Mayhem in Mosul – Old Story, New Chapter

From Dr Hamid
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)

 

Hamid Hussain

June 14, 2014

 
0