From DrHamid Hussain, comments welcome. (I have some thoughts, but dont have time, I will try later this week to write something)
“War has a grammar of its own, but its logic is not peculiar to itself.” Clausewitz
Recent advance of Sunni extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in northern and western Iraq took many by surprise. In few days, ISIS fighters took control of major cities of Tikrit and Mosul while country’s security forces simply folded without a fight. Iraq disappeared from international headlines after the departure of American troops from the country in 2011. Local conflicts with regional destabilizing impact seen in Mali and Ukraine replaced Iraq and Afghanistan. Internal conflict in Iraq remained a local affair for the last few years. Conflict in Syria sucked many of country’s neighbors and Iraq was no exception. Limited numbers of Iraqis are fighting on both sides of the conflict. Iraqi Shia affiliated with some local militias are fighting alongside Syrian security forces while Iraqi Sunnis are providing fighters and logistical support to Sunni rebel groups in Syria.
Recent advance of ISIS creates new challenges as well as opportunities for all players. Key elements of the conflict include internal power dynamics of Iraq and neighboring countries while distant interested parties have a smaller but significant role to play. Internal squabbles among newly empowered Shia political elites in Baghdad and general Sunni alienation from new Shia power brokers set the stage for psychological separation in the background of a recent very brutal sectarian bloodbath all over the country. Sunnis were divided along several lines and tribal leaders with influence made separate deals with Iraqi government and Americans to safeguard their tribal and personal interests. Association of Muslim Clerics (AMC) took the mantle of representing urban Sunnis, however in the process it either kept quite or provided excuses for extremist violence against Shia civilians. It also came under the influence of Saudi Arabia and in the process all Sunnis were labeled as extremists as the ideological fountain of ‘takfir’ (apostasy) flows from the religious establishment of Saudi Arabia. The fractious Shia coalition in Baghdad felt in no mood to bring Sunnis inside the tent. There was a time when they could have made a deal with AMC and tribal elite to marginalize extremist segment of population but the opportunity was lost. Strengthening of Sunni extremist groups operating in Syria had direct impact on dynamics of Sunni power play inside Iraq.
The fires of sectarian hatred are raging all over the region and Iraq is in the middle of this cauldron. ISIS was able to gain foothold in alienated Sunni communities of Iraq and some former soldiers and tribesmen joined the new rising Sunni star on the stage. In the backdrop of schism among Iraqis along sectarian lines, local members of security forces simply melted away. Most of them had joined the security forces for a steady source of income and not for any national pride or patriotic sentiments.
The biggest losers at this stage are Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi state. The choice for Sunnis is now limited to live under the extremist version of Sharia of ISIS in areas under its control or to leave. If they stay put, they will suffer both from the excesses of extremists controlling their lives and then the destruction inflicted by government forces when they decide to take back the territory. The future of Iraqi Sunnis is quite bleak and most of them will be caught in the crossfire. Migration both internal and external will also be very difficult as they will not be welcome in Baghdad or Iraqi Kurdish areas due to widening gulf. Civil war in neighboring Syria assures closure of that avenue and fragile Jordan can only accommodate a limited number. Saudi Arabia and Turkey while eager to meddle in Iraqi affairs on behalf of Sunnis are in no mood to allow large scale Sunni migration.
Current rapid advance of ISIS has shocked many but it has probably achieved its maximum security and more importantly psychological gains. They will likely now consolidate only on these two fronts as they are not much interested in governance. They want to purify their subject’s faith and eliminate infidels and apostates rather than providing clean water or good education (there are few exceptions and in some cases militants restored public services quickly and tried to present a gentler face of the organization). They will instill more fear to paralyze civilians and security personnel by disseminating images of public executions which in my estimate will be likely in dozens. They will also take control of other small Sunni dominated cities as main highways connecting north and south are cut off and there is no likelihood of any meaningful support to beleaguered cities. Their control of Nineveh, Salahuddin and Diyala governorates has effectively cut off northern Kurdish areas from Shia dominated south. However, they have reached their military limits and have significant handicaps. First, it will be hard for them to defend large swaths of territory including major cities. If they decide to defend their territory against a conventional assault by Iraqi security forces, it will dissipate their strength. Once they come close to Shia dominated areas, they will face the real challenge. Security forces and Shia militias will be fighting for their own version of faith. ISIS may try to augment its weakness by launching large scale suicide bombings.
