Why Doesn’t Turkey Fear ISIS?

Turkey is less alarmed than its neighbors by Syria’s extremist groups:

Extremist Groups

Mustafa Akyol largely credits conspiracy theories for Turkey’s relative calm:

Many Turkish opinion leaders, especially those in the pro-government media, cannot accept ISIS, or its ilk, as extremist Islamist actors with genuinely held beliefs and self-defined goals. Rather they take it for granted that these terror groups are merely the pawns of a great game designed by none other than the Western powers.

For example, Abdulkadir Selvi, a senior journalist who has been quite vocal in the press and on television generally espousing a pro-government stance, wrote a piece last week titled “Who is ISIS working for?” This was his answer: “Al-Qaeda was a useful instrument for the US. To put it in an analogy, ISIS was born from al-Qaeda’s relationship with [the] CIA. The West gave its manners to al-Qaeda and now it designs our region through the hands of ISIS.” In short, al-Qaeda and its offshoot ISIS are both creations of the US Central Intelligence Agency and serve American interests.

Recent Dish on Turkey’s unsuccessful Syria policy here.

No, ISIS Is Not Al-Qaeda

Evan Perkoski and Alec Worsnop clear up an important misconception:

[C]ontrary to many media reports, ISIS is not a splinter group of AQ. ISIS wasn’t founded by or ever directly a part of AQ; rather, they were affiliates, two groups with close bonds, with one pledging loyalty to the other though at all times maintaining autonomy. This is an important distinction since labeling ISIS a splinter implies AQ factionalism that in reality never existed. Instead, ISIS’s links with AQ, rather than signaling weakness or factionalism, have played a major role in their development by providing access to resources, strategic and tactical guidance, recruits, and an ideology that helped socialize and bind together individuals from disparate backgrounds.

Benjamin H. Friedman also rejects the comparison in terms of the threat ISIS poses (or rather doesn’t pose) to the US:

The idea that we need to fight ISIS because of its potential to use terrorism against the United States suffers similar flaws [to the logic of the Iraq War]. During the Iraq War, hawks constantly warned that leaving Iraq would allow terrorist havens to form there. Their mental model was 1990s Afghanistan. They ignored the fact that al Qaeda (the original group that attacked Americans) came from particular conflicts, rather than being some kind of plant that grew in failed states. And even in Afghanistan, the problem was more that the government — the Taliban — allied with al Qaeda, rather than the absence of government. And hawks forgot that U.S. gains in drones and surveillance technology since the 1990s had destroyed havens—now those were easy targets.

Today, we are repeatedly told that ISIS is more brutal than al Qaeda and thus a bigger danger to Americans. But that logic confuses an insurgency with a group focused on attacking Americans. ISIS is a nasty organization fond of terrorist violence, radical Islam, and Islamic caliphates, but not an obvious threat to Americans. Conflating morally noxious Islamists with those bent on killing Americans is one of the errors keeping us at endless war.

In fact, Barak Mendelsohn considers ISIS’s ascendency evidence of al-Qaeda’s decline:

[B]eyond raising ISIS’ profile, the terrorist group’s march through Iraq also diminishes al Qaeda’s. Al Qaeda’s greatest achievement was the 9/11 attacks, but that was 13 years ago. Many of today’s jihadis were young children at that time. Moreover, the attack on the United States was only supposed to be a means to an end: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Al Qaeda franchises did manage to gain (and then lose) some territory in Yemen, Somalia, and northern Mali. But these territories are smaller in size and significance than what al Qaeda wanted — and what ISIS controls today. Although al Qaeda may have started the march toward the reestablishment of the Caliphate, it is ISIS that seems to be realizing it. …

Al Qaeda’s appeal relative to ISIS’ is greater when questions of how to run a territory populated by Sunni Muslims who do not subscribe to the Salafi-jihadi radical interpretation of Islam take center stage. When the front stabilizes and the intensity of the fight subsides, such questions will return and the inherent weakness of ISIS will resurface. ISIS is an extremely capable force, but its battle achievements do not make it any more appealing as a government.

The question is whether we can muster the patience and restraint to see it blow itself out.

