In the third week of May, ISIS took the city of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in two, big, high-profile victories. Though ISIS has constantly been in the news for years now, these two cities seem to return the sense of an unstoppable march of Islamist forces across the Middle East. As the beheadings began almost immediately in Ramadi, ISIS also bombed a mosque in Qatif, a Shia-majority city in Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers. Qatif, incidentally, is a place where Saudi armed forces and police have violated human rights with their usual impunity for years, detaining and even opening fire on protesters from the Shia community. From all of these reports, the sense given to readers is one of unstoppable momentum.
But as Ahmed Ali, in the NYT Opinion section on May 21 clarified, the situation is otherwise: “…the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extent Syria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed.”
So, ISIS has not had unstoppable momentum. After spending many months and many lives trying to take the Kurdish city of Kobani, Syria, they have been repeatedly repulsed since the beginning of 2015. Kurdish forces in Iraq have counterattacked them in Mosul and are keeping them under pressure there. And, although each time there is a battle in an Iraqi city, the Western media discuss the close proximity of that city to Baghdad, that does not mean that Baghdad is likely to fall to ISIS any time soon.
Syria, though, is another story. The stage in both countries is set not for ISIS victory, but for perpetual conflict.
Analyzing ISIS requires remembering some of the history and geography of Iraq and Syria, especially about the relationship between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia communities in the region. Both countries have always had large Kurdish populations, a language group that is divided by the national borders between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. There are debates within the Kurdish communities of each country about how to pursue autonomy and self-determination. In Iraq, this has entailed an autonomous Kurdish region currently ruled by Masoud Barzani. In Syria, it involves revolutionary experiments with local democracy and local self-defense – these are the forces that defended Kobani against ISIS.