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For months now, Sunni militants from the Islamic State (better known as ISIS) have been seizing control of large swathes of Iraq.
But it wasn't until they encroached into semi-autonomous Kurdish territory and near the Kurdish capital of Erbil — an oil boomtown full of Western companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil — that the Obama administration decided to authorize airstrikes against ISIS.
That rather felicitous timing has already led a few commentators to suggest that the current US intervention is all about oil. That's probably overstating things — the US intervention seems to have a variety of goals here, like protecting the Kurds more generally and preventing ISIS from massacring Iraq's Yazidis. But it'd also be wrong to pretend that oil is totally irrelevant to the larger crisis in Iraq.
Iraq is currently the world's seventh-largest oil producer, churning out some 3.3 million barrels per day in April. And Kurdistan is responsible for about 10 percent of that production — so ISIS is threatening a key producer. Meanwhile, disputes over how to divvy up Kurdistan's oil revenue are a significant factor in Iraq's never-ending political impasses. And the Obama administration has become entangled in a fight over whether Kurdistan should be allowed to sell its oil directly onto the world markets.
So here's a rundown of three ways that oil matters for the ongoing crisis in Iraq:
The Kurdish region of Iraq — home to 5 million Kurds — has been semi-autonomous since the 1991 Gulf War, with its own government and military (the peshmerga). But it didn't become a major oil-producing region until after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The region has two large oil fields in particular — Taq Taq and Tawke — that were largely neglected until 2004. (There's also the supergiant oil field in Kirkuk, although that city is subject to dispute between Kurds and other ethnic groups in Iraq.) In recent years, however, foreign investors have swooped into Kurdistan, attracted by the region's vast reserves and its relative stability.
Those investments were just starting to pay off. By June of this year, Iraqi Kurdistan was producing 360,000 barrels per day — about 10 percent of Iraq's production (and about 0.5 percent of the world's supply). And much more was expected. In a 2009 State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks, one foreign firm said Kurdistan "has the potential to be a world-class hydrocarbon region."
Yet ISIS posed a (partial) threat to that boom when they showed up on the outskirts of Erbil, a city of 1.5 million that is hosting many of the oil and gas firms in the Kurdish region. On August 8, Reuters reported that some 5,000 barrels per day had gone offline in Kurdistan as a result of the fighting. Various oil firms, including Chevron, said they would withdraw some non-essential personnel from the region.
So far, the disruptions have been relatively minor, particularly since the US has launched airstrikes against ISIS that allowed the Kurdish military to retake a number of towns. The Kurdish regional government now insists that "oil production in the region remains unaffected."
ISIS, for its part, clearly has an interest in seizing oil fields. The group reportedly controls seven oil fields and two refineries in northern Iraq, as well as a portion of a pipeline running from Kirkuk to the port city of Ceyhan in Turkey. Reports have suggested that ISIS is now selling some 10,000 barrels of oil per day to fund its activities.
It's also worth noting that the vast majority of Iraq's crude production has so far been unaffected. The map below shows Iraq's oil infrastructure. If you compare with the map above, you'll notice that ISIS isn't close to any of the massive oil fields in the southern regions of Iraq, which produce 75 percent of the country's crude. And it's not close to the big Kurdish oil fields of Tawke or Taq Taq:
Iraq's oil infrastructure
Still, many oil watchers had been counting on Iraq to boost production in the years ahead to help supply the world's ever-growing demand. The ongoing violence makes those prospects considerably more uncertain.
In theory, all oil sales in Iraq are supposed to be handled by the central government in Baghdad, which then splits revenues among the various regions according to an existing agreement.
Recently, however, Iraqi Kurdistan has been pushing to sell more of its own oil directly to other countries, bypassing the central government entirely. Why is that? Kurdish officials claim that the central government hasn't been sending Kurdistan its promised 17 percent share of oil revenue.
