During the Iraq War, there had been speculation that Iraq would split into three pieces, with a Shiite controlled Southeast call Sumer, and a Kurdish state in the Northeast seceding and leaving a rump Sunni state.
Now, it looks as if the three way split may manifest after all, but with the Sunni state breaking away from central government control, and the Kurdish state breaking away in the absence of a rump Iraqi state there is any benefit in joining. Of course, rump Shiite dominated Iraq, would likely become either part of an Iranian sphere of influence or would be formally annexed to Iran itself.
The ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with the Levant portion being a reference to Syria) military offensive, which Iran and the Iraqi government are joining to hold off as the fighting comes within 40 miles of Baghdad, may very well stall as it makes its way to Shiite dominated regions to the south of Baghdad, as Iran and Shiite militias mobilize to hold these regions who are whom to two of the most sacred Shiite religion shrines. The ISIL military offensive has also not managed to gain ground in Kurdish controlled territory.
This is stunning for what is pretty much an upstart revolutionary organization run by a guy in his 40s, who seemingly came out of nowhere, with a PhD in Islamic studies.
But, in Sunni majority regions of Iraq and Sunni controlled regions of Eastern Syria, it has swept like wildfire, controlling almost all of the non-Kurdish areas in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley. ISIL wants to make this a new Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and they seem to be making inroads towards realizing their goals.
Why has ISIL advanced so quickly in Sunni majority Northern Iraq, but not in Kurdish areas or the Shiite majority South?
Perhaps the locals in Northern Iraq are not willing to mobilize and put their own lives at risk for a central Iraqi government perceived as Shiite influenced in Iraq, or an Alawite controlled Syrian government.
The ordinary people of these regions may not welcome the strict Islamic law that ISIL will impose, and no doubt do not condone at all the ruthless military tactics that ISIL has employed - gutting cities, slaughtering prisoners of war (literally, taking no prisoners), and terrorizing ordinary people to cow them into submission. But, those ordinary people may reason that the sooner that ISIL achieves a decisive military victory, the more quickly the orgy of violence will end, and that strict Islamic law, while unpleasant, may at least be less corrupt than the old regime and would be controlled by members of their own religion instead of Shiites influenced strongly by Iran.
It is very notable that Iraqi troops, despite extensive training and billions of dollars of U.S. funded military supplies, are ditching their uniforms and abandoning their posts in the face of the ISIL advance in Northern Iraq. They don't think that they can win militarily against ISIL and don't want to become executed prisoners. Certainly, even the Iraqi soldiers in the region are not willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause they don't believe in, of a unified Iraqi government under a regime put in place by the U.S. and its allies which has since then been greatly influenced by Iran.
Why does ISIL have a good chance of holding its ground?
Wars are mostly won by the side with the most capable and committed allies. Iraq's current government does not have solid support in the regions of Iraq that ISIL has taken. Prime Minister Maliki's overtly sectarian appeal through top Shiite clerics for support from ad hoc Shiite militias may help him hold his remaining territory and has rallied Shiite factions previously opposed to him as supporters, but simultaneously undermines his shot at holding onto the territory that he has lost. Neither does Syria's government in the regions that ISIL has taken there. It barely has the support of its own troops. The U.S. and the Western European powers are not willing to intervene again after having extricated themselves from an Iraq War once. Syria is not capable of intervening on their behalf seriously, although it did launch airstrikes on ISIL in Iraqi territory on Monday. Turkey will offer no aid to Iraq, its sometimes enemy. The Kurds in Iraq and neighboring territories want to protect themselves, but have no allegiance to an Iraq that oppressed them.
One suspects that covert support for wealthy families not officially acting on behalf of the government in Sunni oil monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., and by Islamist minded groups in Egypt and other parts of North Africa, are funding and supporting ISIL.
Iraq's only ally is Iran, and while its guidance and military aid may be enough to stop the advance of ISIL as it enters Shiite territory, it is probably not enough to roll back ISIS advance in Sunni Iraqi territory very far. And, since the Iraqi war led to the ethnic partition of Iraq, those lines are now very clearly drawn.
