ISIS is the most committed to taking on every single other actor. Their single-minded focus on creating an Islamic state in the “Greater Syria” region — which generally is considered to include Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan — has led them to completely ignore the borders drawn between the modern states that lie on the territory. As a demonstration of their commitment to the metaphor, ISIS fighters on Tuesday symbolically bulldozed a wall between Iraq and Syria.
Meanwhile, Adam Taylor presents the new rules under which citizens of Nineveh, now effectively a province of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are living. These include amputations as punishment for stealing, a ban on alcohol and cigarettes, a pledge to destroy the graves and shrines that Shia Muslims revere but which Sunni fundamentalists like ISIS view as idols, and instructions to women not to leave the house except when absolutely necessary (in Islamic dress, of course).
If history is any guide, this means ISIS will lose. No Jihadist group as extreme as this has ever managed to sustain popular support for very long. Al-Qaeda collapsed in Jordan because of this – and in Iraq, the insane puritanism of the Sunni extremists actually played a part in creating the Sunni Awakening.
Douglas Ollivant considers how this state of affairs might end:
So what could be game changers?
If the United States (or, perhaps, another Western nation) were to launch airstrikes against ISIS convoys and on support bases in western Iraq (or, for that matter, eastern Syria) it could stop the insurgency in its tracks. However, such a step appears unlikely, at least on a scale that would truly shift the chessboard.
Less dramatic, but probably of greater long-term effect, would be a breakthrough in the political stalemate in Baghdad involving at least one major faction from each of the three ethno-sectarian groups (Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds). Should this crisis cause cooler heads to decide it is better to hang together than hang separately, then this may be just the crisis that Iraqi politics needed.
A third possibility, much as we might hate to admit it, would be a resurgence in the Assad government in Syria that permits it to attack ISIS bases on their side of the Iraq-Syria border, forcing ISIS to shift forces from Iraq to defend their safe havens in Syria. The Assad government might truly enjoy the opportunity to turn their rhetoric on fighting terrorism into some sort of reality.
Peter Beamount counts the opposing forces:
Estimates put the fighting strength of Isis in Syria and Iraq at around 7,000 but its numbers in Iraq appear to have been bolstered by other groups, including local Sunni militants and Ba’ath nationalists particularly in Tikrit. Despite claims that they have captured helicopters in Mosul, it seems unlikely they would be able to deploy them. Lightly armed with Toyota pickup technicals, RPGs and small arms, Isis has captured some armoured Humvees, although there are suggestions that some equipment has been sent back to Syria. While they have been able to operate easily in largely Sunni areas where they have some support from a population angry and alienated from the Shia-led government in Baghdad, the capital is a different proposition. One district alone, Sadr City, has a Shia population of some 1 million and since the sectarian war that ended in 2008, the sprawling suburbs have been divided along sectarian lines with checkpoints and barriers.
Malaki controls roughly 250,000 forces of unknown readiness and ability. And the Kurds?
Although some 35,000 Kurdish peshmerga are incorporated into the Iraqi security forces, other peshmerga remain outside with published estimates varying from 80,000 to three times that number. Two years ago a Kurdish official suggested the peshmerga numbered 190,000. Increasingly well equipped – including with 2,000 armoured vehicles and rocket artillery systems – they are regarded as motivated, well trained and experienced.
“The Syrian war,” Totten declares, “is no longer the Syrian war. It’s a regional war”:
It spilled into Lebanon at a low level some time ago. It sucked in Iran and Hezbollah some time ago. Now it is spreading with full force at blitzkrieg speed into Iraq and has even drawn in the Kurdistan Regional Government which managed to sit out the entire Iraq war. This could easily suck in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel before it’s over. Or maybe it won’t.
In the future we might see the events of the last few days as the beginning of the end of Iraq as a state, or at least the beginning of the end of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose American-trained army has proven utterly useless. Or maybe he’ll survive in an Iranian-backed rump state. Maliki wants an American-backed rump state. … But we are not going to save Iraq and we are not going to save Syria. It’s over. That’s what the Middle East wanted, and it’s what the Middle East is going to get.
And Aryn Baker notes: “It’s not looking good for the 49 Turkish citizens taken from the country’s consulate in Mosul, or the 31 Turkish truck drivers who were also kidnapped.” But the biggest wild card remains Iran. Thomas Erdbrink (NYT) doesn’t confirm reports that the Revolutionary Guard is already fighting in Iraq, but he relays some Iranian officials’ thoughts on the situation:
Should the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria manage to consolidate its power in northern Iraq, Iran would be confronted with the fresh headache of propping up yet another weak ally, along with Syria. But there is a huge emotional difference between Iraq — the site of the defining battles of the Shiite faith and where the holiest of Shiite saints are buried — and the Syria of President Bashar al-Assad, more an ally of convenience, with only the shrine of Zeinab. “I propose we help Iraq by repeating our good experience,” said Hossein Sheikholislami, an aide to the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, and an important figure in Syrian affairs. “Of course, if they ask officially for our help we can send experts to train the trainers, just as we did in Syria.”
Other analysts dismiss both the militants and the costs of intervening in Iraq. “This group is not as big and powerful as they seem,” said Mashallah Shamsolvazein, a reformist journalist and analyst of Arab affairs. “If needed, we can enter Iraq and wipe out ISIS easily, but that won’t be necessary.”
If this does become a second Iran/Iraq war, as he fears, Juan Cole remarks on how dramatically the US position has changed since the first one:
In the looming second Iran-Iraq War, the US will be de facto allied with Iran against the would-be al-Qaeda affiliate (ISIS was rejected by core al-Qaeda for viciously attacking other militant vigilante Sunni fundamentalists in turf wars in Syria). The position of the US is therefore 180 degrees away from what it was under Reagan. In fact, since ISIS is allegedly bankrolled by private Salafi businessmen in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Oil Gulf, the US is on the opposite side of all its former allies of the 1980s. In some ways, some of the alleged stagnation of US policy in the Middle East may derive from a de facto US switch to the Iranian side on most issues, at the same time that US rhetoric supports Iran’s enemies in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
It is possible that a US-Iran alliance against al-Qaeda-like groups in Iraq and Syria could clarify their budding new relationship and lead to a tectonic shift in US policy in the Middle East. One things seems clear. Without Iran, the US is unlikely to be able to roll by al-Qaeda affiliates and would-be affiliates in the Fertile Crescent, who ultimately could pose a danger to US interests.
Paul Iddon remembers the last time American and Iranian interests coincided:
Iran-U.S cooperation post-1979 isn’t at all unprecedented. In November 2001 the Iranian Qods Force then commanded by Pasdaran commander Yahya Rahim Safavi cooperated with United States Special Operations forces in the liberation from Taliban rule of the city of Herat in Afghanistan. …
Common interests between Tehran and Washington in the immediate post-9/11 period briefly trumped long-held animosities as mutual cooperation was feasible and desirable. Iran was then under the more reformist-oriented Khatami. Its president today is one who was elected on the grounds of his advocacy of more productive relations between his regime and the United States. One could argue the finer points of what such a cooperation between U.S. and Iran in Iraq now could entail but for once one thing is sure in that region, that an ISIL victory today in Iraq is detrimental to the majority of Iraqi’s, the majority of Iranians and the United States.
(Map via The Guardian)