The ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, previously called al-Qaeda in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and currently called the Islamic state (after declaring Iraq a ‘Caliphate’) – has become a major non-state player in the conflict in Iraq as well as Syria. The organisation, which has its origins in Iraq, had shifted its base of operations to Syria when the civil war began in the country to oust the Assad regime. As of July, 2014, the organisation has control of much of Northern Iraq including cities such as Mosul, Rawa, Sharqat, Anah, Fallujah, Sulaiman Bek, Hawijah, Mosul, and Tal Afar. The ISIS  has taken control of several villages near al-Mansoriya gas field, thirty miles east of Baqubah, which is located 50 km northeast of Baghdad. For Iraq, this is yet another chapter in the already bloodied history of the 93-year old country, a product of Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Moreover, the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq have exacerbated tensions between the largest denominations of Islam – Shia and Sunni – further. Most importantly, the current ISIS offensive in Iraq, whether it be successful or not, will have huge implications for the geopolitical and security environment, not only in the immediate neighbourhood of the Middle East but also in Europe and South Asia.


Shia-Sunni Equations


The Shia-Sunni divide which can be traced back to almost 14 centuries ago when Huseyn Ibn Ali was killed (following a conflict regarding the succession after Prophet Mohammed) has given a sectarian flavour to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The ISIS is a Sunni group leading an insurrection against the Shia-led governments in the region – Syria and Iraq. The instance in which the captured Iraqi soldiers were quizzed about their sectarian background and tribal affiliations, before they were massacred, is a gruesome reminder of the fact that the conflict is also a sectarian one. The militants already have destroyed four Shia mosques in Mosul and fired mortar rounds at al-Askari mosque, one of the most venerated Shia Muslim places of worship in Samarra, 125 km from Baghdad.


In the meantime, the Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali-Al Sastani’s call to Shias to enroll in the military to defend Iraq against the Sunni militants clearly shows where the fault-lines lie in the conflict. Also, Iran has vowed to defend Shia holy cities and towns such as Karbala, Najaf, Kadimiyah and Samarra. This plainly shows that the persisting crisis in Iraq and Syria are expected to have repercussions in the whole Islamic world. Shockingly, even the Indian Islamic community, which has generally kept itself immune to the Middle Eastern conflict zones or any other conflict zones in the world, is seeing some of its members signing up to defend the Shia holy sites in Iraq.


The NATO-led Middle East Policy and the Iran Dilemma


In addition to the sectarian divide that has fuelled the conflict, the geopolitical ambitions of external powers have further complicated the security scenario. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The current crisis in Iraq could be compared with the Afghanistan of 1992, where after the Soviet withdrawal of 1989, the Najibullah Government was toppled by the Afghan Mujahedeen. Iraq too, after the US troops’ withdrawal of 2011, is being threatened by another non-state actors’ group. A major blowback from the ongoing conflict would be loss of credibility of the US and misgivings about its capability. Despite spending $1.7 trillion in Iraq, the US has not been able to achieve its aim of creating a stable democracy in Iraq and making it an example for the rest of the Middle East. Another major question that would loom in the mind of Washington’s allies in the region would be how much can they depend on their longstanding western ally, who despite having a technologically superior military, has not made much of an effort to support the Iraqi Government at the time of crisis.


Washington is facing a geopolitical dilemma, since Iran, the traditional enemy of the US as well as its allies (such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar), is the only proactive supporter of the Iraqi Government. The Sunni rulers who see Iran as a regional rival will frown upon any joint action between Tehran and Washington. If the US engages the Iranians to create a joint working system, the US will lose credibility in the eyes of its allies and may result in further deterioration in its bilateral relationship with Riyadh. The US-Saudi Arabia relations have not been at their best for several reasons. For instance, in Egypt, when the military deposed Mohammed Morsi, the Saudi Kingdom supported the Egyptian military while the US stood behind Morsi. Also, the US outreach to Iran in 2013 on nuclear matters along with the reluctance of Washington to intervene in Syria militarily has irked the house of Saud.


For Iran, its only regional allies are the Shia-led Iraq and the Alawite-led Syria. The presence of a hostile Sunni Government would be a threat to its security, and it cannot afford to lose the few regional allies that it has presently. The fact that Iranians have sent two battalions of Quds force, the Special Forces Unit of the Revolutionary Guards to assist the Iraqi Government, and that the Al-Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani, is in Baghdad helping bolster the Iraqi defences, is a definite sign of Iran playing a major role in Iraq in the latter’s efforts to fight the ISIS.


The US has been sending arms to the so called ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), despite the fact that there is no proper mechanism on the ground to track the flow of weapons in the battlefield. In fact, the Obama administration has recently allocated $500 million to help these groups fight the ISIS in Iraq. It is very much possible that the US may unwittingly be aiding its own enemies since there is a fair enough chance that weapons which the US sends to moderate groups could end up with factions such as the Al-Nusra Front and the ISIS. The primary reason for the US’ participation in the Syrian war is to isolate Tehran (since Syria is the only ally that Iran has in the region) and disrupt the supply routes from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group that is considered the biggest threat to Israel. However, as things stand now regional stability has diminished and instead of Assad, a secularist, who shared a rather stable relationship with Israel, radical Islamists who openly preach their hatred towards Israel are becoming stronger day by day.


The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria have spawned and continue to produce a new generation of Jihadi supporters and fighters, not only in the region but also in countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany and the US among many others. According to the Soufan Group, there are around 700 French, 800 Russians and 300 British who have joined the ranks of the ISIS. In fact, reports suggest that there are at least 1,500 British nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq in various groups.