Each day that passes without an effective counterattack reduces the chances that Iraq (or Syria) will ever regain control of ISIL territory. Even if it does, the taste of victory ISIL forces received will fuel violent insurgencies for a very long time, like similar quasi-state/revolutionary forces in Columbia, in Kurdish Iraq, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan (where the Taliban that once rule are embolded to keep fighting in hopes of doing so again), in almost anarchistic situations in Yemen and Somolia, and in Sri Lanka, to name a few examples.
Footnote on Nomenclature
In English-language news reports, there are at least two ways in which the group is referred to: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.From here.
In Arabic, of course, neither words – “Syria” or “Levant” -- are used; instead, the word “Sham” is used. The closest translation of that into English is “Greater Syria.”
Many in the West are fooled by the use of the word “Syria,” and may fail to see the real dimensions of the threat because they think of Syria in the modern geographic sense. But that word, in Arabic, is “Souriya.”
Most Middle Easterners, when they hear, “Sham,” or “As-Sham,” know it refers to Greater Syria.
What’s the difference?
Modern Syria is bordered by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan and Israel to the south and Lebanon to the west.
“Greater Syria” incorporates most of the territories of each.
“This is what "Syria" means in the mind of Middle Easterners, says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and author of the respected blog SyriaComment.com.
“If we can teach people that so many Arabs still think of Syria as Greater Syria, they will begin to understand the extent to which Sykes-Picot remains challenged in the region,” said Landis.
Sykes-Picot, of course refers to the secret agreement drawn up by two British and French diplomats -- Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot -- at the end of Word War I dividing the spoils of the Ottoman Empires between Britain and France by drawing straight lines in the sand.
To this day, many Arabs refuse to accept that division and think of “Syria” as “Greater Syria.” Some go so far as to include the Arab countries of North Africa – which from the Nile to the Euphrates forms ‘the Fertile Crescent,” the symbol of many Muslim countries from Tunisia to Turkey. And some even go as far as including the island of Cyprus, saying it represents the star next to the crescent.
The source Oilsource.com blog post sees this language as portending greater aspirations for ISIL. In principle, the analysis is sound. But, in practice, while this may mean that Lebanon and Syria, as well as Iraq are likely to be targets of the ISIL campaign in the short to medium term, I doubt it has any practical ability to further expand its reach.
Turkey and Israel have competent military forces well equipped to repel ISIL advances and do not have local populations that provide much fertile ground for insurgent activities. The Muslim insurgents in Turkey are Kurds who have no common cause with ISIL. Israel has a tight cap on Muslim insurgent and terrorist activity of all kinds. Until ISIL gets a navy it lacks the means to get to Cyrus and again, there is no indication that this has any significant number of sympathizers that would make it fertile ground for ISIL military action.
The Egyptian political and potential insurgency scene is already so full of players, it isn't at all clear that adding ISIL's overreaching efforts to get involved there would have much of an impact on the overall situation there, even if they tried. The new coup imposed regime them seems likely to be more totalitarian and military oriented than the Arab Spring civilian regimes, leaving little room for ISIL to make its way into this scene.
Jordan is a closer case. I would think that this monarchy is secure enough to fend off an ISIL advance, but I am less certain of this fact than I am that Turkey, Israel and Cyprus are not at risk.
I suppose that ISIL could ally itself with the Palestinian liberation cause, but a move like that would risk Israel and U.S. blow back that it can ill afford.
In sum, my take is that large swaths of Syria and Iraq are already under de facto ISIL control, and that Lebanon is at serious risk of being next (Lebanon has been a client state of Syria's for decades anyway). But, I think it is unlikely that ISIL will be much of a player elsewhere despite a name that reflects greater aspirations than this territory. If ISIL does manage to achieve de facto statehood in the medium term, then a whole lot of other considerations for the entire region will need to be evaluated then (particularly if it secured long term missile or drone technology or weapons of mass destruction), but that is premature now.
Footnote on Islamic Sects and Schools of Law
There are three main divisions of Islam at the highest level: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Ibadi Muslims.
Sunni Muslims mostly follow one of four main "schools of law", each of which is predominant in a different region, that have doctrinal differences with each other akin to the doctrinal differences between different Protestant Christian denominations while sharing substantial core religious beliefs.