Events of last few weeks showed extreme fragility of Iraqi state. General public has lost the faith in security forces to protect them and it will be very difficult if not impossible to repair this psychological damage. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s statement telling citizens to arm themselves was an act of extreme irresponsibility and more damage to public morale was done by such government actions than the actual advance of ISIS. The space left by the retreat of state will be filled by non-state actors even in Shia majority areas and we are already seeing the signs. Shia militias and their leadership that has been gradually absorbed into state structures and to some extent pushed from the center stage will get a second chance to stage a comeback. Central government will lose more control of poor Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad and southern port city of Basra. There is risk of re-emergence of Mafioso style militias that will extract resources from local citizens in return for promise of security from rabid extremist Sunnis of ISIS. Clerical establishment of shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala will be sucked into this conflict as they see threat from Sunni extremists as an existential threat to Shia Islam. They have to provide religious sanction for defense of the faith and Ayatollahs will issue religious decrees to their respective flocks regarding fight in defense of their faith. All these measures will increase Shia solidarity but at the expense of the central state as well as further widening of the sectarian gulf. These Shia militias will tag along Iraqi security forces when they retake Sunni dominated areas and exact a terrible revenge. This is not a hypothetical scenario but it actually happened in Iraq in recent past.
Iraqi Kurds are clear winners in both short and long term as long as they can keep chaos away from their border. Since 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan has been a de facto independent country. They have established Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) consisting of four northern governorates (provinces) of Dohuk, Irbil Sulemaniyah and Halabja. Physical, psychological and economic separation of Iraqi Kurds is almost complete. The painful history of Iraqi Kurds in the state named Iraq is full of pogroms and genocide and central state of Iraq is synonymous with oppression and brutality for almost all Iraqi Kurds. In the presence of U.S. troops, Kurds were forced to limit themselves to only de facto independence but if Iraq disintegrates along sectarian lines then Kurds will make a clean break. Many will eagerly embrace them and even those who do not favor outright independence of Iraqi Kurdistan will prefer to make arrangements with an island of relative stability on the edges of a volatile and violent arc.
Iraqi Kurdistan has made enormous progress in all fields and their leaders used local, regional and international resources well despite a fair level of corruption. Main focus of Kurdish leadership was economic activity and relative stability along borders with Turkey and Iran. They were able to maintain a reasonable amount of stability along border despite very difficult history and presence of significant numbers of Kurds in Iran and Turkey and sectarian bloodbath inside Iraq. When ISIS moved into Mosul, Kurdish security forces quickly moved and took control of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is the political, economic and psychological center and future capital of independent Kurdistan. Kirkuk has been a major stumbling block in Kurdish-Iraqi relations and what Iraqi Kurds could not wrest from Iraqi state in ten years, ISIS has presented them their crown jewel without firing a single shot. Kurdish move was preventative to protect Kurdish population of the city but it also achieved one of the strategic objectives of Kurds as they can now work to incorporate Kirkuk permanently into KRG. In my view, this action is now irreversible and Kurds will not give up Kirkuk even if rest of the Iraq becomes Switzerland. The next step could be safe guarding and finally incorporating two Kurdish majority districts (Khanaqin and Kifri) of Diyala province into KRG. This will complete geographical consolidation of KRG.
