Syrian Kurdish forces have seized the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad from ISIS, driving back the fundamentalists from areas they have held since last year. During ISIS rule, men were forbidden from shaving and women forced to wear full veils. On Tuesday, Syrian Kurdish forces also pushed ISIS out of the town of Ain Issa, puting anti-ISIS forces within less than 50km from ISIS’s de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria.
While residents of the newly liberated areas are glad that ISIS has left, they are still concerned about regional instability and uncertainty about the aims of the Kurdish forces. Some residents worry that they will be seen as ISIS sympathizers because they lived under ISIS rule. Another fear is that Kurdish forces will discriminate against non-Kurds. Alongside dodging coalition airstrikes, civilians in the area are caught in the middle between ISIS and its opponents. Tal Abyad resident, Abu Salah Mohammad Isam describes this dilemma stating that,
“I didn’t enjoy living under the Islamic State, but I wasn’t afraid because there was no trouble as long as you followed the rules. With the Kurds, there is only uncertainty.”
Whereas ISIS1 may be a new player in Iraq, its core supporters and organizational framework are not, having been in the country since the American invasion in 2003 as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The meteoric rise of ISIS in the last two years can be traced to the “Breaking the Walls” campaign of 2012-2013. This campaign was a coordinated series of attacks on prisons and detention centers which released thousands of veteran jihadists.
These former prisoners were members of various disparate groups, yet following their jail break teamed up with their liberators. ISIS incorporated these veteran fighters, gaining significantly heightened tactical, logistical, recruitment and training expertise. This initial wave of ISIS supporters utilized the porous border with war-torn Syria to move unhindered in the desert hinterlands on the Syria-Iraq border.
This allowed the group to gain fighting experience against the Assad regime in Syria as well as loot Syrian military hardware and recruit from the large pool of foreign mujaheddin already in the country. From Syria, ISIS later de-stablized Iraq, overwhelming an under-prepared Iraqi Army, thus gaining access to thousands of vehicles and weapons as well large swathes of western Iraq in the process.
1Note – For the sake of brevity and consistency, this article uses the term ‘ISIS’ as an umbrella term for the evolving organization bearing the successive names of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and Islamic State.