elements in Iraq.