In strategic terms, there is a rare convergence of interests among a wide range of even hostile players. Sunni extremist outfits have declared an open war on Shia globally which means that Iraqi Shia, Iran and Syrian government see them as existential threat. Iran is moving extra intelligence and security assets into Iraq to bolster Iraqi security apparatus. Syrian government is already fighting ISIS on its own territory and will be coordinating with Iraqi government. Even Turkey’s Islamist government is not Muslim enough for ISIS. One of the first actions of ISIS was to take dozens of Turkish security personnel and diplomats hostage when they took control of Mosul. Ankara is seriously worried about this emerging threat along its border. Ankara has dialed back significantly in Syrian theatre in view of increasing strength of extremist groups in the opposition in the last two years. Now, many in Turkish security and intelligence establishment are having serious second thoughts about the wisdom of current government’s policy of diving head first in Syrian civil war. Advance of ISIS may result in revision of Turkish policy towards Syria.
Many in Israeli strategic community are slowly realizing the tectonic shifts in surrounding Muslim world. The question about threat to Israel from state and non-state actors needs to be re-visited. Israel has successfully defended itself against larger hostile neighboring states throughout its history. The question is how it plans to face the challenge from non-state actors. Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) is working on this new emerging threat along its borders as extremist groups are gaining strength in Syria and Sinai. I’m sure some in Israeli security and intelligence community will be burning the midnight oil asking the question of what is the risk of presence of extremist groups on Israeli border from a fragmenting Syria or if other neighboring states like Egypt and Jordan are further weakened? Some can argue that in short term; it is in Israeli interest that ISIS can suck in Iranian security and intelligence assets inside Iraq thus dissipating Iranian energies. However, threat from ISIS like groups is diffuse and cannot be quantified in conventional terms. Israel has invested heavily in Iraqi Kurdistan in economic and security sectors which benefited both parties. This relationship will be crucial in tackling ISIS especially if ISIS decides to open another front against Kurds.
Saudi Arabia is providing ideological and financial support to many Sunni groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. Riyadh is playing with fire and in its hatred of Shia; it decided to sleep with another dangerous enemy. Such fires cannot be restricted to any geographical region and blowback is a rule rather than an exception. Many Sunni extremist groups show contempt for the Saudi monarchy and have successfully hit targets inside Saudi Arabia (in some of the chatter picked up by Pakistani intelligence, militants ridiculed religious edicts of Chief cleric of Saudi Arabia and custodian of the holiest mosque of Kaba labeling them as ‘courtier mullahs’. The diaries of two Saudi militants captured by Pakistani security forces in Mohmand tribal agency were filled with abuse hurled at Saudi Royal family and promise of returning home to cleanse Saudi Arabia after they are done with Afghanistan and Pakistan). Saudis only need to look at Pakistan to see the wages of such myopic decisions. More closely at home they can read their own history. King Abdullah’s father Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud used religious zealots Ikhwan for his own interests to expand his fiefdom. However, at one stage same Ikhwan considered even Abdul Aziz as apostate when he tried to prevent them from raiding neighboring countries. Abdul Aziz had to use the machine guns of the ‘infidels’ to put the fear of God and decimated his one time ally. The second incident is quite sanguine seizure of the holy mosque of Kaba in Mecca by extremists in 1979. Royal family had to publicly behead dozens in different cities to put back the fear of God. It is time for Riyadh to review its Syrian policy and weigh its pros and cons. Events of the last few years clearly show that the costs clearly outweigh any benefits to Saudi long term security interests.
Current threat from ISIS is unconventional and response also needs to be un-conventional. This phase of the war needs to be fought in the shadows. Loud noise from all directions is expected and pressure on Washington will be to do something. Retired American generals who lost Iraq war, former intelligence operatives who were wrong so many times and permanent fixtures of Iraq experts at various think tanks who had become orphans after American departure have also staged a comeback parallel to ISIS advance. Surely, we will hear a wide array of options for Washington. Washington has a habit of throwing more money and weapons at the problem with the hope that the problem will go away. This has not worked before and will also not do the trick this time.
