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On June 11, Middle East observers were stunned at the sudden breakthrough of militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against Iraqi forces opposing them in Anbar and Nineveh. ISIS stormed through Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji as the Iraqi army melted away so quickly that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki termed it a conspiracy. A report by the International Organization for Migration says an estimated 500,000 people, including 99% of its Christian population, have fled Mosul since hostilities began Saturday morning. The militants seized huge stores of American-supplied arms, ammunition and vehicles, including six Black Hawk helicopters and approximately $420 million in cash.

ISIS surgeAdmittedly, Mosul is not ISIS’ first scalp – they have captured and held Falluja since January 2014, put pressure on Ramadi and Samarra, and regularly target the Iraqi capital Baghdad with bombs. However, Mosul is Iraq’s third-largest city and an important hub of commercial activity; by way of comparison, Bangalore is India’s third-largest city. As such, its capture is symbolic and a huge morale boost for ISIS. It demonstrates a strong command and control and a high degree of internal coordination and cohesion within ISIS to be able to capture a city. Run by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has a doctorate in education from the University of Baghdad, ISIS is estimated to command some 6,000 fighters in Iraq and another 3,000 in Syria; the United States has placed a $10 million bounty on al-Baghdadi, surpassed only, so far, by the $25 million reward for al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Equally worrisome is the disintegration of the Iraqi army. In many areas, soldiers doffed their uniforms and disappeared into the civilian population; in others, they were willing to lay down their arms without offering any resistance if they were guaranteed safe passage. Immediate blame may fall upon the failure of the United States to supply Iraq with weaponry in a timely manner or raise doubts about its training of Iraqi troops but the problem goes deeper than that – al-Maliki’ and his government was not able to build a state to which the average Iraqi felt much loyalty.

ISIS started out as al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), a militant group that opposed the US occupation of Iraq. The group was decimated but not completely eliminated by the US during the 2007 surge. However, the incompetence of the Iraqi government and the civil war in Syria led to its resurrection in 2012. For example, al-Maliki purged Sunni Muslims from government posts; he also went back on his promise to integrate Sunni militias known as Sahwa into the regular army. It was these brigades that the US had used to fight and defeat AQI earlier. The release of al-Qa’ida prisoners by the United States also provided what Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls “an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower” into the region. The series of massive prison breaks across Iraq in 2013 also contributed to the swelling of ISIS ranks. Disturbingly, ISIS was expelled from the al-Qa’ida fraternity in February 2014 for unnecessarily killing civilians and being too vicious!

The collapse of the Iraq-Syria border will aid ISIS in its fight in Iraq as well as against Bashar al-Assad. They can take refuge from one side in the territory of the other and enjoy internal lines of communication. The civil war in Syria has improved the fighting capability of ISIS and as many US military observers are saying, this is no longer a terrorist threat but a small army on the move. ISIS is moving south against Baghdad, and the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf may very well be next for the Sunni extremists. The group’s twitter account said it had taken Mosul as part of a plan “to conquer the entire state and cleanse it from the apostates.” The organisation’s goal, as it has often stated, is to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean to the Zagros under sharia law.

There have been reports that ISIS may extend its domain beyond Iraq and Syria into Jordan, but in all likelihood, the focus will be on consolidating the gains in Iraq and protecting the rear by gaining the upper hand against arch-rival Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Al-Nusra has pushed ISIS out of Aleppo and Idlib as well as the northern provinces in Syria and offered strong resistance in Deir Ezzor. Furthermore, Syrian forces are starting to attack ISIS strongholds in Raqqa and Hassakah.

In response to the ISIS surge, the Iraqi government has requested that the United States conduct air strikes against key militant positions across northern Iraq. Ironically, Washington sees the use of drones against ISIS as a step too far and has refused to act so far. In some ways, the United States is torn between supporting or standing idly by as ISIS fights Assad and acting against it in defence of its Iraqi client while incidentally helping the Syrian regime. However, events seem to have overtaken Washington and it will be forced to act. Ground troops are not an option for the US, but the fear of Iran increasing its footprint in Iraq will propel Washington to conduct airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq if not Syria.

