By Abdulmajeed Gly
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — The Islamic State’s attack on Yezidi Kurds in Shingal opened up a wide battlefront against the Kurds this month and marked a strategic shift for the insurgent group, which previously stated that its main goal was to capture Baghdad.
While it’s impossible to read the minds of IS leaders, there are some factors that may have inspired them to suddenly attack the Kurds.
The first is the fear of a Sunni-Kurdish alliance against the IS. Just a week before the IS attack on Shingal, several Sunni political and tribal leaders met with US State Department officials in Erbil, hoping to persuade the Sunnis to revolt against the radical group.
Right after the meeting, Twitter was abuzz over the possibility of a Kurdish-Sunni alliance to destroy IS. There was no proof to support this rumor of course, but the timing of the comments couldn’t have been worse. The IS began to feel threatened, especially in Kirkuk and Tikrit.
Even two weeks before the invasion of Shingal, IS and Kirkuk Baathists, who had an agreement with the Sunni al-Assi tribe, were engaged in a fierce battle against each other in Rashad, Hawija and Riyaz.
This worried IS, which feared facing a similar scenario in Mosul and decided to crack down on former Baathists, arresting 65 in Nineveh’s capital. Most were members of Naqshabandi, a Sunni-Sufi group led by Iraq’s former Vice-President Izzat al-Duri, which has spoken out against the extremists.
According to US estimates, IS has an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 insurgents. Assuming those figures are correct, unless IS forms a solid alliance with Sunni tribes there simply aren’t enough fighters to control Mosul and Tikrit for long.
A potential Kurdish alliance with the Sunni tribes must have served as a wakeup call for IS leaders, even though there was never any hard evidence of a Sunni-Kurdish pact against IS.
The second key issue is that the Islamic State needs more wars and more victories.
The capture of Mosul was a significant and easy victory — but that was in June. The capture of Baghdad was proving too difficult, and had shifted to a long-term goal. Thus the areas north and west of Mosul — particularly Shingal — were easy targets that could hand the group another victory.
IS uses psychological warfare just as much as it engages in battle. In order to increase its popularity, especially among its fighters and fans, it needs to show that the self-proclaimed caliphate is constantly making gains.
This kind of propaganda encourages hundreds of foreign fighters from Britain, Belgium, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and other countries to make their way to IS and join its holy war.
Despite swiftly defeating the Iraqi army in Mosul and other Sunni areas, IS underestimated its enemies. While it quickly and confidently declared an Islamic caliphate and pledged to take Baghdad, capturing Iraq’s capital isn’t as easy. Baghdad isn’t the same as Mosul, where the majority are Sunnis and people were willing to accept anyone to rid the city of outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite rule.
There are 5 million Shiites in Baghdad, and Shiite militias such as Asaib Ahl Alhaq and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army will never lay down their weapons and run away in the face of an IS attack, as the Iraqi army did. They are more than willing to die.
Even in Sunni strongholds like Anbar, Haditha and Salahaddin, the Islamic State is often in a defensive position and hasn’t had much success against the Shiites.
The final point to consider is that the attack on Shingal, a town so close to the IS stronghold of Mosul, wasn’t expected, but that in itself presented the group with an opportunity. Over the past two years, most of the group’s successes have been surprise attacks. The capture of Mosul, of Tabqa airbase in Raqqa, Syria and of many villages near Aleppo proves that IS relies on unpredictable tactics.
Yet when the group prepares for an operation and word gets out, it has never won a victory. The Nusra front, the Syrian regime and other opposition groups have managed to foil many planned IS attacked.