Iraq, ISIL and the region’s choices

Even if ISIL is halted before it reaches Baghdad, it has left virtually every regional actor scrambling for a response.

Iraqi city of Mosul fell to ISIL forces within hours of their attack [AFP]

In a matter of days, Iraq’s political calendar and map have been rolled back by a decade. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has brought the Iraqi state to the point of collapse, defeating 30,000 Iraqi soldiers with fewer than 800 fighters in mere hours. 

It has bolstered its own power and status, further challenging its erstwhile parent organisation, al-Qaeda, and tightened the connection between the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields, hedging its losses in one territory with advances in the other. It has successfully carved out a jihadist proto-state that now covers Tikrit, less than 100 miles from Baghdad, and appears to be contesting areas on the capital’s edge – covering, in total, a third of Iraq.

These remarkable events present a series of challenges to four of Iraq’s neighbours – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – and, additionally, to the assumptions and sustainability of US policy in the region.

ISIL’s choices

Can ISIL defend its gains? Most likely, yes. In Mosul it seized large quantities of US-supplied military equipment, reportedly stolen over $400m in Iraqi currency from the city’s banks, and freed thousands of prisoners, many of whom are likely to join the insurgency. Its ability to hold out for over four months in the western city of Fallujah, forcing the government to resort to indiscriminate shelling in the absence of sufficient airpower, is an indication of ISIL’s defence capabilities. However, it remains unclear how much assistance ISIL has also received from outside.

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ISIL’s military offensives were almost certainly facilitated by smaller militant groups such as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, an organisation of former Baathist Iraqi army officers. As ISIL gains strength, it may command the loyalty of more such combat-proficient groups, thereby increasing its reach; it may also find conflicts of interests with these allies of convenience, particularly if it persists in its brutal behaviour.

What is ISIL’s next step? Although it is already seeking to expand its territorial reach beyond Tikrit, its ability to capture the capital itself should not be exaggerated. Whereas the government had neglected the defence of Mosul, Baghdad is better prepared. The capital also has a much larger portion of Shia Muslims than Mosul, Kirkuk, or Tikrit, so that ISIL will lack the same degree of tacit or informal support in many areas.

The greater short-term danger is that ISIL will enter Samarra, a city housing holy Shia sites whose bombing in 2006 by ISIL’s earlier incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, catalysed a nationwide civil war. For ISIL, catalysing sectarian violence by provoking Shia reprisals would not only serve its ideological objectives but also push vulnerable Iraq Sunnis into its arms.

Baghdad’s response

Baghdad’s ability to respond effectively is in serious doubt. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has threatened to arm Shia militias to generate a counterweight to ISIL. This risks a widening of the very same sectarian divisions – and increasing the long-standing disaffection with the government among a large number of Iraqi Sunnis – that eased ISIL’s successes in Sunni-majority areas over the past four months. Even the US government, whose arms Maliki urgently requires, responded to ISIL’s gains by castigating the PM for his failure to reform in this regard.

Maliki, who watched his forces dissolve in the face of ISIL’s advances, resembles a semi-tragic figure. He has issued desperate pleas for help to Kurdish militias called Peshmerga who fight for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a semi-autonomous province that has been at odds with Baghdad over oil exports and the allocation of federal revenue (the Kurds claim they are owed $6bn). Yet Kurdish involvement would present its own longer-term challenges to Maliki, not least weakening his bargaining position with the province. Kurdish forces already claim to be in full control of Kirkuk.

Although US arms deliveries will be expedited, the Iraqi security forces will struggle to incorporate more advanced weapons systems on a timeline that would change the course of the fighting. This is why, as early as March, Maliki has been secretly requesting US airstrikes against ISIL targets; Washington has so far rebuffed these requests, although further territorial gains by ISIL would place unbearable pressure on this policy. It is too soon to judge the effectiveness of the early Iraqi government airstrikes on Mosul on June 12, but it will depend on the accuracy and reliability of Iraqi intelligence, as well as the nature of any anti-air weaponry in ISIL’s possession.

Turkey spillover

For Turkey, the conflict has already spilled over the border. On the first day of ISIL’s seizure of Mosul, 31 Turkish truck drivers were taken hostage. And on the second day, ISIL stormed Ankara’s consulate in Mosul and detained 49 Turkish citizens – including the Consulate General, Ozturk Yilmaz, a former advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There is little immediate prospect of Turkish intervention, unless ISIL begins executing hostages; however the group has far more to gain by seeking ransoms, a strategy it has pursued to great effect across the border in Syria. Some reports suggest that the hostages have been moved to the residence of the ISIL-sponsored Mosul governor, in possible preparation for their release.