Who Are These ISIS Chappies, Anyway? Ctd

Keating pens a thorough explainer on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tracking his rise from low-level militant to head of his own rogue proto-state:

Baghdadi fought in some capacity with Sunni militant groups after the U.S. invasion of Iraq but was arrested in 2005 and interred by U.S. forces at Camp Bucca, the main U.S. detention facility after the closing of Abu Ghraib. He wasn’t considered much of a threat and was released in 2009. The former commanding officer of Camp Bucca recently told the Daily Beast that when Baghdadi was released, he told his captors, “I’ll see you guys in New York.” (The guards at the prison were from a Long Island-based military police unit.) The commander, Col. Kenneth King, says Baghdadi “was a bad dude, but he wasn’t the worst of the worst” and is surprised he rose to such prominence.

It seems as if Baghdadi became far more hqdefaultinvolved with al-Qaida in Iraq while imprisoned than he had been before, to the point that he took over the group after the deaths of [Abu Ayyub] Masri and the other [Abu Omar] Baghdadi a year later. In 2011 he was designated as a global terrorist by the U.S. State Department with a $10 million bounty. Things really picked up in 2012, when, sensing an opportunity, Baghdadi dispatched some foot soldiers to join the fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. In 2013 he announced that the group was merging with Jabhat al-Nusra, the other al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, to form a new group called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.

That new group has turned out to be more formidable than anyone expected, in no small part due to its impeccable organization. Martin Chulov passes along what CIA and Iraqi analysts have learned from a massive trove of ISIS intelligence acquired on the eve of the group’s blitzkrieg on Mosul:

Laid bare were a series of staggering numbers that would be the pride of any major enterprise, let alone an organisation that was a startup three years ago.

The group’s leaders had been meticulously chosen. Many of those who reported to the top tier – all battle-hardened veterans of the insurgency against US forces nearly a decade ago – did not know the names of their colleagues. The strategic acumen of ISIS was impressive – so too its attention to detail. “They had itemised everything,” the source said. “Down to the smallest detail.”

Over the past year, foreign intelligence officials had learned that ISIS secured massive cashflows from the oilfields of eastern Syria, which it had commandeered in late 2012, and some of which it had sold back to the Syrian regime. It was also known to have reaped windfalls from smuggling all manner of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs. But here before them in extraordinary detail were accounts that would have breezed past forensic accountants, giving a full reckoning of a war effort. It soon became clear that in less than three years, Isis had grown from a ragtag band of extremists to perhaps the most cash-rich and capable terror group in the world.

Yochi Dreazen outlines the “mafia tactics” ISIS is using to become financially independent of its benefactors in the Gulf:

The exact amount of money in ISIS’s possession is the subject of intense debate among Western intelligence officials. At the high end, some analysts estimate that the group may have access to at least $500 million in cash drawn from bank robberies, oil smuggling, and old-fashioned extortion and protection rackets. Other analysts believe the number is far lower, with one official putting it at between $100 million and $200 million. Those numbers are moving higher as the group conquers more cities on its seemingly inexorable drive toward Baghdad and is able to loot the local private and government banks. On Monday, ISIS fighters took the strategically important town of Tal Afar, adding to the territory under its direct control. …

ISIS’s success at funding its own operations is indicative of a broader trend. Extremist groups throughout much of the world, particularly Africa, are beginning to reduce their dependence on outside donors.

More background on ISIS here and here.

Who Are These ISIS Chappies, Anyway? Ctd

In a lengthy but essential overview of the dynamics at play in Iraq, Kenneth Pollack cuts through some of the rhetorical bullshit, noting, for instance, that ISIS isn’t just made up of foreign fighters:

This is important because Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists have tried to paint ISIS as a group of foreigners who were waging the Syrian civil war and suddenly decided to launch an invasion of neighboring Iraq. If that narrative were true, it would suggest that a pure (and immediate) military response were warranted since such a group would have a great deal of difficulty holding territory conquered in Iraq. It would obviate the need for far-reaching political changes, which Maliki seeks to avoid.

He also explains how the “terrorist” label obscures the group’s true purpose:

[T]his is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign. … That is important because defining the Sunni militants as terrorists implies that they need to be attacked immediately and directly by the United States.

Seeing them for what they are, first and foremost a sectarian militia waging a civil war, puts the emphasis on where it needs to be: finding an integrated political-military solution to the internal Iraqi problems that sparked the civil war. And that is a set of problems that is unlikely to be solved by immediate, direct American attacks on the Sunni militants. Indeed, such attacks could easily make the situation worse.

Juan Cole agrees about the terrorist misnomer, at least for now, and he rejects some other popular assertions as well, including that ISIS is somehow popular:

They are not. Opinion polling shows that most Iraqi Sunnis are secular-minded. The ISIS is brutal and fundamentalist. Where the Sunnis have rallied to it, it is because of severe discontents with their situation after the fall of the Baath Party in 2003 with the American invasion. The appearance of video showing ISIS massacring police (most of them Sunnis) in Tikrit will severely detract from such popularity as they enjoyed.

