Is anyone else feeling a little overwhelmed by the reports on ISIS and the conflict in Iraq and Syria? There’s a lot of information to sift through, which is why we thought we’d do some leg work for you and summarise the key facts.
What is ISIS?
ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (in Arabic the ‘S’ stands for al-Sham, which actually refers to a region that includes southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt, including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group has now changed its name to Islamic State but the acronym ISIS still stands.
The group is an Islamic extremist group that has its origins in an organisation that was formed in 1999. It was closely linked with al-Qaeda until February 2014, when al-Qaeda broke ties with it. Its goal is to found a strict Islamic state in Iraq and the territories mentioned above.
Much of its ideology and propaganda is based on the historical fight between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The tension between the two groups was heightened when Saddam Hussein was president as he was Sunni, ruling a majority-Shia population in Iraq. He spread the belief that Sunnis are the majority and therefore entitled to more power – a belief that many still have today.
This is why ISIS is strong in the Sunni north and uses the justification that the Shia government does not represent Sunnis fairly.
Why is ISIS such a big threat?
The ISIS armed forces have taken over land in Iraq and Syria, controlling a territory roughly the size of Belgium. The group has an estimated worth of two billion dollars, which it has acquired by collecting taxes, selling electricity and exporting oil extracted from the land it has taken over.
According to UN reports there have been over 5 500 deaths in Iraq during the ISIS conflict. The group has forced over 1 500 women and children into sexual slavery and is responsible for mass violence, kidnappings, and destruction of property including places of worship.
Furthermore, hundreds of women and girls are leaving their homes in Western countries to join the ISIS movement by becoming the wives of jihadists and bearing their children. They are recruited by persuasive propaganda on social networks.
ISIS has released video footage that depicts the murders of four Western civilians: US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Scottish aid worker David Haines and British aid worker Alan Henning. The murders are an attempt to get the US and UK to curb their air strikes on ISIS territory. It has threatened to kill more Western hostages until it gets what it wants.
Who is fighting against ISIS?
The Iraqi government is working hard to fight ISIS militia in the country but soldiers in its army are divided because of religious sections. Iran’s Quds Force, one of the most skilled armed forces in the world, is helping. However, its involvement is complicated by its bad relationship with the US but the two countries have agreed to try to work together on this issue. Another strong force against ISIS is the Kurdish militia (the Kurds live semi-autonomously in northern Iraq), which is currently working to stop ISIS taking over the main Kurdish towns in the north. Turkish and Syrian armies are also fighting off ISIS in Syria.
On 10 September Obama announced the US’s official attack strategy to destroy ISIS. It mainly includes air strikes in the region and providing training and further resources to Syrian and Kurdish armed forces. The UK has also joined the fight.