The situation in Iraq is currently in a constant state of flux. Mosul has fallen into the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and large parts of the country are out of government control. With Iraq’s second city lost and the spread continuing, the coming days and weeks will define the country’s future. ISIS have made staggering gains, defeating an army that is many times its size. While predictions may be difficult,it is not hard to predict that this will be a difficult period for not only Iraq, but the region as a whole.The questions to be raised now are: Can Iraq be brought back from the brink? And how did it get this bad?
It can be argued that the Sunni insurgency never really left Iraq,The Government of Iraq has never managed to deal effectively with the Sunni Arab sense of disempowerment and consequent discontent following the fall of Saddam. However real blame for the empowerment of Sunni extremists has to be laid at the door of Premier Al Maliki.
Al Maliki’s decision, in December 2013, to tear down protest camps in Anbar while targeting ISIS camps in Wadi Horan, near the Iraqi-Syria border, really started the ball rolling. A power vacuum was created in Anbar against a backdrop of growing discontent in the general population and a feeling of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. ISIS capitalized. They fought hard for the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
In the run up to the elections Maliki managed to use the situation in Anbar to his advantage. War-time presidents do well and Maliki did better than many expected. Had people known what the situation would be like just a few months later things would not have been the same. With vast areas of Iraq in the hands of ISIS, Maliki has lost control.
To let Iraq’s second city fall was a major military failure.A huge underestimation of ISIS. This was combined by the lack of awareness of the low morale in the army. Many soldiers have been fighting in Anbar for the last year, watching their brothers in arms die around them.Whilst soldiers in provinces like Mosul may be drawn from all communities, including some who are Sunni Arab, senior officers tend to be predominantly Shiite, with a few from key loyal minority groups. The consequence in Mosul was that the officers were those that felt most vulnerable and decided to run first. After only a few days of fighting Mosul was lost, getting it back will be hugely difficult if not impossible, if left to Maliki.
Getting closer and closer through the areas of Salahaddin, Anbar and Diyala, Baghdad will be partially surrounded. Maliki has lost the support of his army. The country is out of control and currentlyMaliki has no ability to fight back.
Strengthened by their success in Syria and Anbar, ISIS have made a clear decision to push in Iraq in an attempt to bring the country to its knees. ISIS managed to consolidate its strength in Syria. Carving out areas of influence and control, fighting more with other opposition groups than with the government.ISIS have a core aim, the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. The organisation has been merciless in this regard.
Fighting with other groups in Syria for power. Power, influence and access to resources is of huge importance to ISIS. Claiming Al-Raqqa as its capital in 2013, many ISIS supporters believe that the dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the borders of Iraq and Syria may be near.If the situation continues as it is,it will.
There has been a clear strategy by ISIS.Stepping up operations over the last 6 months.Now at its crescendo, ISIS appears to be surging south to Baghdad. Capitalising on Maliki’s weak position, the low morale in the Iraqi Army, and their own brutal reputation, ISIS have been ruthlessly effective. Bolstered by support, the prominence of the uprising in Syria both regionally and internationally has encouraged elements of the Sunni minority in Iraq to fight against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Fuelled by their successes and gains, geographically, militarily and economically, ISIS will be strengthened by its advances. Rising out of the ashes of the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS may change the dynamics in the Middle East.
Both the United Kingdom and the United States have had a policy of disengagement with Iraq since they have pulled out. Their focus put on other foreign policy issues and their own internal problems. The support for an active policy in Iraq has not been there.
This has been a major failure. Iraq was and remains of huge strategic importance to Western nations and its complete implosion will prove negative for all involved, except for those waving the black flags of extreme Islamist groups. International engagement was hugely important for Iraq to maintain its borders and security with a brutal civil war taking place next door in Syria.
Iraq never stopped being an important strategic partner for the West. Not only economically but also, now ironically, from a counter-extremism and radicalisation perspective. The impact of radicalisation in Syria has become the key security issue for Western states, however the West’s lack of foresight will now see Iraq join Syria as a hotbed for radicalisation. As the situation in the region degraded, Western governments should have recognised the importance of Iraq however unpalatable this may have been to western politicians. Now without significant foreign intervention Iraq may be lost.
The US government should act now. Support should be given to both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The flow of ISIS through Iraq has been fast. To stem the tide the West should act. Boots on the ground is impossible. Strategic targets should be identified and the flow weapons and military vehicles into Syrianeeds to be stopped. This combined with direct military support may be the only options left if Iraq if is to survive.
Maliki has few options. Either, surge forward, attempting to gain lost ground, in what will be a bloody venture and a hard fight to get parts of Mosul under control. An option that may be impossible. This is not Saulat Al-Fursan. The other option is to consolidate his forces and defend Baghdad and the south. The second, will be effectively conceding half of the country. Iraq will, de-facto, be split. A situation of a long term war of attrition as we are witnessing in Syria is possible.
What comes next will be important but what is clear now, is that Maliki has failed. Through neglecting the situation in Anbar, with failed attempts to bring an end to a situation he created, Maliki has underestimated the force and desire of ISIS. As Iraq Army losses continue, it becomes apparent that many are unwilling to fight under his command.
What has become clear is that 2014 is an important year in the long history of Iraq.
* * * * *
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).