Collusion, corruption, politicization, and betrayal all plated part in the advancement of ISIS in Iraq
The fall of Mosul in Iraq on June 10 to the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Sham [ISIS] may have shocked the world but it was no surprise to many analysts who had been monitoring the increasing sophistication of the group in conducting several operations across wide territory. Nor was it a surprise to the US, with intelligence and defence officials warning for over a year that ISIS was planning to take over large parts of Iraq.
ISIS is an evolution of a group previously lead by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, under the al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad group, before becoming al-Qa’ida in Iraq, and then Islamic State of Iraq before its expansion into Syria. The extremist ideology espoused by the group belongs to a small school of thought of Sunni Islam who adhere to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab, whom the Saudi religious authorities officially refer to in their teachings. Part of the potency of ISIS is its ability to recruit fighters from across the Arab world, and even further, to engage in suicide bombings, asymmetric warfare, and other forms of violence.
Iraq has suffered from terrorism since summer 2003, right after President Bush had declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Iraq. The sectarian civil strife of 2006-2007 was the most brutal time since then but 2014 is the first time that large territories have been lost to groups such as ISIS.
ISIS is sophisticated and dangerously capable. They have been able to fight on several fronts, continue to recruit foreign fighters, hold territory they gain like a standing army, relentlessly push out their propaganda with slick media productions, and become financially self-reliant through extortion and seizure of oil fields. They have co-opted Syrian and Iraqi armed groups by force, gaining more weapons, fighters, territory and experience.
But their advance in Iraq is not only due to their fighting ability. Several witnesses in Mosul and Sinjar have said that locals colluded with ISIS and supported them, accusing their own neighbours of forcing them out of their homes in the displacement that has led to over 1.5m becoming internal refugees. Rhetoric on Arab TV channels purporting that this is an ‘Iraqi revolution’ led by the tribes has attempted to disguise the fact that this is a campaign by ISIS to seize hold of Sunni Arab parts of Iraq, with an aim to seize the rest of it eventually.
The collapse of three Iraqi divisions in Mosul was caused by corruption, politicization, and betrayal. That 30,000 soldiers fled without a fight gives some insight into how ISIS has been able to take over large parts of North-western Iraq.
The outgoing Iraqi Government certainly takes some responsibility for failing to deal with this current crisis that has been building for around 2 years. But the US and other states could have stopped ISIS building up in the Syrian border area and even the fall of Mosul was preventable because they knew what ISIS were planning to do 3 days before it happened.
It was only on August 8 that President Obama decided to act, nearly two months after the fall of Mosul. He made clear that the intervention was primarily due to the risk of life for Americans in Erbil and at the US consulate there (there is a large expat oil sector workforce in Erbil).
Accusations that outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not inclusive enough of Sunni Arabs in his administration had been repeated both in the Arab and Western world. International assistance was conditional upon a change of leader and when this was announced with Dr Haidar al-Abadi’s nomination to the post recently the French, UK, and other nations announced they would be intervening in Iraq. The new PM was also welcome by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional states who had a strained relationship with his predecessor.
While the humanitarian situation is dire, there is some hope that the improving political and military situations will lead to a change in momentum. The challenges are daunting for the incoming PM and there is some doubt that even the most capable leader will not be able to reverse the situation. But it seems the world is not ready to allow ISIS to become like the Taliban and indeed establish their own state, so have begun steps to help Iraq push them back. If ISIS is tackled at its source, then their maybe a way to reunite Iraq and defeat the most dangerous terror group in the world.
Sajad Jiyad is a London-based independent analyst and researcher on Iraq and can be followed on Twitter @SajadJiyad