The only group that is currently capable of fighting ISIS in the region is the Kurdish Regional Government and its brethren in Rojava. The peshmerga and the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG) are also battle-hardened and fairly well-equipped after decades of fighting Iranians, Arabs, and Turks for Kurdish autonomy. Nonetheless, there is no love lost between Hewler and Baghdad. Kurdish forces have so far taken Kirkuk but made no move against ISIS yet. It remains to be seen whether they remain neutral or join the fight on the side of their nemesis, Baghdad. There is temptation in Hewler to sit on the sidelines but ISIS is unlikely to view Kurdistan favorably once it establishes its caliphate; the KRG would be making a grave mistake if it allowed ISIS to consolidate its power, or on the contrary, the militant threat is defeated and Hewler is seen as opportunistically neutral.

The march on Shia shrines and the brutal massacres of Shia in ISIS-held territory has evinced a response from Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The cleric has said that he is willing to raise the Mahdi Army he had disbanded in 2008 to provide for the security of Shia and Christians in Iraq. The obvious Shia power that has remained quiet so far is Iran. Though most officials have been silenced by a gag order from the top, Iran’s police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam revealed that the Supreme National Security Council intervene in Iraq if Shia were explicitly targeted.

Iran has been troubled by rising Sunni extremism in its neighbourhood; in August 1998, the Taliban stormed Mazar-e Sharif and massacred Shia pilgrims in neighbouring Afghanistan. According to the memoirs of former diplomat Hossein Mousavian, it was only the veto of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that stopped Iran from going to war. Iran is already involved in the Syrian conflagration in favour of Assad and this new ISIS threat in Iraq could be catastrophic. Said Ghassem Suleimani, leader of the Quds Force, Iran’s rage at the destruction of religious sites it holds dear would be enormous and all options would be on the table – “battles, attacks, raids, massacre.” The Quds Force, however, is thought to have been operating in Iraq in an unofficial capacity for a while now. At the time of writing, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has just announced that he would deploy the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to Iraq to fight the terrorists.

ISIS’ rapid success has made many enemies. Turkey had so far opposed the Assad regime and had turned a lazy eye towards foreign fighters streaming into Syria to fight the Syrian regime. Recent geopolitics, however, has made Ankara change its mind on Syria and the rebels. The storming of the Turkish consulate in Mosul and the taking some 80 Turkish citizens as hostages comes at an awkward time, domestically speaking, for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Reconnaissance flights over Mosul out of Diyarbakir have already been conducted in consultation with Baghdad and Ankara has issued a stern warning to ISIS over any harm befalling the Turkish hostages. Turkey is unlikely to conduct military operations against ISIS just yet unless ISIS kills the hostages, a very unlikely event. Ankara, however, will maintain its new policy of keeping its borders closed and make it more difficult for foreign fighters to drift in as before.

It is unlikely that ISIS will take on so many foes at once. However, if the group settles into a holding pattern, it may lose support of the people in the territory it controls. The massive exodus from Mosul is an indication that people have little faith in organisation’s governance abilities. ISIS has already made a powerful negative image for itself by persecuting minorities and brutally crushing even the slightest dissent in lands it has held. If ISIS slows down now, or if a loose and reluctant coalition of Turks, Iranians, Kurds, and US-supplied Iraqis manages to slow them down, they may be the reason of their own unravelling.

The phrase, “May you live in interesting times” is usually taken to be an ancient Chinese blessing. It is, in fact, neither ancient nor Chinese nor a blessing. It appears in the opening remarks of Frederic Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in 1939…and was meant as a curse. These are interesting times indeed.

Incidentally, Iraq is – was – India’s second-largest oil supplier.

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on June 13, 2014.