He also contextualizes the idea that “ISIS fighters achieved victory after victory in the Sunni north”:

While this assertion is true, and towns continue to fall to it, it is simplistic. The central government troops, many of them Shiite, in Mosul and in towns of the north, were unpopular because representatives of a sectarian Shiite regime. The populace of Mosul, including town quarters and clan groups (‘tribes’) on the city’s outskirts, appear to have risen up in conjunction with the ISIS advance, as Patrick Cockburn argues. It was a pluralist urban rebellion, with nationalists of a socialist bent (former Baathists) joining in. In some instances locals were suppressed by the fundamentalist guerrillas and there already have been instances of local Sunnis helping the Iraqi army reassert itself in Salahuddin Province and then celebrating the departure of ISIS.

Aaron Zelin tries to figure out how many of the militants came from abroad:

Similar to [al-Qaeda in Iraq’s] original practice of posting official martyrdom notices, ISIS began doing so itself earlier this year, highlighting its comfort in sharing such information. Since early March, the group has released 201 martyrdom notices on its official province-level Twitter accounts for foreign fighters killed in Iraq (most of the notices were also posted on online jihadist forums). Although some of these notices were for individuals who died as far back as September 2012, the vast majority were for deaths that occurred after April 2013.

Since this information is self-reported by ISIS, and because the group continues to release older notices, the actual number of foreigners who have died in Iraq is likely higher. Further, some notices do not name a specific country of origin, instead using phrases such as “al-Shami” (which could denote anyone in the Levant) and “al-Muhajir” (meaning simply “emigrant”). In any case, this year’s jihadist death toll is set to exceed last year’s — if the current pace continues, some 233 foreign fighters will have been killed in Iraq by the end of 2014, or two-and-a-half times more than 2013. And the pace will likely accelerate given the increased fighting.

Josh Rogin traces most of the group’s funding back to wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia:

Gulf donors support ISIS, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda called the al Nusrah Front, and other Islamic groups fighting on the ground in Syria because they feel an obligation to protect Sunnis suffering under the atrocities of the Assad regime. Many of these backers don’t trust or like the American backed moderate opposition, which the West has refused to provide significant arms to. Under significant U.S. pressure, the Arab Gulf governments have belatedly been cracking down on funding to Sunni extremist groups, but Gulf regimes are also under domestic pressure to fight in what many Sunnis see as an unavoidable Shiite-Sunni regional war that is only getting worse by the day.

Previous Dish on ISIS’s origins and objectives here and here.

A Failed State In The Making?

Refugees Flee Iraq After Recent Insugent Attacks

Daniel Byman doesn’t see how ISIS will be able to handle actual governing:

ISIS may be good at preaching fire and brimstone to motivate its followers to kill themselves and their enemies, but the bloodthirsty thug with an AK-47 isn’t much good at helping you find health care or repair your house after it’s been shelled. It can loot and terrorize, but the patient work of providing services or otherwise running a country are beyond it. Even more damning, the movement itself is prone to divisions—violent ones. Power is a function of charisma, not institutions, making rivalries more likely and creating vacuums when a leader is killed. Moreover, having opened the door to declaring other Muslims apostate, it is impossible to close it: You can always find some deviation to fight over or declare a rival insufficiently zealous. The presence of so many foreign fighters often makes this worse. Locals’ zealotry is tempered by their relatives and other personal connections to home; the true-believing foreigners often accept no compromises and, at the same time, their presence exacerbates local resentment and nationalism.

But, in Aaron Zelin’s examination of how ISIS has run Syria’s Raqqa governorate, he points out that the group seems pretty well-organized, in both brutality and road maintenance:

The group … has a surprisingly sophisticated bureaucracy, which typically includes an Islamic court system and a roving police force. In the Syrian town of Manbij, for example, ISIS officials cut off the hands of four robbers. In Raqqa, they forced shops to close for selling poor products in the suq (market) as well as regular supermarkets and kebab stands—a move that was likely the work of its Consumer Protection Authority office.

ISIS has also whipped individuals for insulting their neighbors, confiscated and destroyed counterfeit medicine, and on multiple occasions summarily executed and crucified individuals for apostasy. Members have burned cartons of cigarettes and destroyed shrines and graves, including the famous Uways al-Qarani shrine in Raqqa.

