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ISIS has its roots in the Sunni rebellion against the US-led occupation after the 2003 invasion and has recently broken away from al-Qaeda, setting itself up as a rival jihadi ‘franchise’. Some say, however, that ISIS is a useful cover for former high-ranking elements of Saddam Hussein’s dismantled Sunni-dominated security forces, determined to regain their former position. There is limited support for official Iraqi forces among Iraqi Sunnis after what they see as relentless persecution by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

ISIS took advantage of the even greater chaos in Syria to take large areas of Syrian Sunni-majority territory and set up a claimed capital there.

The forces ranged against ISIS make further progress more difficult, but differing policies pursued by its opponents in the region make a coordinated response difficult. Inherent contradictions exist, particularly because of the differing strategic alignments of the respective governments of Iraq and Syria.

The focus of European governments has been on Iraq, where the legal basis for intervention is clearer, but Syria remains the bigger conflict, at least for now. The US is getting into a complicated multi-sided fight in Syria. Many analysts question the likely effectiveness of Western intervention in such a complex conflict with strong sectarian overtones.

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