The known-unknowns have come home to roost in Iraq.
Let's step back from the breathless news for a second and look at what we actually know about the shocking events taking place in Iraq right now. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a severe Sunni Islamist group that has been ejected from al Qaeda for (among other things) excessive civilian casualties, has made impressive gains, capturing the city of Mosul and moving south through Tikrit toward Baghdad. In a counteroffensive, the Kurds have secured (allegedly) abandoned Iraqi Army positions around Kirkuk, and both regular and paramilitary forces from the south are converging just north of Baghdad. It's a complex situation, with multiple ethno-sectarian identities complicating the personality-based politics of a not-yet-reconstructed state in a very tough neighborhood.
It would be much more simple if -- as several commentators would have you believe -- this problem could be laid at the feet of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarianism and President Barack Obama's feckless withdrawal from Iraq, for thus creating (or allowing to rekindle) intra-sectarian war in Iraq. Unfortunately, the truth is far more complicated.
At this point, we can be confident of two things. First, the reports coming out of northern Iraq -- Mosul, Tikrit, Baiji, Kirkuk -- are confused and some of them are probably wrong. Each observer is probably truthfully reporting what he or she sees, but the sum of these fragments is not necessarily faithful to the whole picture. That said, the news is certainly varying degrees of bad.
So what do we know? ISIS has taken, at least temporarily, most of the city of Mosul, a city of about 3 million. This relatively small ISIS force -- reportedly no more than 800 fighters -- has routed at least some units of the Iraqi Army, captured a great deal of military equipment, looted the banks of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi currency, and freed a least 1,000 prisoners. There are also reports that they have secured the city of Tikrit, the hometown and burial place of Saddam Hussein, between Mosul and Baghdad -- the home of Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. So even the best case is quite ugly.
But this does not a sectarian civil war make. We must be quite careful not to conflate the interests of Iraq's Sunni citizens with the interests of the extremist and largely imported ISIS fighters. For example, one of Prime Minister Maliki's most prominent political rivals is Atheel al-Nujaifi, who happens to be the governor of Nineveh province, in which Mosul resides. If there is any Iraqi politician more embarrassed by the fall of Mosul than Maliki, it is Nujaifi (whose brother is the parliamentary speaker and also a Mosul native). These two prominent Sunni politicians have no love for Maliki, but their interests in retaking Mosul certainly overlap with the prime minister's desires. This could be a critical development, for if Maliki has been no Nelson Mandela, that is in no small part because there has been no de Klerk to guide the Sunni Arabs into accepting their subordinate role in the new order.
So what is this primarily about? Syria. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has its roots in Iraq, but came to full maturity in Syria. It is in Syria that ISIS has made its reputation and -- most critically -- gained the crucial infantry fighting skills that have enabled its impressive performance against the more moribund but far larger Iraqi Army. If the current situation in Iraq can be said to be the fault of the White House, it would have far more to do with its Syria policy (or lack thereof) than Iraq policy, though the blood and treasure invested in Iraq tends to draw Americans' attention to Baghdad.
But we do not know the strength of ISIS or its ability to hold its gains. This is not to say that ISIS is weaker than it appears or that a "bandwagoning" effect, of both Iraqi armed groups and international jihadists, isn't already drawing more manpower to ISIS. But Mosul is a city of millions, and retaining and administering such a large piece of terrain may be beyond its capability, especially if it continues the fight in other cities.
We do not know if the Iraqi Army units in Mosul were inherently fragile and untrained, or if they were composed of Islamist-leaning locals who were not particularly inclined to fight against ISIS. Along the same lines, we do not know if the reinforcement of Mosul with Iraqi Army units from the south currently moving towards Baghdad will bring about a different result, nor do we know how the Kurds and their regional peshmerga forces will respond beyond the garrisoning of Kirkuk. In fairness to the Iraqi Army, they are facing a much more capable force in ISIS than any they were ever trained by the United States to be able to defeat. No one envisioned a full-fledged sectarian civil war on Iraq's border two short years after the U.S. withdrawal as a challenge that the Iraqi Army would face.
We do not know how other armed groups unhappy with the current regime will react. For example, the neo-Baathist JRTN (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order), a guerrilla fighting force of a few hundred fighters largely based in Nineveh province, has tried to bandwagon on the Mosul offensive with ISIS to claim that it is part of the fight against the constitutional government in Baghdad. This is a high-risk strategy, however, both because Iraqi citizens may question whether the fall of Mosul is such a great thing, and because ISIS may decide that it isn't fond of hangers-on. It doesn't have a glorious track record of playing nice with fellow jihadist groups in Syria.
We do not know how neighboring countries will react. We can be certain that Iran is monumentally unhappy with this development, and there are early reports of Revolutionary Guard forces reinforcing the Iraqi Army, but whether it will intervene explicitly, or whether it correctly discerns that direct involvement might backfire, is not clear. Then there's the Turkish dimension: During the fight in Mosul, ISIS kidnapped the Turkish consul and members of his staff. One suspects that Ankara will not turn the other cheek to this diplomatic affront.
Regional tensions and religious considerations aside, the responsibility for the invasion lies with ISIS and the responsibility for the Iraqi Army's poor performance lies with the government of Iraq. But there are a host of supporting characters, each with their own goals, motivations, and interests. And the ISIS invasion occurs against the backdrop of two other political dramas that may well be more important to local actors. The first is Iraq's government formation. Though the election is over, the political wrangling -- of a multiparty parliamentary system in which al-Maliki's party won a commanding plurality but far short of a majority -- has just begun. This turf war will decide who wields power for the next four years -- and Maliki may be forced to be more acquiescent with his Sunni counterparts now than he would have a week ago. The second factor is the Kurdish question. Baghdad has long bridled at the autonomy of its northern countrymen, and what the central government sees as their illegal attempts to control and sell the nation's oil. Two tankers full of Kurdish oil, exported without Baghdad's approval and therefore characterized as "stolen," appear to be in some type of legal-financial limbo as they float in the Mediterranean, evidently without a buyer willing to accept the legal risk that would accompany the hydrocarbons. On Kurdish oil exports rest hopes of eventual Kurdish independence.
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.
The news from Iraq is bad. There is no candy-coating that stubborn fact. But before lapsing into talk about Iraq's imminent collapse, it might be prudent to let the situation develop for a week or so.
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