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Special Report: ISIS

This post was written by STAND’s Policy Intern, Rosie Berman. Rosie is a rising junior at Clark University where she studies Political Science and Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

What is ISIS

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS or ISIL) is a jihadist group that hopes to create an Islamic caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria. The group is commanded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had joined the insurgency against the 2003 US invasion and later spent 5 years in prison after being captured. ISIS can trace its roots to Tawhid and Jihad, a Sunni group which rose against the US and Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Tawhid and Jihad linked itself with Al Qaeda in 2004 and rebranded itself Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2006, it rebranded itself as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). ISI became ISIS when Baghdadi turned his sights toward the Syrian civil war in 2012. ISIS is thought to include thousands of fighters, including many foreignersfrom the across the Arab world, the Caucasus, and the West. Al Qaeda Central disowned the group in early 2014, citing its refusal to obey orders from central command to leave Syria and focus on Iraq, and its brutality in the field. ISIS has fought with other rebel groups, tortured detainees, actively recruited child soldiers, and summarily executed civilians while fighting in Syria.

Where is ISIS

ISIS has a strong presence in northern Syria including Aleppo and Raqqa and in a number of Iraqi towns near the Turkish and Syrian borders. It has also conquered the Iraqi cities of Fallujah, much of Ramadi, Mosul, Tikrit, and currently threatens Baghdad. Having this corridor helps ISIS move money, fighters, and equipment between Iraq and Syria.

Who is threatened?

The falling of large swaths of territory into ISIS’s hands provides ISIS a staging point to launch attacks across the Middle East and beyond. However, those under the most threat from ISIS are civilians living in the captured territory. Syrian civilians who live in formerly ISIS-controlled territory report that the group demanded strict adherence to their narrow interpretation of Islamic law with public beatings and executions for those who disobeyed. It is likely ISIS will continue their brutal methods in Iraq. Shi’ite Muslims, who ISIS considers infidels, and Iraq and Syria’s non-Muslim minorities are especially vulnerable.

International Response

President Obama said on June 12 that he is not ruling out any options for a response to ISIS’s advances. The White House later clarified that “boots on the ground” was not under consideration. Potential responses include expanded intelligence and targeting assistance for Iraqi military forces, airstrikes against the militant group, and potentially drone strikes. Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki has requested both piloted air and drone strikes. However, a number of lawmakers say they expect President Obama to consult with Congress before taking any direct action.

Iranian officials have also called for action against ISIS. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that, “The expansion of terrorist elements of [ISIS] and their violent acts in Iraq was a warning for the region…. There is a need for attention and action from governments and the international community.” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Marzieh Afkham, condemned the ISIS attacks in Mosul, calling them a danger that reaches beyond Iraq’s borders. She later expressed Iran’s readiness to help the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government in confronting terrorism.

Secretary Kerry has signaled that the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq and a senior US diplomat and has met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna toexplore whether the United States and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from ISIS.

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