Beyond these judicial measures, ISIS also invests in public works. In April, for instance, it completed a new suq in al-Raqqa for locals to exchange goods. Additionally, the group runs an electricity office that monitors electricity-use levels, installs new power lines, and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones. The militants fix potholesbus people between the territories they control, rehabilitate blighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office and zakat (almsgiving) office (which the group claims has helped farmers with their harvests). Most importantly for Syrians and Iraqis downriver, ISIS has continued operating the Tishrin dam (renaming it al-Faruq) on the Euphrates River. Through all of these offices and departments, ISIS is able to offer a semblance of stability in unstable and marginalized areas, even if many locals do not like its ideological program.

But, even if it’s sustainable, Angelo M. Codevilla doubts that “Sunni-stan” will pose much of a threat to the region:

Pushed into Syria’s eastern end, the international Sunni brigade flowed into Iraq and joined with their local brethren. Jointly, they control a compact area comparable in size to that which Iraqi Shia control to the Southwest, to what the Syrian regime controls to the West, and larger than what the Kurds control in the North. This Mesopotamian Sunni-stan is poor, however, land-locked, and surrounded by peoples who are very much on guard against its conquerors. It is difficult to imagine what power these people might wield once money from the Gulf stops coming in.

It would behoove U.S. policy makers to stop impotent regrets about the loss of a “united, democratic, progressive Iraq,” which ever existed only in their own minds. Rather, they should get used to the region’s new map and demand of Sunni-stan’s sponsors in the Gulf that they guide it to getting along with its neighbors.

(Photo: Iraqi children carry water to their tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13, 2014 in Kalak, Iraq. Thousands of people have fled Iraq’s second city of Mosul after it was overrun by ISIS militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)

Who Are These ISIS Chappies, Anyway?

In a useful explainer, Margaret Hartmann provides some background on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the jihadist militant group currently overrunning Iraq:

ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004 and became one of the most powerful Islamic extremist groups involved in the Iraq War. Shortly after al-Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq merged with several other insurgent groups and became known as the Islamic State of Iraq.

The group was decimated by U.S. forces, but as the last U.S. troops left in 2011, it staged a comeback. Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells Vox that the group changed its message to focus on Sunni sectarianism, challenging the Shiite majority in Iraq. In an attempt to consolidate power, the Iraqi government persecuted Sunnis and tried to shut down Sunni militias, which “played right into their hands,” according to Knights. He says Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “made all the ISIS propaganda real, accurate.”

Terrence McCoy profiles the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

Born a Sunni in 1971 in Samarra with the name Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai, he claims to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. According to a widely cited biography released by jihadists, “he is a man from a religious family. His brothers and uncles include preachers and professors of Arabic language, rhetoric and logic.” The biography and Arabic-language accounts claim he obtained a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad — which is presumably why several of his many aliases include the title “Dr.” Holding degrees in Islamic studies and history, he is believed to have been an Islamic preacher around the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The chaos of those months drove the 30-something into militancy, and he formed an armed group in eastern Iraq, one that reportedly never rose out of obscurity.

The opacity of his background, analysts say, suggests a broader truth of rising militant Islamists. “The mystery surrounding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — at the level of his personality, his movements, or even his relatives, his family, and those close to him — came as a result of what happened to previous leaders, who were killed after their movements were detected,” wrote Mushreq Abbas in al-Monitor. He is the “invisible jihadist,” according to Le Monde.

The CFR follows the money:

Supporters in the region, including those based in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, are believed to have provided the bulk of past funding. Iran has also financed AQI, crossing sectarian lines, as Tehran saw an opportunity to challenge the U.S. military presence in the region, according to the U.S. Treasury and documents confiscated in 2006 from Iranian Revolutionary Guards operatives in northern Iraq. In early 2014, Iran offered to join the United States in offering aid to the Iraqi government to counter al-Qaida gains in Anbar province.

The bulk of AQI’s financing, experts say, comes from sources such as smuggling, extortion, and other crime. AQI has relied in recent years on funding and manpower from internal recruits [PDF]. In Mosul, an important AQI stronghold, the group extorts taxes from businesses small and large, netting upwards of $8 million a month, according to some estimates.

Jacob Siegel emphasizes how ISIS relies on allies of convenience in Iraq:

The standoff in Iraq isn’t between a single militant group and the government. There is a broad coalition of Sunni groups—both nationalist and Islamist—who had been plotting against Iraq’s Shia government for years before ISIS’s rise provided the chance to strike. ISIS and its partners are unnatural allies. Maintaining their unity was the key to their early success, and is the only way they can hold the ground they have taken, but that incentive may prove to be weaker than the force of their natural hostilities.

