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.

The Ever-Imploding Iraq

Unrest in Iraq

Yesterday, as we noted in a tweet reax, the jihadist militia known as the Islamic State In Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, after the US-trained soldiers reportedly dropped their weapons, put on civilian clothes, and fled the city:

The fall of Mosul after only four days of fighting speaks volumes about both the state of Iraqi forces and the depth of the sectarian division at the bleeding heart of the nation’s ongoing crisis: The population of Mosul is mostly Sunni, and the central government led by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is widely criticized as favoring the country’s Shiite majority. Al-Maliki is likely to remain in office after the April 30 elections left him with the largest share of votes and negotiating chiefly with other Shiite parties to form a new governing coalition. …

Terrified residents were streaming out of the city—the International Organization for Migration reports 500,000 people have left their homes since Saturday—and there were reports that water and electricity were cut off. On its Twitter account, ISIS gloated about seizing arms and vehicles abandoned by the city’s supposed defenders. Elsewhere in the country, its fighters have been spotted driving Humvees captured from government forces in previous encounters.

Humvees that used to belong to us, of course:

Carl Schreck outlines why this is such a coup for ISIS, a group notorious for its disavowal by al-Qaeda for being too extreme:

With an estimated population of nearly 2 million, Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a Sunni Arab majority, though the city has residents of many other religious and ethnic groups. “ISIL draws its strength from Iraq’s Sunni-Arab community. So there’s an obvious reason for doing that,” Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told RFE/RL.

Mosul’s geography is also of significant strategic importance.

It is located on the Tigris River, giving it access to water trade routes, and it is also home to pipelines that carry oil into Turkey. The city is also less than 100 miles from Syria, giving the group a potentially strong foothold to control territory on both sides of the border. “What they’re looking to do is erase the border. They are looking to set up a unified state within Iraq and Syria,” Pollack said.

Dan Murphy calls the event “a stark reminder of how ephemeral US efforts in Iraq have proven to be”:

In early 2004, Gen. David Petraeus was commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the province, and his efforts there, focusing on hearts and minds, were marketed as the “Mosul model.” Early in the war, Mosul was Iraq’s most peaceful large city, new businesses were opening, and fuel shortages that bedeviled most of the country then weren’t apparent. At the time, the Bush administration, the military, and the US people were still expecting a quick war. … Ten years on, Iraq does not control its border with Syria and it does not control Mosul. If ISIS manages to hang on to the city, even if only for a short while, it will be able to threaten towns farther south and closer to Baghdad, and have greater freedom to organize suicide bombings, something that could spark a major sectarian war like the one that raged in the middle of the past decade. Maliki’s call for arming civilians probably means he intends to use Shiite militias in an effort to regain control.

“The poor showing by the security forces in the city may be due to their low morale,” according to Joel Wing:

Early in the year it was reported that many of the police were receiving only parts or none of their salaries for months because ISIS was stealing their pay. The situation was so bad south of the city that in March the Ninewa Operations Command set up special flights from Mosul to Baghdad for its personnel who lived in the capital to commute there because the highway between the two cities was too insecure. Having not received their pay for perhaps months and feeling besieged within Mosul were the likely cause of the quick collapse by the army and police.

Another view of that collapse:

I am still gathering my thoughts – more to come.

(Photo: An Iraqi woman carries her property while fleeing from Mosul to Arbil and Duhok due to the clashes between security forces and militants of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Arbil, Iraq on June 10, 2014. By Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, In Mosul – Holy Shit!