Gwynne Dyer: ISIS rises in Iraq

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      The Iraqi army will have to destroy Mosul in order to save it—and it’s not clear whether it can do the job even then. It isn’t so much an army as a vast system of patronage providing employment of a sort for 900,000 people.

      When fewer than a thousand ISIS jihadis fought their way into Mosul, Iraq’s second city, over the past few days, most of the government’s soldiers just shed their uniforms and fled.

      The government troops never felt comfortable in Mosul anyway, for they are mostly Shia Muslims and the vast majority of Mosul’s 1.8 million residents are Sunni. (Or maybe it’s only 1.3 million people now, for up to 500,000 of the city’s residents are reported to be fleeing the triumphant jihadis: Shias, non-Muslim minorities, and even Kurdish Sunnis have faced execution in other areas that have fallen under the control of ISIS.)

      The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (an Arabic word that can mean the entire Levant, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) began as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” during the American occupation, but it’s the Syrian civil war that turned it into a regional threat.

      ISIS actually spent more time fighting other rebel forces in Syria than the Assad regime, but it gained recruits from all the Sunni Arab countries just by being on the right side.

      It also got access to the money and arms that were flowing into Syria for the anti-government forces. In the past two years it has established effective control over most of sparsely populated eastern Syria, and it started moving back into western Iraq in force late last year.

      In January, it seized the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, only 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, and the Iraqi army was unable to retake the city although it had suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 1,000 killed, by the end of April. But at least it stood and fought in Anbar. In Mosul on Monday, it just ran.

      It ran although it outnumbered the ISIS fighters who attacked the city by at least 15-to-one, and it may not be willing to fight very hard to take it back.

      The entire Iraqi government is an “institutionalised kleptocracy”, as one of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own ministers said, and the army is no exception. Soldiers who go unpaid because their officers stole their wages are rarely willing to die for them.

      The only real fighting force left in Iraq is the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is a tough, well-armed force, but it serves what is a separate state in all but name. It apparently still holds the part of Mosul east of the river Tigris, which has a large Kurdish population, but it may not be willing to take the large number of casualties that would be involved in street-fighting to recover the main part of the city.

      At a minimum the KRG would want the Baghdad government to make major concessions on the revenue and oil-exporting disputes that have poisoned its relations with the federal government before it commits its forces to a major offensive against ISIS. Or it may just decide to stand on the defensive in the Kurdish-majority territory it now holds, and use the crisis to move even closer to its ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan.

      ISIS has sent the occasional suicide-bomber into Kurdistan, but it realizes that its main fight is not with the Kurds. Having taken most of Mosul, its forces are advancing not east into Kurdistan, but south through Tikrit (which fell on Juine 11) towards Baghdad. It will not try to take Baghdad itself, most of whose seven million people are Shia, but by the end of this month it could end up in control of most of western and northern Iraq.

      At this point the old Iraq-Syria border would disappear and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would become a reality, extending 400 kilometres from Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq to Deir-es-Zor, Raqqa, and near Aleppo in Syria. It would be mostly desert and it would control only about five million people and almost no oil, but it would be ruled by an Islamist organisation so extreme that it has even been disowned by al-Qaeda.

      The remaining bits of the new regional map would be the western half of Syria, still largely under the control of the Assad regime; the semi-independent state of Kurdistan; and the densely populated, Shia-majority core of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra, hard up against the border with Shia Iran. None of this is yet inevitable yet, of course. It’s a war, and wars can take unexpected turns. But it’s certainly a possibility.

      It’s also a possibility that the war could get wider, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all consider whether they need to intervene militarily to protect their own interests.

      But that’s unlikely to happen this month. Later is anybody’s guess.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.


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      David English

      Jun 11, 2014 at 10:02pm

      All those US soldiers that worked their butts off, risking their lives, losing comrades, in training the Iraqi army up in Mosul... they must be seething right now. Their students have utterly failed. What a waste.

      On the other hand, somehow the Kurds always seem to impress. Even with their bitter internal political divisions, they can still manage to work together enough to defend their territory. They have their priorities straight. At this point, the entire western world should just give up on the Arabs in favour of the Kurds.

      I'm serious. Negotiate with Turkey, offer them immediate full membership in the EU (assuming they still want in) in return for some territorial concessions to the Kurds. Let Kurdistan happen, arm them to western standards, and let them be the regional police force. Given sufficient support, they could easily push back ISIS, take out Assad, and give Iran enough trouble to keep them occupied as well. They are right in the middle, straddling Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Having a really strong Kurdistan there would be... useful.


      Jun 12, 2014 at 12:03am

      However tempting it might be to keep attempting to extract some western advantage from the mess in Iraq, Turkey would require a lot more than full membership in the EU in exchange for tolerating a strong Kurdish state.
      Turkey already sees Kurdish nationalism as an existential threat, and a Kurdistan acquiring territory within Turkish borders and armed to the teeth with the latest weapons? Probably several bridges too far.