“ISIS control in Mosul is contingent on political alliances they have made with the Baathists and the tribal groups,” said Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation, who has been following ISIS since the group’s early days during the Iraq war. “This alliance marching on Baghdad is not a natural one,” Fishman added. “We can understand how it was put together in opposition to the government but what exactly is holding it together, and how sturdy it is, is an open question,” he said.

Michael Weiss also plays up these alliances in a detailed analysis of the group’s strategy:

How did ISIS manage to accomplish so much in a year? Contrary to some media representations, it has had some help in the form of other tenuous Sunni allies, including Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia, a Ba’ath insurgency that couches its war against Maliki in tribal terms; and Ansar al-Islam, another Sunni Islamist group. The true nature and extent of other actors’ involvement in this conflict has yet to be fully uncovered, but already it seems clear that ISIS is drawing on local support bases. A kind of shadow Awakening is now in evidence, with Sunni tribes, Islamists, and dead-enders of the ancien regime all in league against Iraq’s new Shiite strongman. But what is also clear is that in Syria ISIS has managed to do what other rebel groups have not: effectively if harshly administer municipal facilities, says Pieter Van Ostaeyen, a Belgian analyst of Syrian jihadis. …

ISIS also appears to be drawing on classical “Desert Power” Arab military doctrine that dates back to the 7th century. “The Bedouin army could go out into the Syrian desert and they could strike either the Mediterranean region or the Euphrates valley or what is now Israel-Palestine,” says Col. Joel Rayburn, who served as a strategic analyst for the US military in Iraq. “They could strike at any of the areas on the edge of that desert, as though the desert were an inland sea that they could cross at will. Think of the Jazira [the territory encompassing eastern Syria and western/central Iraq] as the new desert. ISIS can go out there and project Desert Power into the river valleys and settled areas.”

Previous Dish on at ISIS’s strategy and objectives here.

ISIS Against The World

Workbook5

More Iraqi towns fell to “worse-than-al-Qaeda” overnight. The above chart from Hayes Brown and Adam Peck illustrates how ISIS is really at war with everybody:

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)

ISIS Economics

Max Fisher examines the economic angle of ISIS’s machinations in Syria and Iraq:

There is reason to be skeptical that ISIS can really re-start eastern Syria or northern Iraq’s oil fields, much less move and sell the oil, but the fact that the group has this ambition at all is telling. As the chaos of Syria’s war breaks apart the state and its ability to function economically, ISIS is moving in to replace the state and its tax collectors, then using that revenue to launch its invasion of northern Iraq, which just so happens to be rich in oil itself. …

This money goes a long way: it pays better salaries than moderate Syrian rebels or the Syrian and Iraqi professional militaries, both of which have suffered mass desertions. ISIS also appears to enjoy better internal cohesion than any of its state or non-state enemies, at least for the moment. It rules over an area the size of Belgium.

The conflict is likely to drive up already high oil prices, it but won’t necessarily result in a major market disruption:

So far, the only oil-related casualty of the fighting has been the pipeline that runs from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey. The pipeline, which has been out of commission since March because of sabotage, was expected to be repaired and back online and carrying up to 250,000 barrels a day.

That might remain the only petroleum casualty. Iraq’s biggest oil fields are far to the south, closer to Basra than to Baghdad. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces are modest in size, and any attempt to reach the south might stretch their supply lines and put them up against tougher foes. The 2.5 million barrels a day exported via terminals and tankers in the Persian Gulf seem relatively secure.

But ISIS is hardly the only reason oil supplies are on the rise:

[S]tarting in 2011, the disruptions often began to exceed 2 million barrels a day. Among the culprits were the Arab Spring and follow-on uprisings, the chaos in Nigeria, Iran sanctions and of course Russia president Vladimir Putin’s crypto-invasion of Ukraine.

Then last July, Libyan militants stormed oil export facilities and shut them down. As of now, the country pumps just one-eighth of the 1.6 million barrels of oil a day it produced before Muammar Qadhafi’s ouster in 2011. All in all, about 3.5 million barrels of oil a day have been off the market around the world since last fall. Those barrels have offset a 1.8 million-barrel-a-day surge of supply from the US.