Another report puts the number of German Jihadis at 320 and the total number of European fighters at more than 2,000. According to Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, during the Summer or Spring of 2013, “the number of foreign fighters in Syria exceeded that of any previous conflict in the Muslim world.”


The current conflict is much like the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s and like the conflict in Iraq in the 2000s. It may generate more militants than the Afghan Jihad mainly due to two reasons. Firstly, increased connectivity with and within the conflict area. There are enough flights operating in and out of the Middle Eastern region that people from all over the world can easily use to reach the conflict zone. Another reason is the geography of the conflict zone. Unlike Afghanistan, which had a mountainous terrain with the mountain chains forming natural barriers and restricting the movement of men and material, Syria and Iraq are flat desert countries with porous border areas, which are controlled by insurgent forces on both sides.


During the anti-Soviet Jihad in which the foreign fighters’ participation in combat was miniscule (there was no more than 2,000-3,000 foreign fighters in the country at any one time and the total foreign participation was estimated at 20,000-30,000 over 10 years). Today in the Middle Eastern conflicts, in Iraq as well as Syria, foreigners have become mainstream combatants. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, in the Syrian conflict there are 11,000 non-Syrian fighters from 73 countries, 15 of them in Europe. The possibility that these “battle-hardened” and “radicalised” Jihadis will return to their original countries and plot terror attacks is a concern for intelligence organisations.


Implications for India


The crisis in Iraq affects India also in multiple ways. The primary effect is expected to be manifested in the form of rise in crude oil prices. The Indian Government “foresees the global crude oil price soaring to as high as $120 per barrel, with a potential impact on the Indian budget of at least Rs 200 billion.” India being the second biggest customer of Iraq, will always be affected by any form of socio-political volatility in the country. Iraq supplies 13% of India’s oil, second only to Saudi Arabia. India needs to diversify its sources as the Middle East becomes more and more politically unstable. The political insecurity in the region should not impact India’s energy security and economic development.


Since India has a reasonably big expatriate population residing in this region, New Delhi also needs to have a well-thought out evacuation plan ready to be executed like the one by which the Government managed to rescue nurses and workers from Iraq. There are more than 5,200,000 Indians in countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar and they are one of the biggest sources of foreign exchange for the country. It has been estimated that in the year 2012, of the $69 billion worth remittances that India received from the whole world, about $30 billion came from the Middle East.


The impact of the ISIS-led campaign in Iraq could have repercussions on the security environment in Afghanistan, which directly affects India too. The success of the ISIS could prove to be a model and morale-booster for the Afghan insurgents. The Karzai Government has refused to sign the proposed Bilateral Security Arrangement (BSA), which would allow the US to retain its troops in Afghanistan post 2014. Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have however agreed to sign, but it will take some time before the contested presidential runoff results are audited and the final outcome is reached. Taliban may try to replicate what the ISIS has managed to unleash in Iraq. The Afghan political leadership would be viewing the developments in Iraq very closely, since the drawdown or withdrawal is supposed to start by the year-end. India has huge stakes in Afghanistan in more than one way, particularly in reconstruction and peace-building. When the Afghan Jihad got over way back in late 1980s, Pakistan channelled the returning combatants to instigate trouble in Jammu and Kashmir and the militant training camps in Afghanistan generated enough foot soldiers for ‘Jihad’ in Kashmir. Since Afghanistan is viewed as ‘strategic depth’ for Pakistan and the latter has used the former to destabilise India in the past, it is in New Delhi’s interest that the Government in Kabul be democratic and stable as well as have good relations with India.


The persisting crisis in Iraq is a threat to Indian security internally too. In an audio by the ISIS leader Abu- Bakr al-Baghdadi, he has specified that Indians too have been a part of the organisation’s ranks. He has also called for Jihad in various countries including India and stated that India was one of the countries where “Muslims’ rights are forcibly seized.” And according to intelligence sources, men from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have joined the ISIS and are said to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. India has also featured in ISIS’ “world domination map,” which shows northwestern India as part of the Islamic State of Khorasa. In view of the threats emanating from the crisis, India should device a better intelligence sharing apparatus with security agencies in the Middle East. Although it is not possible for the ISIS to create a Caliphate in India since it is a democratic, pluralistic and politically stable country, New Delhi has to be more cautious than ever in the current scenario. The recent directive by Home Minister Rajnath Singh to tighten security at vital installations across the country is a step in the right direction.




The ISIS has taken globalisation to a new level, with volunteers from all over the world thronging into the organisation. It now has global reach and it has already stated its global ambition of creating a ‘Caliphate’. By using social networking media such as Twitter and Youtube, the ISIS has succeeded in recruiting more youngsters. What ISIS has done is to make ‘Jihad’ look more appealing to youngsters and create a new breed of radicalised generation throughout the Islamic world.


Whatever be the outcome of the conflict, the ISIS will have a fair impact on political Islam, since they are the first group to declare a ‘Caliphate’ after almost hundred years; the last Caliphate came to an end in 1924, which was led by the Ottoman Caliph, Abdülmecid II. And as an insurgent group the ISIS will be remembered for its ‘pioneering’ revenue generating methods (such as smuggling artefacts and selling electricity to the Syrian government, which they are fighting against). The ISIS may currently be the only non-state actor with chemical weapons capability, with Iraq’s chemical weapons depot – Muthanna Complex – falling into its hands on June 11. With no end to the war in Syria in the near future and a weak Central Government in Iraq that has been divided and lacking political will to defend itself from the militants, the ISIS is here to stay and will be a major player in shaping the outcome of the conflict.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.