Identifying the enemy in confused Iraq and Syria

By Kerry Murphy

The situation in Iraq and Syria is now so volatile and chaotic. Our Government stated that we were invited to help the Iraqi Government in its fight against ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or Caliphate. We are already sending weapons to help those fighting ISIS, but it is a strange and malleable coalition opposed to ISIS, known in Arabic by its acronym ‘DAISH’.  

Firstly, ISIS evolved out of Al Qaida.  Al Qaida still exists, and it supports the Jabhat Al Nusra militia in Syria, but opposes ISIS for theological and political reasons. Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) is one of the major opposition groups in Syria and they want Sharia law and an Islamic State in Syria. They have clashed with ISIS in Syria and there are reports of some fighting between ISIS and JN.

Also fighting ISIS in Syria are other Islamic groups and the more political than religiously driven opposition groups.  These non-Islamic groups are commonly and collectively called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and are seeking weapons from the US and its allies as well as Turkey and other countries in the Middle East.  They want a more democratic republic of Syria, not controlled by the Assad family or by one ethnic or religious group. The FSA has recently lost ground to both JN and ISIS as well as fighting against the Syrian Army of Assad.

The Assad Government is strongly supported by the Alawites, a Shia group. Internationally it is supported by Russia and Iran. There are also Alawites in Turkey, commonly they are Kurds. Other Shia groups are also supporting the Assad government such as Hezbollah from Lebanon, and the Badr Militia from Iraq. There are some important Shia religious sites in Syria and both Hezbollah and the Badr Militia state they are protecting these sites from the extremist ISIS.

There are also the Syrian Kurds (YPG – Peoples Protection Units) who have long sought autonomy in Syria and were seen as opponents of the Assad regime. The Syrian Kurds are mainly trying to protect their areas in the north east against ISIS, and they are reported to have co-operated with the FSA and more recently with Kurds in Iraq.


In Iraq, there are the Iraqi Kurds, whose militia is known as the Peshmerga. The Kurdish area of Iraq has long seen itself as autonomous and is almost a de facto state in the north east of Iraq. The Peshmerga have a long history of fighting the army of Saddam, but in the 1990s they fought each other when the two main Iraqi Kurdish groups were fighting.  The Peshmerga are now fighting ISIS units in northern Iraq and have been supported by the Turkish Kurds of the PKK, as well as by the Iraqi army and Iraqi Shia militias.

The PKK were originally a Marxist revolutionary group in Turkey but their Marxism has moderated somewhat more recently.  They are listed as a terrorist organisation by Australia, the US and Europe and by the Turkish Government.  Over 500 were killed in fighting between the PKK and Turkish Government in 2012, before a ceasefire in 2013. Now their military activities are more against ISIS than the Turkish government, thought there are still reports of incidents in Turkey.  There are female units in the PKK, unknown in other military in the region. The PKK and Pehsmerga were actively involved in helping to rescue the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar a short time ago.

The Iraqi situation is also complex. The new Iraqi army (the old army was disbanded in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority), is large in number and well equipped by the US, but the recent defeats at Mosul showed they are not really able to stand up to the highly motivated ISIS units. Reportedly many Sunnis left the army in protest at the sectarian nature of the Government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki.

Opposed to the Iraqi government are a collection of former Iraqi Ba’athist groups, known as the Naqshabandia Units (JRTN), and mainly Sunni militias in the Fallujah area. 

ISIS has a loose coalition with these Sunni militias but there was fighting in the past between the former ISIS (Al Qaeda in Iraq) and Sunni Militias armed and supported by the US known as the Sons of Iraq or Sahwa movement from around 2007.  The Sahwa groups opposed the extremism of Al Qaeda and it is possible that the wider support of ISIS amongst these Sunni groups could break down after oppression from ISIS.  Already ISIS is reported as having targeted a possible regrouping of the Sahwa militias near Kirkuk, just outside the Kurdish area.

Also supporting the Iraqi Government against ISIS are a mixture of mainly Shia militias. One group  known as the League of Righteousness (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) broke away from the populist Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Jaysh Al Mahdi (Mahdi Army) fought against the US forces in Iraq from 2003 until they became part of the Shia dominated Government of Al –Maliki.  The League of Righteousness are supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Al Quds force, and have links to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They are also reported to be in Syria supporting the Assad regime.   The League of Righteousness were involved in sectarian killings in Iraq of Sunnis, and attacks on Sunni mosques since 2006 as well as targeting US and Coalition forces as recently as 2009 and 2010.  Now they are with the Iraqi Government forces against ISIS.

There is no doubt that ISIS are genuinely a major threat in the area, and boast about killing civilians in especially brutal ways. They have massacred Christian and Yazedis they captured, as well as Shia and even Sunni who were not extremist enough. In areas it controls, there are reports of beheadings and crucifixions of those it sees as opponents, or as criminals under its strict interpretation of Sharia law. The extremism of ISIS in Syria has lead minority groups to support the cruel Assad regime and put the West in the conundrum of maybe helping groups who support Assad in order to oppose ISIS.

However, in the war against ISIS there are several groups labelled as terrorists (the PKK in and the  JN in Syria) and extremist militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq with a history of sectarian violence and so is it legitimate to send weapons that might end up with these groups?  

We have adopted the dictum that our enemy’s enemy is our friend, realpolitik politics.  The situation changes rapidly on the ground and the many different players have often competing agendas, which in turn evolve and can change quickly.  This makes identifying clear ‘allies’ as a very difficult and high risk activity.  

The chances of peace in Iraq and Syria seem far away and there are no easy or ‘good’ solutions available for the Iraqi and Syrian people.  Given the events since the US led invasion of 2003, it is unlikely that the political situation in Iraq or in Syria will be resolved quickly.  We need to realise the high risk of ‘mission creep’ and how our commitment could grow and be extended to more ground forces.  We are not even clear on the known unknowns, let alone the Rumsfieldian unknown unknowns. A reasonable question is that, given the genocidal attacks by ISIS on civilians, do we have much choice?

Kerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU, an IARC ambassador, and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. This article originally appeared in Eureka Street.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team