A New Iraqi Refugee Crisis

The International Organization for Migration reports that over 500,000 Iraqis fled the city of Mosul in the days leading up to its capture by ISIS jihadists yesterday:

The situation for those who remain is grim. “The violence has resulted in a high number of casualties among civilians. The main health campus, a group of four hospitals, is inaccessible, as it is in the middle of an area in which there is fighting,” the IOM continues, adding that some mosques have been converted to clinics to treat casualties. “Western neighborhoods of Mosul are also suffering from a lack of drinking water, as the main water station for the area was destroyed by bombing. Families are also running low on food, particularly families hosting IDPs in their homes. Few areas are receiving electricity, and when they do it is for only one to two hours a day. Most generators are not working because there is no fuel.”

ISIS’s Endgame Is In Its Name

Eli Lake and Jamie Dettmer sound the alarm that, with the heavy weapons it captured in Mosul, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is starting to resemble a real army. Even more unsettling, with the territory it has captured, the group is also starting to resemble the “state” it claims to be:

Success breeds success, say analysts. The dramatic seizing of Mosul will only add to ISIS’s luster, helping it to recruit more fighters as it seeks to carve out a “caliphate” across western Iraq and eastern Syria—much as 9/11 was a recruitment driver for al-Qaeda. Jihadist social media sites were jubilant today (June 10). “Jihadis are ecstatic with ISIS’s achievement,’ say researchers at the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-DC-based non-profit.

Mosul’s capture is being presented by ISIS as a validation of [founder Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi’s jihad strategy, one that focuses on controlling territory and proto-state building. Al-Qaeda in its videos and web sites focus on global jihad; ISIS in its propaganda celebrates towns captured, land controlled, notes Pieter Nanninga, a Mideast scholar at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands.

Liz Sly sizes up ISIS:

The group’s exact strength is not known, but Aymenn al-Tamimi, who monitors jihadist activity for the Middle East Forum, said its swift takeover of Mosul at a time when it is also fighting on other fronts suggests that it has a larger force than the 10,000 or so men it is widely reported to control. …

The group also appears to command significant resources. In the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, it has seized control of oil fields, expanding its sources of financing —  largely extortion networks in Mosul that predate the U.S. withdrawal. It is also thought to have received funding from wealthy, private donors in the Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf that, at least until now, has eclipsed the meager aid dispatched by the more-moderate rebels’ Western allies.

Paul Mutter observes what the group has already done to establish itself in Nineveh province:

Its other effort – “Breaking the Walls,” so termed because it involved freeing captured Sunni militants from Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki’s jails – is also doing well in Mosul, with over 1,000 detainees freed this week after their guards fled. With Mosul mostly secured – its banks and military depots have been emptied by the jihadists for redistribution to its forces in Iraq and Syria – and tens of thousands now jamming the roads out of the region, ISIS is simultaneously staging offensives into the nearby Saladin Governorate and points further south, heading towards the capital. There has as yet been no significant armed government response to the crisis in Nineveh, a province that is also home to many of Iraq’s remaining Assyrians and other Christian minorities. In Syria, ISIS has closed down churches to set up indoctrination centers (Da’wah) for youth: darker charges of kidnapping and execution have followed.

But Keating is cautiously pessimistic about the viability of the “caliphate”:

From all reports, it certainly appears to be a more dominant political force in the areas under its control than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments. So should we start thinking of ISIS as a proto-state, an unrecognized but de facto sovereign entity? Or will it meet a similar fate to that of Azawad, the rebel state in Northern Mali that declared independence after chasing out the Malian military, only to be routed by a French-led international force the following year.

I’d tentatively lean toward the latter. For one thing, the brutal brand of Shariah law ISIS enforces in the areas of Syria it controls—including beheadings and amputations—seems to be provoking enormous resentment among the people who live under its black flag. The Malian Islamists had a similar problem. It seems one difficulty of establishing an “Islamic State,” as extremist groups narrowly define it, is that they aren’t really places anyone wants to live.

And Jacob Siegel expects ISIS to incur severe retribution from regional powers:

Moderates only by profane contrast, Al Qaeda takes the position that winning popular support is a necessary precursor to declaring the establishment of the Caliphate. ISIS, which considers itself the embodiment of the Islamic Caliphate, declares the kingdom of God wherever the group flies its black flag. But as ISIS’s power grows its schism with other Islamist groups like al Qaeda may pale compared to the reprisals it will face from government powers. Mosul is ISIS’ signature victory so far, its biggest achievement. But the price of victory could be a giant target on their backs. This could be the moment when regional and international powers like the United States decide to intervene against ISIS. The takeover of Mosul could even trigger a response from Iran, the powerful Shia state that borders Iraq.