Most Shiites (e.g. in Iran and Iraq) are "Twelvers". But, a cluster of sects (the Alevi, Alawites and Bektashi order) are important minorities in the Balkans, among the Kurds and in the Levant. There is a separate Shiite sects particular to Yemen and the vicinity (the "Fivers"). There is another Shiite sect (the "Seveners") centered in the far Northeast of Afghanistan and far Northeast of Pakistan (which have remote common origins with the Druze of the Levant).
The Ibadi sect of Islamic sect that is neither Sunni nor Shiite, is found predominantly in Oman.
There is also a cross-sectarian religious movement call "Sufism" which celebrates and focused upon the mystical aspects of Islam, rather than its legalistic aspects. This approach presents to Westerners as more "moderate" and less harsh than other approaches to Islamic practice.
In practice, there is also a distinct cross-sectarian variation on a "moderate" (e.g. Turkish Sunni Muslims who are not Kurds and some Southeast Asian Muslims and Alevi Muslims) to "fundamentalist" dimension (e.g. the Taliban, Saudi Arabia's official sect, and the Boko Haram terrorist group in Northern Nigeria), although even quite "moderate" Muslims on this dimensional measure are very socially conservative by Western standards. The vast majority of the true moderates on social issues within Islamic societies by Western standards are "secularists" who are often forced to live "in the closet" at risk of violent reprisals by authorities or Islamist activists when not protected by the policies of strict authoritarian regimes (often with Communist inspired secularist leanings).
It also also worth recalling that Muslims, even those of the same sect and schools of law (e.g. Sunni Kurds, Tanzanian Muslims and Malaysian Muslims), span myriad ethnic groups. Particularly outside the Middle East, many of these ethic groups are made up of peoples who do not speak Arabic, the "official" religious language of Islam, as a first language and do not have any other common language. Also, while Arabic is usually presented as a single mutually intelligible language, there are strong regional dialects within this macro-linguistic group that verge on being as distinct as the different Romance languages with a common origin in classical Latin.
The Sunni-Shiite split in Islam, more generally, is a schism over leadership of the Islamic people that arose in 657 CE, twenty-five years after Prophet Muhammad's death, over who was entitled to be the fourth caliph. The Shiites, who are and pretty much always have been a minority among Muslims, took the side of a dynasty that began Ali (who was Muhammad's first cousin and closest living male relative as well as his son-in-law and was believed by Shiites to have been named by Muhammad as his successor).
Shiites accept some pronouncements of a supreme religious leader with this dynastic relationship to Ali's faction called an Imam as authoritative to a less degree than Muhammad in a manner superficially similar to that of the Pope in the Roman Catholic church. But, different Shiite factions differ with each other over how many Imams, and to some extent, which ones, are legitimate as illustrated in the chart below from Wikipedia (twelve, seven and five are the number of Imams accepted by some of the most notable Shiite sects giving rise to the shorthand of "twelvers," "seveners," and "fivers" for those Shiite sects). According to twelvers, the last of the twelve imams took that position in 862 CE and continues to reign in a manner crudely analogous to the ascended Jesus Christ in Christianity.
Shia Islam is a majority religion in Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq (especially Southeastern Iraq) and Bahrain, and claims about 35%-45% of the population of Yemen, and similar percentage minorities in Kuwait and Lebanon. Indian, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, and Oman (as well as expatriate communities in places like Germany, Britain and the United States) are also home to significant Shia Muslim populations, but Shia Muslims make up much smaller percentage of the Muslim population in these countries.
The dominant Shia sect in a more or less geographically contiguous area that includes Iran, Iraq, Kuwait Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India is the Ja'fari sect ("Twelvers"). The rest of the Islamic world (except Oman, as discussed below where a plurality of Muslims belong to the Ibadi sect that is neither Sunni nor Shia) is predominantly Sunni Muslim, although sometimes with minority Muslim sects also present.
The Zaidi sect of Shia Islam also known as the "Fivers," is the second largest Shia sect. The Zaidi sect is predominantly found in Yemen and adjacent areas of Southwestern Saudi Arabia.
