The significance and impact of the surprise occupation of much of the Sunni triangle of Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) are far greater than what meets the eye. This emerging crisis illustrates the failing state of Iraq, the failed policies of its governments and the depth of the quagmire the country is in. June 2014 will mark a turning point in Iraq’s history and its destiny.
Iraqi political leaders, who have so far lost their way forward, must rise up to their responsibilities for managing the current crisis and determine their country’s destiny. Regional and international powers, who have so far been ambivalent, must rethink their policies in the whole Middle East if they were to serve their national securities and national interests. The question is, will they?
How did ISIS get here?
It was late 2012 when ISIS established its foothold in Syria, and soon gathered momentum until it established itself as a political entity and enforced a system of governance. Having secured territory, population and economic capabilities, ISIS became a significant force of change and a big player in the dynamics of Syrian opposition. It became highly organised, battle-hardened and capable of expansion into Iraq.
Several local and regional factors contributed to creating opportunities for ISIS. Iraq as a poor- (or non-) functioning state and its failing Government created a fertile ground for ISIS to grow in the Sunni triangle and fill an obvious power void. The lack of leadership from the US combined with an Iranian drive to use Iraq for its ultimate national security, in the face of US and Israel pressure, are also big factors.
Ironically, the earlier battles between ISIS and the Iraqi Army in Fallujah served Mr Al-Maliki in the build up to the elections, and won him significant Shia votes. It also served the Iranian agenda by easing the ISIS pressure on Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. It made ISIS an Iraqi concern, to be confronted by the Iraqi state resources and machinery. However, the current ISIS success has embarrassed Mr Al-Maliki and blown the problem for Iran and the region out of proportions.
None of these factors were easily predictable. ISIS, being led by ex-Iraqi army officers, supported by the Bathist organisational network and was embraced by the unhappy Sunni tribes, who previously ruled Iraq and had been alienated by Al-Maliki. ISIS has now struck its near-fatal blow on Iraq and the Middle East Order.
The bigger picture
For decades, the Middle East Order was stagnant and stable, with ruthless dictators ruling populations with iron fists. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait gave the USA the opportunity to take leadership and change this Order. American presence and influence shaped subsequent events, culminating in the removal of Saddam regime and paving the way for the Arab Spring. However, the Iraq experience for the occupying forces proved costly, deadly and will remain forever bitter. Iraq and the rest of the Middle East proved too complex for simplistic military solutions.
Regional powers, particularly Iran, and international forces, particularly Islamic Salafist groups backed by their wealthy Arab funders, defeated the US and eventually expelled its troops from the region. Worse still, Barrack Obama’s foreign policies added insult to injury and helped the US lose impact and relevance. Iran, on the other hand, became the ultimate policy- and decision-maker for both Iraq and Syria, and are now shaping events to fit their national security agenda.
For Iran, the Sunni-ISIS expansion in Syria was tolerable, as it weakened the Syrian opposition and provided a least desired alternative to Bashar Al Assad’s regime. ISIS’s further crossing into Iraq and gaining territories last year remained tolerable for as long as Baghdad city and the central Government remained in the hand of pro-Iranian Shia factions. Such battles would not disrupt the Shia belt of Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Southern Beirut. However, for Iran, the latest ISIS success is one step too far and it may get Tehran to become more active soon. Iran is now said to be mobilising Al-Quds fighters in support of the demoralised Iraqi Army. The USA may provide limited support or even strike from the air. All these will further fuel the war, which may turn into a civil, as well as international, war.
The Iraq stage
ISIS is fast expanding its territories, capturing big cities and small towns with relative ease, if not without a fight. The ease is indicative of the social (tribal and civilian) support that ISIS is now enjoying. Those who fled Mosul did so largely in fear of Iraqi Government’s reprisal; otherwise, life can get back to some normality under ISIS’s rule. ISIS did not sack the cities or slaughter civilians; instead it seized banks, military barracks, heavy armoured vehicles and centres of administration. They are now the richest terrorist organisation in the world, and want to govern a triangle where some of Iraq’s most vital roads, oil refineries and natural resources lie.
If ISIS leaders proved to be shrewd strategists, they may avoid diluting their forces by sudden expansion southwards and avoid fighting with their powerful neighbours in Kurdistan (including the disputed territories). They can then consolidate their power and make it virtually impossible for the central Government to regain control over the lost territories. As a result the ISIS/Baathist rule over the Sunni triangle will become a reality that the Kurds, Arabs, Turks and the rest of the World will have to learn to live with (or not).
The Iraqi army has clearly lost the will and capability to defeat ISIS, and lost any credibility it may have had. No Iraqi Arab (Shia or Sunni) would be willing to die for the new Iraq. The Kurds see no reason to fight this war for Al-Maliki, who until now has tried to undermine the KRG and has not yet shown any interest in solving the on-going economic crisis. The international community (including the USA) have lost the true means or the will of helping them to victory. Iraq is too messy for anyone to get absorbed into.
Iraq for fragmentation
Taken together, the last few days’ events have, in effect, fragmented Iraq, once and probably for all. So far, bloodshed, political rivalry and power struggles have divided Iraq, but now the system of governance is divided into three de facto independent states, with no mutual trust, good will or good intentions between them. There will be no credible way out of this mess. The Iraqi military is not only incapable of regaining all the lost territories, but even if it did win back a city or two, it cannot consolidate its popular support or retain power for long. Furthermore, corruption and division within the Iraqi political, military and administrative establishments prohibits fast gains or regains over ISIS.
The Kurds on the other hand see this war as a Shia-Sunni war that started centuries ago, fuelled by the Al-Maliki-Ba’athist fight which by no means is part of the Kurdish cause. On the contrary, this war provides a unique opportunity for the Kurdish parties to unite and win back the lost/disputed territories which the Sunni-led regime had Arabised and the Shia-led rule has failed to rectify.
The Kurds, however, should avoid provoking public opinion in Iraq, alienating stakeholders in Baghdad and confronting ISIS head-on. They should also know that there can be no safe, stable and harmonious co-existence with a Sunni triangle that is governed by ISIS, therefore should enter some deals with Baghdad that secure control over all Kurdish territories and enhance the KRG’s economic independence, while keeping the Iraqi map intact. This can be a win-win outcome, blessed by Iran,Turkey and the USA.
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About MERI: The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region. Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.
MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).