RECENT SUMMARY OF EVENTS
ISIS forces advanced on Mosul for almost a week and on the night of 9 June 2014, in cooperation with Sunni militants loyal to the former Ba’ath government and anti-government tribes, took control of most of the city. Around 1,300 armed fighters seized the Nineveh Province government offices, army facilities, and Mosul International Airport. ISIS reportedly seized large quantities of US-supplied military equipment and looted $429m in Iraqi currency from the city’s banks. It also freed thousands of prisoners, many of whom may well join the ranks of ISIS in its ongoing insurgency.
Approximately 500,000 residents of Mosul were reported to have fled the city towards the northern Kurdish controlled territory. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for a national state of emergency following the attack but despite the security crisis, Iraq’s Parliament was not convened.
On 11 June, ISIS members seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped 48 Turkish citizens including the Consul General, three children and several members of the Turkish Special Forces.
Reports indicated that as Iraqi security forces fled south, Kurdish forces filled the vacuum, expelling the ISIS advance into Kirkuk which today remains in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga.
ISIS insurgents advanced into the oil refinery town of Baiji later that day taking control of the court house and police station as well as Baiji prison, freeing all the inmates. At the time of writing ISIS is in control of the town with the exception of the refinery.
Later on the 11th June the city of Tikrit, the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein, also fell to insurgents, who burned government buildings and freed hundreds of inmates from the local prison. ISIS forces also reached Samarra, fighting government troops at the city’s northwest entrance.
On 12 June, ISIS continued their advance towards Baghdad taking control of parts of Udhaim, 90 km north of Baghdad.
In the early hours of 13 June, ISIS seized two towns in Diyala Province and several villages around the Hamrin Mountains were also captured.
On 13 June 2014, Iraqi forces supported by elements of the Quds Force and Iranian Revolutionary Guards regained control of parts of Salaheddin province. The same day, the Iraqi military attacked ISIS forces in al-Mutasim, 22 kilometres south-east of Samarra, driving militants out into the surrounding desert.
Late on 15 June insurgents captured Tal Afar and its nearby airbase and also advanced further into Diyala province gaining control of two villages in Adhaim, northeast of Baghdad. West of Baghdad, ISIS captured Saqlawiya. Iraqi police executed 44 Sunni prisoners at a police station in Baqubah before retreating due to an advance by ISIS forces.
On 17 June, government sources claimed the Army had retaken the captured districts of Baqubah. In the east of Samarra, the bodies of 18 executed security force members were discovered.
On 18 June, insurgents attacked Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji with mortars and machine guns.
At the time of writing ISIS insurgents have not entered Bagdad but continue to threaten an attack from their northerly positions.
WHO ARE ISIS
ISIS is known in Arabic as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. (Some English speaking media refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)
Once known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during Abu Musab al-Zarqawi time as leader and then as the Islamic State of Iraq, is now an organization that is far more powerful and transnational than it’s ever been drawing on thousands of recruits from over 80 countries round the world.
ISIS was formed in 2013 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and has been operating both sides of the border recruiting and assimilating Sunni militant groups fighting in Syria against the Assad regime. In Iraq ISIS has reportedly cooperated with former Iraqi resistance fighters, anti-government tribes and Baathist fighters during the June 10th assault on Mosul. Recent reports suggest that they consist of a current fighting force of around 10,000 paramilitary fighters, with experienced leaders handpicked from Iraqi Resistance who fought during the US occupancy of Iraq ten years ago
WHAT IS THE MOTIVATION OF ISIS
The ISIS ideology to create an Islamic Caliphate is not dissimilar to that of Al Qaeda but Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is Iraqi and the rise of ISIS and its leader may be attributed to the Sunni uprising in Syria which prompted Iraqi Sunni’s to protest against the growing marginalisation of Sunnis in Iraq by the Nouri al Maliki government.
The rapid success demonstrated by ISIS in the Sunni dominated cities of Northern Iraq may be attributed in no small part to the sentiment of the local population who welcomed the insurgents preferring them to the constant presence of Iraqi military. But the more extremist ideology of ISIS is not necessarily shared by more moderate Sunnis and so short term support for this extremist group may be localised. If the Maliki government cannot redress the balance in Iraq however, as a matter of urgency, these moderate Sunnis may be driven into the hands of their more hard-line brethren expanding the ranks of the growing alliance of Sunni militants and in doing so tipping the scales of conflict towards a full blown sectarian war.
Motivation should not only be considered at the ideological or political level but also at the human level. On 16 June ISIS released footage of the execution of a number Iraqi Police. The revenge motive is strong and a reprisal attack that could have been predicted came a day later with Shia led forces being accused of a sectarian massacre at an Iraqi prison. Tit for tat violence is nothing new in this region and the human instinct for revenge can destabilise a security environment, in the short term, even more rapidly than ideology or politics.
WHAT IS THE INTENT OF ISIS
The clear intent of ISIS is to restore an Islamic state to Iraq and a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan indicating that the long term threat from this growing alliance of Sunni extremists is not limited to Iraq alone. Furthermore ISIS has vowed to destroy the Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala and threatens a genocidal campaign against all Shias.
However, the assimilation of international Sunni extremists may well broaden the motives and targets of violence. The inclusion of former Baathist elements in the ranks of ISIS fighters could, for example, involve the direct targeting of western interests operating in Iraq, or the broader region, in revenge for the US invasion 10 years previously.
WHAT IS THE CAPABILITY OF ISIS
Militarily ISIS have achieved a number of successes in their short existence. In the summer of 2013 ISIS planned and executed a successful campaign to release Iraqi Sunni protesters imprisoned at Abu Ghraib prison and in January took Fallujah and have held it ever since.