Ankara, which has reportedly sought to invoke NATO’s involvement when ISIL threatened the Suleyman Shah Tomb in Aleppo in March, has now called an emergency NATO meeting. Turkey will be eager to persuade its NATO allies to take the threat from Iraq as seriously as it does, not least because its ability to act entirely independently over the border would be limited.

Iran already stretched

For Iran, the possible entrenchment of an exceptionally radical and heavily-armed Sunni jihadist group on its western flank, threatening the collapse of a key Iranian ally, is a matter of grave concern. One Iranian MP observed  that the large number of Shia holy sites in Iraq – notably at Karbala, Najaf, and Samarra – would be “red lines” for Iran, should they be targeted by ISIL. Others – including Iranian officials – have repeatedly alluded to the prospect of direct Iranian intervention (“whatever it takes”) in Iraq. 

In the short-term, Iran is highly unlikely to deploy troops. It would first intensify support for the Iraqi security forces and then send small numbers of advisers from the Revolutionary Guards. However, Iran is now stretched across multiple fronts, and a more serious commitment in Iraq, might come at the expense of its assistance to Damascus. Hezbollah is likely to be even further thinned out, given its prominent role in a number of Syrian battlefronts; it almost certainly lacks the manpower to conduct a meaningful intervention in Iraq. In addition, Iraq’s most senior Shia figure, Ayatollah Sistani, reportedly chastised Iran’s involvement in the region’s conflict, arguing that “Iran acts and Arab Shia pay the price”. This hardly precludes Iranian involvement, but it will influence the form it takes.

Impact on Syria

In the short-term, ISIL’s gains will reinforce their efforts in Syria, a front where they have been squeezed eastward by rival rebel groups over the past four months. However, the broader impact may be on the calculus of external allies. Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US all view ISIL’s growing power with alarm.

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The Assad regime has hitherto avoided targeting ISIL, allowing it to remain in control of key areas, on the assumption that the group has weakened more moderate rebel factions and reinforced the regime’s message that the opposition is dominated by jihadist actors. It is possible, though by no means certain, that Tehran will apply pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to engage ISIL more directly and effectively. Yet at a broader level, the growth of ISIL strengthens Assad’s spurious claim that his own state and regime is the only bulwark against jihadist groups.

Much depends, however, on how the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other rebel backers respond. The most important question is the net effect on US calculations, and whether the Obama administration will reverse course and decide that the only way to contain ISIL is to shore up moderate rebels along the lines proposed by former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford: “Far greater material support and training so that [the Free Syrian Army] can mount an effective guerrilla war”, including the provision of surface-to-air missiles.

On the other hand, the shared US, Iranian and Saudi interest in ISIL might persuade the White House of the imperative for a new peace process – a Geneva III – in which counter-terrorism objectives supersede the democratic transition, rendering the US more inclined to push for a transition on terms favourable to Assad, Iran, and Russia. (See, for instance, one proposed Iranian plan for Syria).

The US and Iran held high-level bilateral nuclear talks recently, and the prospect and anticipation of a nuclear deal might increase the immediate appeal of cooperating with Iran on Syria. Despite Saudi Arabia’s own purportedly softening stance towards Iran and its serious concern over its own vulnerability to the jihadist resurgence, such a conciliatory approach would naturally be anathema to the US’ regional allies, who argue that ISIL is best defeated through strengthening its rival rebel faction within Syria.

A third option would be for the US to stick to its present course – a small trickle of arms and training to small, trusted rebel groups – while dealing with the immediate threat in Iraq through accelerated assistance to Baghdad. The danger of such an incremental and passive approach is that, as the situation deteriorates further, it becomes harder and harder to contain ISIL and salvage what is left of Iraq’s crumbling security forces. The administration may split the difference by conducting limited military strikes in Iraq against ISIL, while leaving its Syria strategy untouched. 

It would be tempting to believe that, just as al-Qaeda in Iraq wore itself out during the Iraqi civil war, ISIL will run into diminishing returns; but today there are no US troops to protect those Sunni tribes who wish to confront ISIL, and no “surge” should be expected. Even if ISIL is halted before it reaches the capital, it has left virtually every regional actor scrambling for a response.

Shashank Joshi is a Research Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He holds Masters degrees from Cambridge and Harvard Universities. He specialises in the international politics of South Asia and the Middle East.

Aaron Stein is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London and a researcher specialising in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.