Alawite's, who are notable for being predominant among the ruling class of Syria (a place that departing colonial powers left them in) are on the Shiite side of the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam, but is not one of the larger Shiite religious "denomination" and they are not always accepted as legitimately Shiite Muslims by outsiders - their position is somewhat analogous to the classification of Mormons in Christianity - clearly they aren't in the Orthodox Christian or Roman Catholic branches of Christianity, but many Christians on the Protestant side of the Catholic-Protestant divide don't accept them as being true Protestant Christians. From the perspective of "ordinary" Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims, however, both Iraqi Shiites and Syrian Alawites are non-Sunnis who aren't followers of the "true" version of Islam.
The Ismaili sect of Shia Islam (the "Seveners") is predominantly found in far Northeastern Afghanistan and Pakistan and in parts of Saudi Arabia. By the conventional account, this sect is also ancestral to the no longer truly Muslim Druze religious sect that is now found in the Levant (i.e. Syria, Lebanon and Israel).
Other Shia sects are mostly (1) minority (within the Kurdish community) Kurds who identify with the Alevi sect, mostly in Turkey, Iran and Syria, (2) in the Alawite sect somewhat kindred to that of the Alevi Kurds in the Levant, or (3) part of the substantial minority of Muslims who are affiliated with the Bektashi order, for example, in Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo whose classification is somewhat controversial. The Bektashi clearly arises from the Sufi Islam movement (whose modern heartland is arguably centered in Southern Pakistan) but the Bektashi order's place on the Sunni-Shia divide is somewhat ambiguous. For political reasons it was classified as a Sunni subdivision in Albania, but substantively it tends to be more closely associated with the Shia Muslim Alevi sect shared by a minority of Kurds. All three of these Islamic sects are sometimes viewed as being part of the same movement and as having significant residual influences from the pagan Turk barbarians. These "barbarians" migrated from the Altai region of Northeast Asia across the Asian steppe all of the way to Anatolia, which adopted their Turkish language in the late first millennium CE. When they arrived they converted to Islam, the religion of the people they conquered, which was becoming the dominant religion of the region at around the time that they arrived.
Sunni Muslims make up about 80%-90% of Muslims worldwide and somewhat more than half of Muslims in the Middle East. Like Christian Protestants, Sunni Muslims have never recognized a supreme inspired religious leader akin to a Shiite Imam or a Roman Catholic Pope, although Sunni Muslims have shared political leadership in a tradition that does not strongly divide church and state, and there are several major divisions within Sunni Islam and movements within Sunni Islam (like Sufism which is somewhat analogous to the trans-denominational "charismatic" movement in Western Christianity) that have some level of large scale organization.
The four dominant divisions within Sunni Islam called "schools of law" (in Arabic, "madhhabs"), rather than "sects", have strongly regional distributions. Roughly speaking, from West to East:
The Maliki school of law is predominant in North Africa except Lower Egypt (i.e. Northern Egypt) (crudely speaking areas that were historically Berber, plus Upper Egypt (i.e. Southern Egypt) and Sudan).
The Hanbali school of law is predominant among Sunnis is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Shafi'i school of law is predominant along the Indian Ocean coast from East Africa to Indonesia, near the Red Sea coast in Lower Egypt, in Southwest Iraq, in parts of the Persian Gulf region, and among most Kurds, particularly in far Eastern Turkey.
The Hanafi school of law is predominant everywhere North and West of Iran (except the Indian Ocean coast), in Turkey among non-Kurds, in the remainder of the Middle East, and in Lower Egypt away from the Red Sea.
The doctrinal differences between Sunni Islami schools of law are roughly of the same level of specificity and magnitude as the doctrinal differences between Protestant religious denominations (e.g. Southern Baptists v. Anglicans). For example, one school of law concludes that the Islamic command that women be modest does not require women to cover their feet, while other schools conclude that this command does require that women cover their feet.
A third top level divide in Islam is the Ibadi sect that is the plurality religion in Oman (and has minority populations in North Africa and East Africa). It purports to have origins that predate the Sunni-Shiite split by about five years. Ibadis have been described a puritanical, moderate and relatively tolerant of other "people of the Book." They reject much of the Islamic tradition beyond the Koran that is expressed in hadiths, which is accepted by most other Muslims.
UPDATED June 18, 2014 to correct ISIS to ISIL acronym and major additions including the footnote on Islamic sects.