Most reporting on the offensive the transnational jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched in Iraq has focused on tactical aspects. Few if any have discussed the strategic thinking behind the group's decision to proceed with such a massive undertaking requiring significant amounts of its resources. The discrepancy in reporting is due to the tendency to view jihadists through the lens of ideology rather than viewing them as rational actors. Like all other geopolitical actors, the militant group's leadership decided to strike only after assessing threats and opportunities.
In the past two and a half years, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant made significant territorial gains in neighboring Syria. These advances came despite its having to fight on multiple fronts against the al Assad regime and its Shiite backers (Iran, Hezbollah and fighters from across the Muslim world), Syrian Kurdish separatists and a constellation of rival rebel groups, many of which subscribe to milder versions of Salafist-jihadist ideology and enjoy backing from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The group is also fighting various other jihadist groups, such its former brothers in arms from the al Qaeda franchise group Jabhat al-Nusra.
While expending most of its efforts in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant also maintained a steady tempo of operations in Iraq. It capitalized on the growing disenchantment among Iraqi Sunnis with the Shiite regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The group's sudden focus on Iraq came from a desire to pursue an available opportunity to achieve its ultimate goal of re-establishing the caliphate.
The U.S. move to effect regime change in Iraq in 2003 and the outbreak of the Arab Spring in Syria in 2011 have resulted in the meltdown of once powerful Arab autocracies. The transnational jihadist movement has since sought to exploit the ensuing anarchy in the region. The rise of the Iranian-led Shiite camp over the last decade or so has created an additional opportunity for jihadists to mobilize Sunni fighters from Muslim-majority countries and among Western expatriates.
Despite its audacious offensive, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant remains mindful that it has two still formidable Iranian-backed Shiite regimes blocking its path. To the west, the al Assad regime in Damascus has turned the tide against the rebels, giving rise to a stalemate. To the east, it faces the al-Maliki regime, though political and security conditions in Iraq have sharply deteriorated since the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. Power struggles among the country's three principal groups (Shia, Kurd and Sunni) have weakened Baghdad's writ, creating the opening that enabled the recent jihadist offensive. Refocusing on Iraq offers a way to force Iran and its Shiite allies to reallocate resources in Syria to defending their position in Iraq, which contains sites of greater significance to Shiite Islam. It could even help them break the stalemate in Syria. The shift toward Iraq enables the militant group to deflect criticism that it has been fighting with fellow Sunnis and even Salafist-jihadists in Syria.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant knows that its opportunity in Iraq will not stay open for long given that demographic trends in Iraq favor the Shia. It also recognizes its limits among Iraq's Sunnis. Most important, it understands the convergence of U.S., Iranian and Turkish interests that is underway; for different reasons, none of these three countries can tolerate its expansion in Iraq.
This means the group knows it is not in a position to seize Baghdad just yet. For now, it must try quickly to consolidate itself in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, Ninawa and Salah ad Din, as well as the mixed provinces of Kirkuk and Diyala. It knows that the outside countries will not send ground forces into Iraq's Sunni areas and instead will rely on air power and special operations forces against its fighters.
Therefore, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will limit itself to establishing a presence in western Iraq similar to what it has in eastern Syria, where outsiders will fear to tread and where neither the Shiite-dominated central government nor the Kurdistan Regional Government can impose its writ. If the jihadist group can survive, any amount of space where it can enjoy freedom of activity will suffice for its purposes of establishing an emirate in the roughly contiguous cross-border area, affording it strategic depth and a launchpad for later offensives against Baghdad and Damascus.