What used to be, in Neolithic and Bronze Age times, the Fertile Crescent, is a complete mess. Not that it’s unusual- on any scale of time the region is unstable and its political powers shifting.
ISIS/ISIL has won stunning victories in Iraq, after more measured and slow success in Syria. Part of that may have been the crowded and diverse ethnic and religious makeup, where they were hemmed in by Kurds, the Syrian government, and other rebel groups. Taking over the Sunni-dominated portion of northern and western Iraq was a bit simpler. Anonymous Twitter account @wikibaghdady throws in suggestions that the displaced Baathist regime is bolstering ISIS/ISIL. Its success was not instantaneous, and its progress was underreported in Western media. Now it is gaining weapons, money, and a population base to tax (or perhaps extort) funds from. There are certainly benefits in a shift from a terrorist militia to a political state. It cements power and creates a structure for expansion and resistance to attack.
The big-scale forces seem to be restraint and stockpiling weapons, intelligence, and resources. Each side in Iraq- the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds- have a rope pulling them back towards the land where their faction holds a strong population advantage. The Kurds are now openly selling oil on their own terms, and have gained Turkish support that they didn’t have during the independence campaign by the PKK and others within Turkish borders. With Kirkuk, their territory in Iraq is more or less as big as it could realistically be without currying a civil war with the government in Baghdad. While that government is gaining significant popular support from Iran and the Shia population, as long as ISIS/ISIL has a base in Syria to launch reinforces, long term occupation of Sunni lands seems untenable. As the linked story shows, shrine cities will be fought fiercely for, but more distant towns with no religious significance?
ISIS/ISIL is doing the expansion right now, but it remains to be seen if Baghdad could realistically fall (and how long it could be occupied). At some point, eastern advancements get close to the Iranian border.
It seems that stalemate is a likely result in the weeks and months to come. After all, that’s what Syria has devolved into- even if one side is gaining the upper hand, it takes an long time for any advantage to become clear.
These situations of a civil war reaching an equilibrium can be seen in Africa as well, it’s not a recent phenomenon or a Middle Eastern phenomenon. From a policy perspective, the question is what can be done beyond humanitarian damage control. Refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon that persist for years point to a social and national structure that is collapsing. Social services are very limited, education is spotty and inferior. It all leads to populations that are losing an ability to proceed, to rebuild economies and governments if and when the conflict ends.
Without strong policies that try to build (or maintain) healthy social structures, any peace will by nature be fragile. There are certainly many civil wars, in many different areas and continents, where nothing of value is learned.
If nothing is learned…