The Crisis in Iraq

Jun 13, 2014

The Crisis in Iraq

Update from AIJAC

June 13, 2014
Number 06/14 #02

This Update is devoted to analysis of the crisis in Iraq, where this week an extremist Islamist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), took control of the second largest city, Mosul, and then moved to take other major towns, with the Iraqi Army apparently doing little to stop them. (The ISIS success is illustrated in maps here.) Moreover, reports say the ISIS not only captured major weapons stockpiles in the process, but as much as US$425 million from the Iraqi central bank and other banks in Mosul.

We starting with leading Israeli strategic analyst, Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, who argues that the fall of Mosul has a series of “dire implications”. He notes that the ISIS looks much more militarily impressive than anyone realised and now controls a vast caliphate stretching over most of Northern Syria and much of Iraq, while the Iraqi army appears to suffer from weak resolve and low morale. Neriah discusses major policy implications for the world oil market, for the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, for American and Iranian policy, and for the growth of global jihadism. For his full discussion of each of these points, CLICK HERE. Additional strategic analysis of the implications of the ISIS surge across Iraq comes from Middle East expert Daniel Pipes.

Next up is leading Israeli security affairs journalist Ron Ben Yishai, who sees the fall of Mosul as a new and dangerous phase to the turbulence that has dominated the region since the beginning of the “Arab spring” more than three years ago. He says it is a major blow to US policy for Iraq but also to Iran –  which backs the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Nuri al-Malaki – and will also worry the conservative Gulf states. He sees the overall trend as the complete dismantling of the state system in the Middle East that was created following World War I, a process which began in Libya, Yemen and Syria, has now spread to Iraq, and could engulf other states at any time. He also discusses the implications for Israel, and to read all of his analysis, CLICK HERE. Agreeing that this may be the end of Iraq as a state is Michael Totten.

Finally, Gulf specialist Simon Henderson places the latest events in the context of the wider conflict which has been dominating the Middle East in recent years, one which pitted a Shi’ite bloc led by Iran against a Sunni one led by Saudi Arabia. He focuses especially on how Saudi Arabia will react to the successes of ISIS in Iraq – noting how Riyadh has refused to recognise the Iraqi regime in the past because they view al-Maliki as an Iranian stooge, has backed Jihadi rebels in Syria while trying to keep them out of their own backyard, and may now see the success of ISIS as both an opportunity and a danger. Henderson concludes that there is likely to be no neat ending and Iraq will likely join Syria in a state of ugly, confusing civil war. For his complete analysis of the larger regional context, CLICK HERE.

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Is the Fall of Mosul in Iraq to the Jihadists a “Game Changer”?

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

The radical group, the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” has scored a huge achievement with the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city with over 1.5 million inhabitants, and areas of the Kirkuk oil producing province.1 By controlling Mosul, ISIS has succeeded in creating a territorial contiguity that stretches from Ramadi and Fallujah, north of Baghdad, to the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous areas west of Arbil, the Kurdish areas of Syria, past the city of Al-Raqqah, parts of Aleppo, and facing the Turkish border near Qamishli.

According to the pattern already implemented in the “conquered” areas in Syria, the ISIS will likely begin its rule by establishing a Caliphate governed by Islamic law – Shari’ah – and headed by its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a jihadist who began as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in 2003. In February 2014, Al-Baghdadi refused to declare allegiance when Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri demanded that he subordinate himself to the Jabhat Al-Nusra jihadist organization fighting the regime in Syria.

ISIS presented the non-Muslim population with three choices: either convert, pay a special tax (the Islamic per capita tax “jizya“) applied to non-Muslims, or leave the area. A first signs of this development are the 500,000 residents of Mosul fleeing the area, mostly Assyrians of Christian faith, who historically were the majority of the population in the Ninawa (Nineveh) Governorate surrounding Mosul.

The Meaning of the ISIS Victory

The ISIS’ achievement in Mosul has very dire implications:

Analysts originally estimated ISIS’s strength to be around two to three thousand fighters. The Mosul campaign means that the assessment was a gross underestimation.

Moreover, it appears that ISIS has mastered communications and tactical operations suggesting that it may have adopted the pattern of an organized army, graduating from guerrilla warfare and undisciplined bands.

The Iraqi army’s disintegration and disorderly retreat show a lack of leadership, a low morale and a weak resolve to fight the insurgents. This may lead the ISIS to exploit its victory and carry out further attacks on army outposts and to enlarge ISIS’s territory (perhaps towards the oil city of Kirkuk).

The ISIS now neighbors the Iraqi Kurdish area which leads to several assessments:

1. The Kurds, seeing the Iraqi central regime’s weakness, will take all the necessary measures to protect their autonomy and expand their influence to neighboring Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurds understand very well that they could be the next target after the Assyrians and accordingly will preempt any attempt by the jihadists to step foot in their areas. The fall of Mosul could become the beginning of Kurdish quest for independence.

2. Mosul is a strategic city at the crossroads between Syria and Iran. Several strategic oil and gas pipelines crisscross this area to the west, north and south. The presence of the ISIS represents a threat if the ISIS takes possession of oil-producing areas and shipments. Destabilizing northern Iraq and further deteriorating the security of other areas such as Baghdad and further south to Basra, could have dire consequences of Iraq’s production and export of oil. In an extreme scenario, one could envisage a situation similar to Libya, where militias’ rule brought Libya’s production of oil almost to a halt.

Today, Iraq fills the gap created by Libya’s absence in the oil market. Would Iran and Saudi Arabia be able to replace Iraq production?

A Titanic Cataclysm

3. The city of Mosul is 45 miles south of the mammoth Mosul Dam formerly known as the Saddam Dam.2 Built on a water-dissolving gypsum foundation, the dam’s stability has generated great concerns and led to major reconstruction and rehabilitation program since 2003. A man-made or natural collapse of that dam could unleash a trillion-gallon wave of water, possibly killing tens of thousands of people and flooding the largest cities in the country, according to assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. officials.

American officials have warned that the dam’s collapse could lead to as many as 500,000 civilian deaths by drowning Mosul under 65 feet of water and parts of Baghdad under 15 feet. “In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world,” the Army Corps concluded in September 2006.

At this point in time, it is not known if the ISIS controls also the dam or if it is in the hands of the Kurds or the Iraqi Government. Falling into ISIS hands could represent a huge threat of “titanic” dimensions were the jihadists to use the dam as an extortion weapon against the Iraqi regime. Even without trying to destroy the dam, the possibility of the dam remaining under their control raises the question of the maintenance and the resilience of its foundations if not taken care on a continuous basis.

4. In order to keep Iraq as a unified political entity, the regime has no choice but to declare war on the ISIS. Failure to dislodge the ISIS from Mosul and from other cities will signal other communities that they have to take care of their own interests. This could lead to the partition of Iraq into four main autonomous areas: the Kurds in the northeast, the Sunnites in Baghdad area, ISIS in the northeast and the Shi’ite autonomous areas in the south comprising Najf, Karbala and Basra.

Unknown Iranian and American Reactions

5. Facing this situation, Iran will likely intervene in order to assist its Shi’ite neighbor. Iran cannot accept the partition of Iraq as a solution because the irredentist trends in Iraq might find an echo in Iran itself. Then, as in the case of Syria, losing Shi’ite Iraq to the Sunnites would mean in the long run another conflict with Iraq. In this situation would Iran choose to intervene like in Syria, through proxies such as Iraqi Hizbullah or expeditionary Lebanese Hizbullah units, or through its own Basij units?

6. The U.S. Administration also has to act swiftly to preserve its own national interests and to prevent “newcomers” replacing the U.S. role in Iraq. A divided Iraq or an Iraq caught up in civil war is not of America’s interests. The U.S. choices stop short of sending troops to Iraq. American assistance would be limited to actions such as providing intelligence, carrying out drone attacks, training, and/or supplying sophisticated lethal and intelligence equipment. In this perspective, the U.S. administration might be led to assess that its ongoing dialogue with Iran could also include regional issues, such as the stability of Iraq.

7. Finally, the ISIS victory in Mosul could become a beacon to rally other jihadist organizations (such as in Nigeria) and another threat to the monarchies of the Gulf. The ISIS has proven that years after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and of Mali by the MNLA, the jihadist organizations are still capable of mass operations and not only limited to small scale guerrilla warfare.

On the other hand, the same examples of Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Central African Republic demonstrate very clearly that no terrorist organization can withstand a head-on collision with an organized, well-led regular army. It is up to the Iraqi government to make the tough decision to enter into armed conflict in order to prevail.


1. “Jihadists Seize Areas in Iraq’s Kirkuk Province,” Beirut Daily Star, June 10, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Jun-10/259607-jihadists-seize-areas-in-iraqs-kirkuk-province-police.ashx#axzz34KM3evkY.
2. Amit R. Paley, “Iraqi Dam Seen in Danger of Deadly Collapse,” Washington Post, October 30, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/29/AR2007102902193.html.

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ISIS expansions in Iraq and Syria bring Middle East to brink of complete chaos


ISIS Islamic militants capture Iraq’s second biggest city; Iraqi military buckles and runs under pressure of religious, ethnic divisions.

Ron Ben-Yishai  

Ynet.com, 06.11.14

Mosul is the second biggest city in Iraq with a population of 1.7 million residents from a diverse range of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Mosul is also strategically important as it sits on a rich deposit of oil and a pipeline leading along the volatile border with Syria to the shores of Turkey, carrying 15 percent of Iraq’s oil output.
On Tuesday, fighters for Global Jihad, some of whom came from Syria, captured Mosul and hundreds of thousands of residents fled from the city in panic, heading for the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

The stunning take-over signals the beginning of a new and dangerous stage in the turbulence rumbling through the Middle East in the last three years. This is a stage that brings the entire area to the threshold of war between Sunnis and Shiites and between moderates and fanatics within the religious factions. Arab regimes fearing for their survival are still combating Al-Qaeda as well.

The capture of Mosul is first and foremost a blow to the democratic regime in Iraq that replaced the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government is proving to be incapable of preventing the slow collapse of the Iraqi nation.

This is partly because current leaders give preference to the interests of the Shiites in Iraq over the need to promote the Sunni Iraqis who were brushed aside after the toppling of Hussein, who relied heavily on Sunni tribes in central Iraq.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is the beneficiary of al-Malaki’s protectionism. This organization, bred out of the ranks of al-Qaeda, captured two cities in the Sunni dominated Anbar province of Iraq last year, the most important of which was the city of Fallujah which the militants still hold today.
At the moment, now that ISIS has taken control of Mosul with the help of local Sunni militias, it controls the entire province of Nineveh which is another important territory of Iraq on the border with Syria and the Kurdish autonomous region.

The relatively moderate Sunni tribal fighters resisted ISIS at first, but when the discriminatory policies of the Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki continued, the combatants joined al-Qaeda affiliates and the result is an Iraq which is disintegrating along severe ethnic and religious divides.

Moreover, ISIS combatants are succeeding, in effect, in creating a great Islamic Caliphate that erases the borders between Syria and Iraq and possible in the future between Syria and Lebanon.
Many of the ISIS fighters and other fanatic Islamist militias, who captured Mosul in a surprise attack which began at the end of last week, are rebels that came from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries.
Iraqi soldiers, alongside police and other security forces who were stationed with orders to defend Mosul, stripped themselves of their uniforms and dressed in civilian clothing as they joined the flow of refugees fleeing from the city.
ISIS fighters captured weapons and military vehicles supplied to the Iraqi military by the Americans. The complete route at Mosul is a humiliating blow to the Americans and President Barack Obama’s policies.

The city of Mosul and the Nineveh Province were the last part of Iraq the Americans took over in 2007. At the time, Washington claimed that it’s seizure of Mosul paved the way for peace and democracy in Iraq.

But this didn’t last, and Obama was criticized for not leaving even a symbolic American force that could support the Iraqi army that was built and trained by the Americans, who also supplied this army with trillions of dollars worth of weaponry.

The Iraqi military, comprised of hundreds of thousands of mostly Shiite soldiers, crumbled in Fallujah and couldn’t retake the city from ISIS. This same army also failed in Mosul.

The strategy the Americans counted on when they withdrew from Iraq crumbled completely on Tuesday, not unlike what when the US pulled out of Vietnam. Iraq is slowly but surely falling apart. Despite the fact the country had democratic elections in April, Al-Maliki still can’t form a government.

The takeover of Mosul is a blow not only for the government and parliament, which have a Shiite majority, but also a blow to Iran that backs the Shiite government in Iraq.

ISIS is the bitter enemy of Shiites whoever and wherever they are. Meaning, it is the enemy of Iran, Shiites in Iraq and the Alawites that rule over Syria. ISIS has already succeeded in taking over several cities in north-eastern Syria, and it is now expanding its control beyond the border into Iraq’s Nineveh Province with Mosul in its center.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s call for help from ally states has so far fallen on deaf ears, and his disintegrating army has yet to launch a counter attack to reclaim control of Mosul and its surroundings. But there’s someone else who could help the government in Baghdad, the Kurdish militia Peshmerga that controls the nearby autonomous Kurdish providence.

The Kurds, despite the fact they are Muslim, fear the jihadists just as much as the Shiites and other minorities do, so it is quite possible the Peshmerga will join the conflict.

The Arab Gulf states also fear what appears to be a takeover by the global jihad of a considerable part of the Middle East, and they might also decide to aid Iraq.

This creates the potential for regional eruption.

As far as Israel is concerned, the takeover by ISIS has clear implications: There’s a foundation of global jihad forming right at our doorstep, not far from Europe.

At the moment, only Arab regimes are on the front line – Assad’s regime in Damascus, al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq and the Hezbollah-backed government in Lebanon. But later on, Israel might become a main target too.

Already, the strengthening of al-Qaeda affiliated organizations is aiding the establishment of jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula. So far, the Egyptians have been fighting them with some success, but the success of extremist Islamic militias in Iraq and Syria strengthens the spirit of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Sinai.

In conclusion, one could say the seizure of Mosul is a stepping stone to the process of dismantling many of the region’s states, mostly those created following the Sykes–Picot Agreement between the British and French after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

The states created then are slowly being torn apart into their ethnic and religious parts, which guarantees many more years of chaos and fighting in the region.

Those who are more worried than others are the Arab regimes, among them Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and of course Yemen and Libya. The last two are currently experiencing a process of disintegration similar to that experienced by Syria and Iraq the moment.

As a result of the chaos and violence, the fanatic jihadist Islam could come out on top.

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The Battle for Iraq Is a Saudi War on Iran


Simon Henderson, Foreign Policy

June 12, 2014

The ISIS invasion of Iraq reflects a wider war between Shiites and Sunnis for control of the Middle East.

“Be careful what you wish for” could have been, and perhaps should have been, Washington’s advice to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states which have been supporting Sunni jihadists against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The warning is even more appropriate today as the bloodthirsty fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) sweep through northwest Iraq, prompting hundreds of thousands of their Sunni coreligionists to flee and creating panic in Iraq’s Shiite heartland around Baghdad, whose population senses, correctly, that it will be shown no mercy if the ISIS motorcades are not stopped.

Such a setback for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been the dream of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for years. He has regarded Maliki as little more than an Iranian stooge, refusing to send an ambassador to Baghdad and instead encouraging his fellow rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman — to take a similar standoff-ish approach. Although vulnerable to al Qaeda-types at home, these countries (particularly Kuwait and Qatar) have often turned a blind eye to their citizens funding radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most active Islamist groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Currently on vacation in Morocco, King Abdullah has so far been silent on these developments. At 90-plus years old, he has shown no wish to join the Twitter generation, but the developments on the ground could well prompt him to cut short his stay and return home. He has no doubt realized that — with his policy of delivering a strategic setback to Iran by orchestrating the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus showing little sign of any imminent success — events in Iraq offer a new opportunity.

This perspective may well confuse many observers. In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of reports of an emerging — albeit reluctant — diplomatic rapprochement between the Saudi-led GCC and Iran, bolstered by the apparently drunken visit to Tehran by the emir of Kuwait, and visits by trade delegations and commerce ministers in one direction or the other. This is despite evidence supporting the contrary view, including Saudi Arabia’s first public display of Chinese missiles capable of hitting Tehran and the UAE’s announcement of the introduction of military conscription for the country’s youth.

The merit, if such a word can be used, of the carnage in Iraq is that at least it offers clarity. There are tribal overlays and rival national identities at play, but the dominant tension is the religious difference between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Islam. This region-wide phenomenon is taken to extremes by the likes of ISIS, which also likely sees its action in Iraq as countering Maliki’s support for Assad. ISIS is a ruthless killing machine, taking Sunni contempt for Shiites to its logical, and bloody, extreme. The Saudi monarch may be more careful to avoid direct religious insults than many other of his brethren, but contempt for Shiites no doubt underpinned his Wikileaked comment about “cutting off the head of the snake,” meaning the clerical regime in Tehran. (Prejudice is an equal opportunity avocation in the Middle East: Iraqi government officials have been known to ask Iraqis whether they are Sunni or Shiite before deciding how to treat them.)

Despite the attempts of many, especially in Washington, to write him off, King Abdullah remains feisty, though helped occasionally by gasps of oxygen — as when President Barack Obama met him in March and photos emerged of breathing tubes inserted in his nostrils. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi — and, after his elder brother’s recent stroke, the effective ruler of the UAE — visited King Abdullah on June 4, the Saudi monarch was shown gesticulating with both hands. The subject under discussion was not revealed, but since Zayed was on his way to Cairo it was probably the election success of Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, considered a stabilizing force by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Of course, Sisi gets extra points for being anti-Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose Islamist credentials are at odds with the inherited privileges of Arab monarchies. For the moment, Abdullah, Zayed, and Sisi are the three main leaders of the Arab world. Indeed, the future path of the Arab countries could well depend on these men (and whomever succeeds King Abdullah).

For those confused by the divisions in the Arab world and who find the metric of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to be of limited utility, it is important to note that the Sunni-Shiite divide coincides, at least approximately, with the division between the Arab and Persian worlds. In geopolitical terms, Iraq is at the nexus of these worlds — majority Shiite but ethnically Arab. There is an additional and often confusing dimension, although one that’s historically central to Saudi policy: a willingness to support radical Sunnis abroad while containing their activities at home. Hence Riyadh’s arms-length support for Osama bin Laden when he was leading jihadists in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, and tolerance for jihadists in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Syria.

When the revolt against Bashar al-Assad grew in 2011 — and Riyadh’s concern at Iran’s nuclear program mounted — Saudi intelligence re-opened its playbook and started supporting the Sunni opposition, particularly its more radical elements, a strategy guided by its intelligence chief, former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The operation’s leadership changed in April, when Bandar resigned in apparent frustration over dealing with the cautious approach of the Obama administration, but Saudi support for jihadi fighters appears to be continuing. (The ISIS operation in Iraq almost seems the sort of tactical surprise that Bandar could have dreamt up, but there is no actual evidence.)

In the fast-moving battle that is now consuming northern Iraq, there are many variables. For Washington, the option of inaction has to be balanced by the fate of the estimated 20,000 American civilians still left in the country (even though the U.S. military is long-departed). Qatar, the region’s opportunist, is likely balancing its options of irritating its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, while trying not to poke the Iranian bear. There are no overt Qatari fingerprints yet visible and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, just celebrating his first full year in power after his father’s abdication in 2013, may be chastened by the public scolding he received from the rest of the GCC after he was accused of interference in the domestic affairs of his brother rulers. Additionally, Doha may be cautious in risking Iran’s ire by an adventure in Iraq. Having just given five Taliban leaders refuge as part of the Bowe Bergdahl swap, Qatar has effectively clearly stated where it lies in the Sunni-Shiite divide.

There is a potentially important historical precedent to Saudi Arabia’s current dilemma of rooting for ISIS but not wanting its advances to threaten the kingdom. In the 1920s, the religious fanatic Ikhwan fighters who were helping Ibn Saud to conquer Arabia were also threatening the British protectorates of Iraq and Transjordan. Ibn Saud, the father of the current Saudi king, gave carte blanche to the British to massacre the Ikhwan with machine-gun equipped biplanes, personally leading his own forces to finish the job, when the Ikhwan threatened him at the battle of Sabilla in 1929.

It’s hard to imagine such a neat ending to the chaos evolving in the Euphrates river valley. At this stage, a direct confrontation between Saudi and Iranian forces seems very unlikely, even though, as in Syria, the direct involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps cannot be ruled out. What is clear is that the Syrian civil war looks like it will be joined by an Iraqi civil war. ISIS already has a name for the territory, the al-Sham caliphate. Washington may need to find its own name for the new area, as well as a policy.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.

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