As outlined above their leadership is handpicked from experienced resistance insurgents who fought against US occupancy ten years ago. ISIS ranks have swollen with the recruitment and assimilation of global militants fighting the Assad regime in Syria.
More recently significant victories in Mosul have pocketed them over $429 million in cash and up to 1.5 Billion in military hardware leading some analysts to report assets totalling over $2bn, not insignificant when compared to the Iranian defence budget in 2013 at $17.7bn.
The capability of ISIS without support of the Sunni dominated population in the North and the lack of effective resistance from the Iraqi military is more difficult to assess. The current slowdown in advance by ISIS may well be indicative of a lack of conventional capability to take the battle much further in the short term. Reported assessments of up 10,000 active fighters spread between Syria and Iraq may not prove sufficient to push further South and we may well see a consolidation of recent success and a withdrawal North and perhaps across the border to Syria.
Should ISIS withdraw in the coming weeks however, al Maliki and the region as a whole should not become complacent. ISIS has made considerable gains in both hard currency and military hardware in recent weeks that will allow their experienced planners to regroup and strategize the next phase of their ideological war, whether it is to be played out in Iraq or the broader region.
BROADER CONCERNS SURROUNDING THE CURRENT SITUATION
An announcement last week by Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, the parliamentary speaker of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), said that the KRG has no plans to hand back control of Kirkuk, a city which has long been at the centre of disputes between the KRG and Baghdad. Arshad Salihi, the president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), responded saying that if the Kurdish Peshmerga forces “refuse to return Kirkuk [to the Iraqi government] we will fight back”.
Some media sources are reporting that the fall of Mosul may well be the catalyst for a bid for independence. Kirkuk is extremely important to the Kurds both culturally and economically. Large oil reserves in the region of Kirkuk are a major factor in the dispute over control of the city.
The United Nations on Wednesday upgraded Iraq’s crisis to a level 3 humanitarian disaster the most severe rating it has. Massive outflows of people from some of the cities that have seen the most fighting is clear. Over one million Iraqis who have abandoned their homes to escape the violence are trying to make their way into Kurdish provinces in Iraq. IDP’s are exposed to searing heat, and have extremely limited access to food, water and shelter. The overburdening of the region due to the longstanding conflict in Syria is of serious concern with Lebanon and Jordan in particular being stretched to capacity, taking in 1.7 million Syrians between them.
The immediate concern is the spread of sectarian violence especially toward Shiite communities on the Arabian Peninsula, already swayed by Iran. ISIS’s planners are sure to focus their attention on the Shiite issues in the GCC and start a campaign to focus on Gulf Shiites as “non-believers”.
Secondly, will ISIS replace al-Qaeda in the GCC region as a new, more dangerous, regional hybrid of violence? The amount of land where Salafi-Jihadists rule is growing throughout the Levant allowing them new safe havens to operate from.
ESCALATORY TRIGGER EVENTS
The US has responded to the current situation in Iraq with the aircraft carrier George HW Bush plus support ships and 275 combat troops which have been deployed to Gulf to assist in the evacuation of US citizens if required, and to protect the US Embassy and other interests in the country. John Kerry, US Secretary of State, has indicated that the US may consider drone strikes against ISIS in Iraq but a decision has not yet been made.
Critics however have suggested that any western intervention would be a grave mistake as it will “aid [ISIS’s] propagandising process”and may encourage the assimilation of anti US Sunni extremist groups into an ISIS ideology.
Iran’s intention to intervene, as the leading Shia state in the world is clear given the overt threat to Shia’s by ISIS and an immediate threat of attack to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Its ongoing support, however, to the current Maliki government and resultant sectarian divide in Iraq will, as the governor of Mosul stated, “make the situation more complicated and more sectarian. In such an eventuality all Sunnis will join ISIS”
LOCALISED REVENGE ATTACKS
Localised and authorised executions and atrocities carried out by Shia or Sunni on the other, will only reinforce the sectarian dimension of this conflict at the human level which will further fuel an escalation at the ideological and political level.
DE-ESCALATORY TRIGGER EVENTS
In the short term the ability of the Iraqi army to defend Baghdad may be enough for a temporary withdrawal of ISIS forces to the North. But the situation will be far from over as ISIS will simply count its gains and regroup, ready for the next phase of this new and heightened ideological war.
For Iraq, the al Maliki government must act quickly to stop driving the wedge even further between its Sunni and Shia population if it is to survive. If it stays its current course it may drive more moderate Sunnis into the hands of ISIS, accelerating the prospect of all out sectarian war in Iraq and the broader region as a whole.
The current situation in Iraq has brought to centre stage concerns over heightened Sunni extremism. Recent events have not only benefited ISIS in terms of hard cash and military hardware but have also been hugely successful in terms of propaganda.
In the coming days and weeks it is likely that ISIS will maintain its position to the north of Iraq to entice international intervention from both Iran and the US and so further its propaganda war, reinforce sectarian division, and so drive Sunni and anti US insurgent fighters to its cause.
But the rapid gains in securing territory in principally Sunni territory in the North may not be so easy to replicate in the largely Shia South. Pentagon spokesmen have stated that Iraqi troops, supported by significant numbers of Shia volunteers, appear to have the will to defend the capital from the insurgent threat to the North.
Some reports however suggest there may be a presence of ISIS insurgents in the South of Baghdad that may be acting as sleeper cells for more long term objectives, or who will maintain a level of disruption and the ability to terrorise from within the city.
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