      Jun 12, 2014 at 5:29am

      David, what would be the Kurds' movitve for doing all this? They're presumably not interested getting involved in southern Iraq, Syria, etc., etc., etc. They would lose valuable forces-in-being for what is, for them, negligible gain.

      Your thinking betrays your colonialism. "Get the natives to do what we're not wililng to. They'd be willing in exchange for modern weapons and money and maybe even some modern technology."

      Maybe we should start treating these people like people, with their own interests and priorities separate from ours, instead of like chess pieces on a board.


      Jun 12, 2014 at 5:34am

      The only thing I would disagree with in Gywnne's column is that there will not be a formal state. The state will exist de facto, and that part of the border between Syria and Iraq will disappear de facto. But there will be no redrawing of maps or declarations of statehood, no country de jure.

      I strongly suspect that the people running ISIS are smart enough to realize that if they form a country with a government and an army and eventually an air force and so on, that's exactly the type of target the US military is good at taking out.

      They'll be smart, and remain a guerilla force running the area in reality but not in name, and just fade into the population whenever someone bigger shows up.

      The only person who has a chance of stopping them is, ironically, Bashar al-Assad, and he'll accomplish that simply by killing everyone in the region - men, women, children, whether they're part of ISIS or not. Bomb them. Gas them. Send in the murder squads. But he'll only do it within the borders of Syria and only after all other opposition in Syria has been reduced. The remnants of ISIS will flee across the border to join their friends in part of Iraq they control.

      Let me add that I do not approve of this "solution".


      Jun 12, 2014 at 6:56am

      It was a total waste for the US to have invaded Iraq in the first place. The mess today in Iraq illustrates the complete moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Western foreign policy.


      Jun 12, 2014 at 8:59am

      You can now see what Anglo-American adventurism has wrought: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya are "failed states", Ukraine is on the brink and Syria is a humanitarian wasteland. If they had minded their own business and left the dictators Saddam and Gaddafi to mind their countries affairs they would now be prosperous, stable Arab states. The question is now: was it their intention to create anarchy, foment Islamic terrorism,spark a regional war in the middle east and make a profit in the bargain?
      If these were their ends then they were very clever indeed however I suspect it all went awry and not at all as they intended. The "War on Terrorism" has begotten more terrorism, it cost them trillions of dollars which they must now print to pay their debts and their former leaders are considered war criminals by the rest of the world. Brilliant! Wouldn't you say? What's even worse, their elites are so stubborn and stupid that they still don't realise that American "Exceptionalism" and Interventionism doesn't "pay" and is obscenely counterproductive.

      John Zeger

      Jun 12, 2014 at 10:18am

      Gwynne predicted that this would happen at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was right!

      I Chandler

      Jun 12, 2014 at 10:50am

      "Revolutionary movements need money..."

      Now that the terrorists have robbed Mosul's central bank of a half billion, we don't need to ask who's supporting this terrorism ?

      And people shook their heads at the dog wagging neocons when they referred to Iraq as "the central front in the War on Terror" - but now the neocons tell us that these are not terrorists, but an army and: "ISIS runs courts, schools..."

      ISIS better be careful as there are (Monsanto) red lines that shouldn't be crossed:
      "In Raqqa, ISIS even started a consumer protection authority for food standards"

      Unlike the Iraqi troops facing them Isis fighters are highly motivated, battle hardened and well-equipped. Isis is recruiting thousands of foreign volunteers, some from Europe and the US . Indeed, "terrorist-tourism" is an increasingly concern of British Intelligence.

      The White House rejected a request from Iraqi PM Maliki to carry out airstrikes against the terrorists? Maybe America's mystery man , James Steele can help:


      Jun 12, 2014 at 3:09pm

      It would be sensible for Obama to meet with the important players in the arena. That would include Iran, which wants to limit Isis' power. But that would be sensible. Obama could also pressure Turkey to stop meddling in Syria by supporting the rebels. But that would be sensible. The same goes for the Saudis. But that would be sensible. Obama could ignore Maliki's requests for airstrikes. That would force Maliki to form a government of national unity. But that would be too sensible. So look for the U.S. to use airpower. Airpower is useless against guerillas who will take their losses and retreat and wait for the government's resolve to weaken. Obama might realize that U.S. policy in the region is leading to a regional conflagration and do much of the above. But that would be sensible.

      S H

      Jun 12, 2014 at 10:44pm

      If taking Kirkuk and Baghdad are not an option for an over-stretched ISIS in the East, then perhaps they'll turn their focus West, on Assad's 'victory,' and try to depose him.

      It's just a blender of death. No business plan, no post-secondary education, no hospitals.

      Muhammad would unite them.