Alright, so, Iraq. Hoo-boy. I briefly touched on this situation the other day, when my reserves of brain power were at a definite ebb, and, while I’m not sure they’re in much better shape now, the situation in Iraq is spiraling out of control, and I wouldn’t be very good at this foreign policy blogging stuff if I didn’t at least try to plow through what’s happened so far. So, here goes.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) if you prefer (the Arabic — al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham — supports either, though “the Levant” is probably a little more accurate translation of al-Sham, and yet I keep using ISIS anyway) now controls Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, and most of Iraq’s northern Nineveh province that borders Syria. Yesterday they reportedly took control of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and where he used to be captain of the varsity chemical weapons team in high school. Tikrit isn’t as big or important a city as Mosul, and ISIS seems to have suffered a reversal there today (more on that below), but it is conveniently located just a little bit over the halfway point on the Mosul-to-Baghdad highway, which lends some credence to ISIS’s pledge to march on Baghdad.
Add Mosul to the two Iraqi cities ISIS already more or less controls, Ramadi and Fallujah in the western Anbar province, and there’s a case to be made that ISIS now controls a swath of territory that stretches from a short distance west of Baghdad to the cities of Raqqah and Thawrah, in north-central Syria (see the map below, via). They probably don’t have a great handle on most of that territory (they just don’t have enough manpower), but they have a better claim to controlling it than anybody else, including the Syrian and Iraqi governments and the various other factions of the Syrian rebellion.
ISIS’s big move has set off a ripple effect of sorts that threatens to make the situation even more volatile, if you can imagine that. After ISIS took Mosul it seems to have moved into the Kirkuk province, one of the centers of Iraq’s Kurdish population. The city of Kirkuk also isn’t as big or important as Mosul, but it controls Iraq’s northern oil fields, which are so valuable that the Turks tried desperately to hang onto the region after WWI, but the Brits insisted on making it part of their new Iraq mandate because they didn’t see how Iraq could sustain itself without that oil. So, because ISIS was threatening Kirkuk, or maybe just because the fuss over Mosul gave them a good opportunity to do something they wanted to do anyway, Kurdish fighters (peshmerga) have now taken over the city. The Kurds, who value their autonomy and at least some of whom still probably harbor dreams of an independent state, know that without Kirkuk, even an autonomous Kurdish enclave doesn’t have much oomph to it.
It’s unlikely that ISIS will try to move on Kirkuk again, because the peshmerga are actually pretty tough fighters with considerable battlefield experience from all those decades they spent openly resisting Saddam and Saddam’s predecessors. This puts them in stark contrast with the regular Iraqi army, which is an utter mess beyond what anybody could have imagined (and we already knew they were kind of a mess to begin with). The reports out of Iraq are saying that ISIS, with about 800 fighters, completely routed 30,000 Iraqi soldiers in Mosul, most of whom stripped off their uniforms, dropped their weapons (Merry Christmas, ISIS!), and ran like hell. Even with the Iraqi army a complete non-factor, though, ISIS is approaching the point where it will start bumping up against seasoned, tough fighters, as it has in Kirkuk. From Baghdad on south is Shiʿa country, unlike the mostly-Sunni Anbar and Nineveh area, and there are plenty of Shiʿa fighters who cut their teeth in the sectarian warfare that followed in the aftermath of Saddam’s removal from power and who can be mustered up to respond to ISIS’s forces. Also, there’s this development to consider (note the claims that they’ve already started pushing ISIS out of Tikrit):
Two battalions of the Quds Forces, the overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps that has long operated in Iraq, came to the aid of the besieged, Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki…
Combined Iraqi-Iranian forces retook control of 85% of Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi and Iranian security sources.
The Quds Forces is, well, let’s just say that ISIS is exceedingly unlikely to outfight the Quds Force, and leave it at that. Iran has also called for an “international response” to ISIS’s gains, which is mostly aimed at the US in a “hey, why are you guys so focused on what we’re doing, when we’ve all got these nihilist nutters to worry about?” Bashar al-Assad, not one to miss an opportunity like this, is also getting in on the act, offering to “help” Iraq with its ISIS problem (which is interesting, because he doesn’t seem to be doing much about his own ISIS problem), which is more for show (“see, I’ve been fighting these guys too, so I’m really the good guy!”) than anything else.
Anyway, at least some of ISIS’s gains here might be rolled back pretty easily, both because of the response from Iraqi Shiʿa and from Iran (and, heck, the Kurds might also decide to go on the offensive here) and because, if you look at what’s been happening in Syria, ISIS’s brand of ultra-restrictive, brutally harsh governance tends to cause the people under its control to kind of start to hate them in short order. As Joshua Keating at Slate notes, ISIS has pretty much managed to make an enemy of everybody at this point. But how this advance gets rolled back could matter quite a bit in terms of Iraq’s viability as a state. Iraq’s Sunni population is in open rebellion against Baghdad even if you remove ISIS from the equation; indeed, this latest ISIS advance is apparently being exploited by another Sunni Arab rebel group, the Baathist (and thus more or less secular) Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandiyah (“Army of the Men of the Naqhshbandi Order”), led by Saddam’s former vice-president, Izzat al-Duri. So if ISIS is driven back by the advance of an Iranian army, or an army of Iraqi Shiʿa, into the Sunni north, there’s a pretty clear path from that outcome to a much wider civil/sectarian war. In that instance, Sunni Arabs are very likely to sign up to fight alongside ISIS, despite the fact that ISIS is filled with terrible people who will make life miserable for anybody unlucky enough to come under their control, because even that still seems better than remaining under Baghdad’s Shiʿa-centric status quo. Somehow the effort to counter ISIS needs to be national, united, but the Iraqis have the wrong guy running the country to try to put something like that together. Let’s talk that over in part 2.