Within a matter of days this week, the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, seized with apparent ease the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in both cases seemingly coming out of nowhere to rout government forces. On Thursday, the militants were digging in, consolidating their grip and executing people with ties to the old order.
Yet a closer look at the two battles shows the group following a longer-term strategy, in both cases biding its time, taking territory mainly from other insurgent groups. Then, after years of war, attrition and corruption had left the government forces demoralized and, particularly in Syria, hollowed out, it attacked, overrunning them.
Palmyra was a place where tensions had long simmered, a mainly Sunni tribal city where a local rebellion was put down early in the war, and where relations between residents and security forces were complex. A young officer serving there from the Alawite heartland had confessed a year earlier that he felt no connection to the population and feared residents would kill him the first chance they had.
Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland, was also divided in its loyalties.