Washington spent billions of dollars on Iraqi army in the last decade providing them with tanks, Humvees and heavy weapons. In less than a week, this army lost almost one third of their country without giving a fight. To add insult to the injury, extremists got hold of all the weapons including Humvees and tanks. They paraded in Mosul city riding in dozens of brand new vehicles of security forces and police. In addition, they helped themselves with a bonus of about $400 million from Mosul banks and some reports suggest that militants also took a joy ride in helicopters captured at Mosul. Limits of American power are obvious to anyone with average intelligence. I think Christopher Fettweis summarized it very eloquently that “bringing peace to every corner of the globe, even those whose stability we have wrecked through our own incompetence, is not necessarily in the strategic interest of the United States”. I’m not in favor of supplying more money or weapons to Iraqi security forces. Only contribution that I can see is to provide intelligence cooperation and very limited use of surveillance and armed drones targeting large gatherings of militants and leadership that can serve as a precursor before Iraqi security forces move in. There is not much appetite in United States for more involvement in peripheries and less involvement and less visibility are in U.S. long term interests.
In long term, Iraqis have to solve their internal differences but in short term, all interested parties need to coordinate despite significant differences. The best option is to have a small number of intelligence and security officials of United States, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Israel and Iraqi Kurds establish ground rules for tackling the threat. All these countries already have significant intelligence presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and they only need guidance from their respective governments to cooperate locally. Intelligence gathering and small scale covert operations targeting militant leadership can be supplemented by limited use of armed drones. Many Sunni tribesmen have joined the ISIS offensive. Washington has old intelligence assets among this group when Awakening movement of Sunni tribesmen was organized against Al-Qaeda during U.S. occupation. These assets can be activated and supplemented by other assets to identify and liquidate extremist leadership.
Major intelligence and covert operations should be launched from northern Kurdish areas. Israel can be a significant contributor on this front. If Washington and Tehran comes to an agreement, then Iran can launch a similar effort from eastern front bordering Diyala governorate and from government controlled areas. If initial intelligence and covert operations are successful in downgrading ISIS command and control then Iraqi security forces have to do the heavy lifting of taking back control of major cities.
Saudis have tightened control of their border with Iraq over the last decade to prevent graduates of Iraqi insurgency to practice their skills inside the kingdom. It is not likely that large number of extremists will head for Saudi border. Some may head towards Jordan after shedding their weapons and uniforms. Jordan has its own fairly decent intelligence network targeted against extremist outfits as well as fairly robust intelligence cooperation with Americans and Israelis. These assets can be used to identify and liquidate extremist leadership. The only door left open for ISIS will be the western border with Syria and here the most effective weapon could be drones. In addition, small scale operations launched by Syrian Kurds in control of northern Syria can hit retreating ISIS from the flank. An independent supporting role of Russia to Syrian government by providing weapons especially aerial assets can help in downgrading ISIS inside Syria. All these measures even if successful are short term and long term solution depends on a grand bargain among Iraqis and conclusion of civil war in Syria. The chances of long term settlement are however bleak in view of widening sectarian gulf.
Iraq has embarked on another cycle of violence and we don’t how it will end but we are sure that it will be painful for every Iraqi. An Iraqi student of a religious seminary Nizar Yusuf probably with more wisdom than American generals and experts said in August 2003, “It’s already started. We know from reading history that when it becomes bad, it only gets worse”. The lesson for everyone from another blood soaked page of Iraqi history is that every effort should be geared towards preserving existing states no matter how imperfect. When these states fragment from internal or external pressures, they leave only death, devastation and tears in its path. On the other hand, once citizens of a country come to a conclusion that they cannot live together as they have nothing in common then they have to make the painful decision of separation to end the war in a generation rather than bestowing these wars to their children and grandchildren.
It’s a long journey,
And in it, I’m a stranger.
And the night draws near,
And the day has ventured home
An Arabic song (late Anthony Shadid very aptly titled his book on Iraq Night Draws Near)
June 14, 2014