Theories behind the ISIS takeover of Iraqi province
By: Elie Chalhoub
Published Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Surprising and shocking. This might be the best way to characterize the fierce attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) waged inside Iraq, leading to the fall of the entire Nineveh province and parts of Salah al-Din, with its forces almost reaching Baghdad.
This happened only days after a similarly fierce and shocking attack was halted at the doorsteps of the shrine of al-Imamain al-Askariyain in Samarra, as all concerned forces intervened to spare Iraq developments similar to those of 2006.
The fact that this is happening in a country where those in charge have, for over a decade now, failed to build a shadow of a state does not make the attack any less dreadful.
During the Samarra attack, the prevailing view was that ISIS wanted to destroy the shrine in an attempt to drag the country into a sectarian war from which it will stand to benefit the most. The size of the operation that ISIS waged became evident only after the fall of Mosul Airport. The city surrendered to the takfiris only hours later.
Questions emerged from every direction trying to understand what happened. How could ISIS achieve such a victory? Where was the army and the Iraqi security forces? What was the depth of the collusion? There are plenty of questions but perhaps the three most important ones are: Who decided to carry out this operation? What is its objective? And why now?
A lot of theories are being bandied about. The easiest one is the broken record on “mass migration” from Syria and the regional conspiracy led by “Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey” to take revenge against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s electoral victory which made him the sole ruler of Iraq.
No one has information to verify or deny this theory. But informed parties believe that this alleged migration is unlikely in light of the progress on the battlefield that ISIS is achieving on the Syrian front. At the same time, they scoff at the claim that the three aforementioned countries can control this organization, even if they collaborated with it at important junctures when their interests intersected.
The most logical analysis leans in two directions that meet at some point. The first argues that ISIS, which exhibited in Syria an astute ability to detect changes and deal with them smoothly and with flexibility, sensed a US-Iranian understanding on the horizon and the signs of a regional front emerging to liquidate the takfiri Islamist movement including ISIS. The seeds of this front emerged first in Syria, and its signs were detectable in Iraq given the talk about military preparations and arms deals to regain state control over al-Anbar province. All this prompted ISIS to wage a preemptive strike to fortify its positions and prepare for the crushing battle expected to come.
The second direction alludes to an operation meant to lure ISIS into a trap similar to what the United States did with Saddam Hussein before he invaded Kuwait in order to rally regional support to eliminate him.
The international reaction to the fall of Mosul reinforces the second analysis. Affirmation of Washington’s willingness to provide “all the help needed,” including weapons, quickly emerged. And the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed “deep concern.”
The problem with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that with this attack, ISIS violated one of its own rules of engagement in Iraq, namely, to not engage the Kurds militarily for its own ulterior motives. It is certainly in the Kurds’ interest to keep the provinces of Nineveh, Salah al-Din and Kirkuk - most of them are disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil - in a state of upheaval. But the Kurdish authorities will not stand idly by as ISIS sets up its base on the borders of the Kurdish region, when they pride themselves on Kurdistan’s stability. This development puts Erbil and Baghdad in the same trench. The two sides have to put their differences aside to confront the imminent danger besetting both of them.
The other problem with this analysis is that it does not answer the following question: What is ISIS counting on, given that its leaders know this military operation will unite all the parties in Iraq and all concerned parties in the region against them?
Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of what happened is exposing the Iraqi regime; it not only failed at launching the process of rebuilding a devastated Iraq in light of unprecedented corruption, it also failed to rebuild its armed forces. An army that numbers around 1.1 million is unable to establish a sense of security even in the ethnically homogeneous south where takfiris succeed every now and then to block the main road between Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. Not to mention the dozens of victims that fall daily in Baghdad and the regime’s utter failure to enter Fallujah despite the killing and wounding of thousands of Iraqi soldiers.
The only positive outcome in what happened - if it is possible to use this term - is that it has pushed Iraq’s political forces fighting amongst each other to put their differences aside and quickly end the insurmountable governance crisis plaguing the country in light of the threat that besets all of them without exception. This opinion was reinforced by the position of the Shia authority in Najaf, as the decision to forge popular resistance to ISIS by arming the people was leaked. This, however, is a step whereby everyone knows how it starts but no one knows how it will end.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.