The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was, for the first time last week, fully engaged on both its stated fronts, fighting critical battles against government forces in western Iraq and rival rebels in northern Syria.
ISIS has been battling pro- and anti-regime factions in Syria for months, gaining significant ground in the north of the country. Then last week, ISIS captured key parts of several western cities in Iraq, raising the specter that ISIS’ regional presence — and violent tactics — will continue to spread.
The group, an al Qaeda affiliate, launched in Iraq about a decade ago to oppose the U.S.-led war there. In 2011, an offshoot began fighting in Syria, and last year it began to supersede homegrown rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In just a short time, ISIS has changed the fight in Syria from an uprising fermented by domestic grievances against Assad’s brutal rule into a proxy battle for competing sectarian and regional interests. Last week, the group turned its attention again to Iraq, particularly Fallujah in Anbar province, the center of the bloody Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces in 2004, which is now seen as a test of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s ability to prevent civil war and stem Iraq’s deteriorating security situation.
ISIS aims to institute an extremist form of Sunni Islam throughout the region. (ISIS is also sometimes referred to as ISIL because in Arabic the group uses the term sham, which can be translated as Levant, an area that broadly includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.) ISIS also feeds off domestic grievances brewing in the region’s political vacuums. In Iraq, many Sunnis accuse Maliki’s Shia-led government of marginalizing their community and abusing anti-terrorism measures to silence Sunni opposition. In Syria, ISIS is now the largest opposition force fighting to oust Assad following decades of his brutal rule. With ISIS around, the border between Iraq and Syria is increasingly porous.
In Syria, moreover, there are currently two Al Qaeda offshoots, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The two had similar origins, but split in 2012 due to internal disagreements. In recent days, ISIS has lost some ground in fights with rival rebels in Syria, in part galvanized by ISIS’ treatment of civilians in opposition held-areas. But ISIS still remains the strongest opposition group in the country. It now reportedly has approximately 5,500 foreign fighters. Reports allege that ISIS in Syria receives significant funding from Saudi Arabia as part of the Kingdom’s proxy war to prevent Iran and Hezbollah, who are both allied with Assad, from gaining further ground in Iraq and Syria.
As the violence spreads, the above map and videos below provide visual context into how ISIS’ presence is felt on the ground.