For a large part of the international community, the militants calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) appear to have emerged from left field to conquer sizeable territory in northern Iraq. ISIS has captured oil rich Mosul -- Iraq's second largest city -- Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and is reportedly only 100 miles away from Baghdad. The world's foreign offices and think tanks are scrambling to learn more about this shadowy outfit which, at the head of a few thousand committed fighters, has, for the moment at least, defeated a well-trained Iraqi army.
ISIS represented a group of Sunni fighters who had opposed the American invasion of Iraq which led to the empowerment of the Shia majority. This was bound to happen since the United States wished to replace Saddam Hussein's authoritarian one party government by introducing democracy. In the successive elections from mid-2005 until the American withdrawal in 2011, the government consisted mostly of ministers from the majority Shia community. This reality of the loss of power and prestige by the Sunni minority which had ruled Iraq since 1932 was felt keenly by some Sunni groups who revolted against the new political dispensation in Iraq. ISIS was one of these groups fighting both the newly reconstituted Iraqi army and their allies, the American troops in Iraq. Following the American troop surge in 2008, the al-Qaeda affiliated group ISIS could not make much headway militarily and was largely marginalized. The onset of the insurgency against the Assad government in Syria in 2011, which has morphed into a civil war, gave the ISIS the opportunity to reinvent itself in northern Syria. ISIS' move to Syria was looked upon with disfavor by the al-Qaeda leadership which disavowed its relationship with the former.
The above action does not seem to have unduly troubled ISIS' operations in either Syria or Iraq. It is considered the most ideologically focused group among the other anti-Assad groups such as the Free Syrian Army and even the more extremist al-Nusra Front. ISIS' success in northern Syria can partly be explained by the relative immunity allowed it by Assad. While he has been assiduous in counter-attacking his other opponents, he has largely allowed ISIS to operate without let or hindrance. ISIS has been able to attract a few thousand committed and hardened young fighters to its cause. This popularity has been achieved despite the condemnation of the other Sunni opposition groups who castigate ISIS for following an extreme version of Sunni Islam. ISIS, in turn, considers the moderate Sunni groups as apostates. ISIS has been able to exploit the natural resources in the territory it has captured in Syria to raise funds, for example, by selling the oil now under its control in eastern Syria.
ISIS seems to have followed the policy of exploiting the natural resources during its territorial expansion in Iraq. The capture of Mosul also resulted in the bonanza of a big oil refinery in that area which is now under the control of ISIS. It probably also benefits from foreign funds, but at this stage credible information on this subject does not appear to have been circulated in the media. The momentum of the capture of Mosul has been followed by capturing another major city, Tikrit, and reportedly threatening Samarra. One of its spokesmen has already boasted that they have Baghdad in their sights and even beyond have plans to capture Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims.
The next few days will reveal if the Iraqi army can withstand the ISIS blitzkrieg. I would imagine that capturing Baghdad would be a more difficult proposition than Mosul or Tikrit. If the capture of Baghdad does occur, it would represent a major reversal for the US, other western countries, and Turkey. It would also largely erase the border between Syria and Iraq, thereby overturning the Sykes-Picot secret agreement of 1916 whereby Britain and France had divided the Middle Eastern possessions of the Ottoman Empire as war spoils.
What is becoming clearer with each passing day is that the Middle East has to adjust to and counteract a new insurgent entity which some observers already claim is stronger in motivation and manpower than the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda.