June 21, 2014

What The Future Holds: A Multifront War In Iraq And Across The Region

Scenes like this will repeat across Iraq and the region only if it is allowed by the international community.

1. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or, alternatively, I$I$ (Islamic State of Israel and the States) vs. the states of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and maybe Turkey. The takeover of Mosul by ISIL is a direct threat to the interests of all four of these countries. The Jihadists who have set up shop on the doorsteps of these states, thanks both to foreign intelligence support and the incompetence of the Iraqi army, will look to organized crime like their ideological cousins in Afghanistan. A lawless region with warlords running amok will be the result. We are talking about a new Af-Pak right in the middle of the Middle East's nerve center. There is now a new theatre of operation in Washington's war on terrorism. And as far as it is concerned, the more the merrier.

2. ISIL vs. the PYD in Syria (the main Kurdish group there, a branch of the Turkish-based Kurdish rebel group PKK) and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Before the takeover of Mosul by ISIL the Kurds in Syria and Iraq were not even on speaking terms with each other due to political rivalries and competition over resources in the area, but that has now changed to some extent for existential reasons. There has been military coordination between the fighters of the PYD and the Peshmerga under Barzani's leadership in Iraq against the shared threat posed by ISIL. But whether this new cooperation will reach the political level and lead to a unified approach to ISIL is doubtful.

3. ISIL vs. Tehran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Unlike the Syrian army, the Iraqi army is not willing, prepared, properly led, or whatever the reason, to fight back against ISIL's advances. The only forces who can fill the vacuum and fight a bitter war in the defense of Iraqi cities are Shiite militias and local volunteer groups. The other day the leader of Hezbollah said his group is willing to sacrifice five times as much for Iraq than for Syria. He said the group will send fighters to protect sacred Shiite shrines in Iraqi cities if requested and/or required.

4. ISIL vs. the U.S. military and its reluctant Sunni Arab allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and Qatar. If ISIL were to hold the vast spaces of ungovernable land that stretch across Syria and Iraq, and actually manage to develop some sort of government, however unpopular, then they would soon set their sights on bigger things. Maybe not Jerusalem or Mecca, but who knows, anything is possible. The creation and announcement of a mini-Caliphate will immediately embolden radical Islamists across the world, from Sudan to Europe.

A few days ago, a cleric in Sudan threatened to attack American embassies, hospitals, universities, and other buildings in the region if the U.S. were to attack ISIL's positions in Syria and Iraq. So, the takeover of Mosul by ISIL is not simply an Iraqi problem. The fire will soon spread across the region and into Europe if it is not contained to that area. The ramifications of this event will be felt everywhere. A comparable would be the takeover of Libya by similar Jihadist groups, who used their newfound access to state resources to bolster the morale of their global Jihadist brethren. In the chaos that followed Gaddafi's removal from power they quickly seized and transported massive arsenals of weapons, with NATO and CIA blessing of course, to Syria to create chaos there.

5. Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic vs. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. We are hearing talk of cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq to secure Baghdad and prevent ISIL from threatening the formation of a new unity government led by someone who is not Maliki. Sadly, such a sensible thing will never manifest. And such talk is premature. For one, the U.S. and Iran still do not see eye to eye on many things in the region, and, second, the days of a centralized Iraqi government are over so what will American and Iranian advisers plan to protect exactly even if they do meet in Baghdad? Iraq is no longer a state actor. Its military was corrupted and consequently it collapsed. It cannot even change the balance on the battlefield two steps outside Baghdad. The Taliban can defeat the Iraqi army in an afternoon. The ones who are doing the fighting in Iraq against ISIL are mainly non-state actors. So in all likelihood we will see the break up of Iraq which would lead to, among other inevitable consequences, a multifront war between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi monarchy for political jockeying in the region.

6. Turkey, the Islamic Republic, and Shiite Militias vs. PKK , KRG, and Israel. If the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) were to declare independence from Baghdad, Turkey and the Islamic Republic would react very aggressively. The Islamic Republic has thousands of safe houses in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and in the event of a war they will target key military personnel in the KRG as well as Israeli operatives acting from within the area. Turkey would respond more militaristically and less slyly because they have not developed deep connections in the area, but rather than the KRG they will target the PKK. Israeli forces, who have studied the geography of the area extensively for decades, will maneuver in this chaotic atmosphere into northern Iran to carry out attacks against Iranian military posts and sensitive government sites.

On the third front, Shiite militias will send their fighters to fight alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Kurdish region. It is important to keep in mind that two years ago a prominent Shiite cleric, who is part of the Tehran-backed Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq (ISCI), described Kurds in Iraq as "rogues mentioned in the books of epics and tribulations" and said that the expected Shiite Messiah Imam Mahdi will fight them before anyone else. So the psychological groundwork has already been laid in Shiite popular opinion in Iraq for a future confrontation between Tehran-backed Shiite militias and the Kurds in the north.

7. ISIL vs. Moderate Sunni Forces in Syria and Iraq. One of the explanations for the political and military crisis in Iraq is that Sunnis are not well represented in politics. That is true, but analysts have also pointed out that Sunni politicians have not exactly acted constructively in post-Saddam Iraq. So there is more than enough blame to go around. The reality is that disenfranchised Sunnis will not trust a Shiite leader in Baghdad again, so their options are limited to pointless and drawn out fighting against Baghdad's rulers alongside a very barbaric terrorist group whose inhuman members eat the organs of the deceased or making political compromises with the government in Baghdad that would see them take up arms against ISIL.