Kurdistan now exports about one-third of its oil via pipeline to Turkey, and has been trying to sell some of that oil directly, at a steep discount. (A recent report from the Congressional Research Service argued that Turkey is helping with transport to maintain good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and help mitigate the long-running conflict with its own Kurdish community.)
The United States, for its part, is officially opposed to Kurdistan's direct sales of oil abroad. The way they see it, these moves undermine the unity of the Iraqi government, are steps toward de facto Kurdish independence, and threaten to tear the country further apart. "Iraq's energy resources belong to all of the Iraqi people," tweeted Brett McGurk, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs on July 30.
The stand-off is becoming increasingly intricate. There's currently an oil tanker filled with about 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil parked about 50 miles off Houston that can't unload its crude. The Washington Post reported that State Department officials have been quietly warning any potential buyers of the Kurdish oil that they could face "serious legal risks."
Meanwhile, there's growing pressure on the Obama administration to allow direct sales — particularly now that the Kurds are under siege from ISIS and the central government is refusing to send oil funds. In Congress, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) called on the administration to change its stance: "if the Iraqi government does not resume the financial support owed to the Kurds, we should end our resistance to the direct sale of Kurdish oil."
To make things even more complicated, there's also a long-standing debate within Iraq over who controls Kirkuk, a city of some 400,000 people that sits on the border between the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq. Kirkuk also sits next to a "supergiant" oil field containing an estimated 10 billion barrels of crude.
The debates over Kirkuk itself have been going on for more than a century. The city has long been inhabited by Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Arabs, each with a historical claim on the region. (The Kurds argue that Kirkuk has been their rightful capital since the 18th century.)
But the discovery of oil near Kirkuk in the 1920s raised the stakes considerably. Back in the 1970s, the Kurds declared formal claims on Kirkuk's massive oil fields. The Iraqi government saw that as an act of war and responded with a policy of "Arabization" — as Human Rights Watch detailed, the government expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Assyrians from the city and resettled Arab families there.
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the reverse has happened. Thousands of internally displaced Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, raising new questions over who should control the city. A referendum on whether Kirkuk should be part of Kurdistan has been periodically raised and delayed since 2007. Suffice to say, Iraq's central government isn't ready to hand Kirkuk over.
The dispute took another sharp step forward this summer. As ISIS was expanding control over Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk in mid-June, claiming that they needed to fill a "security vacuum." And, in July, the Kurds began pumping oil from Kirkuk's oil fields — also in defiance of Iraq's central government — giving the Kurds de facto control over not just the oil but the city itself. It's still unclear how this will all play out, but it's another potentially violent source of contention fueled by oil.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has released a new propaganda video. It's got pretty flashy production values, a kind of insane message, and a dig at Obama and American troops. As ridiculous as all that sound, it's a part of ISIS' fairly sophisticated social media strategy.
The video is titled "The End of Sykes-Picot," a reference to the 1916 French-British colonial agreement that led to, among other things, the modern borders of Syria and Iraq. The ISIS video's major theme is that borders are irrelevant to the group: that these arbitrary lines in the sand wrongly divides Arab Muslims, who ought to live under a Middle East-spanning caliphate.
To make their message come alive, ISIS filmed its enthusiastic English-language spokesman, captured Iraqi army materials, terrified prisoners, and a big explosion. Between the detonation, the swelling score, and the earnestly militaristic message, it's like watching a commercial for terrorism directed by Michael Bay:
The narrator, allegedly from Chile, outlines the film's main themes. "We are not here to fight for earth, or dirt, or the imaginary borders of Sykes-Picot," he says. "Our jihad is loftier and higher."
He talks at length about all of the Western-made equipment ISIS has captured during its various routs of the Iraqi army. "Look how much money America spends on fighting Islam, and it ends up going to us," he crows. "Message to the people of the West: just keep giving and we will keep taking."
There are repeated references to America's weakness — and Obama's. "They lost in Iraq, they lost in Afghanistan, they're going to lose in Syria, inshallah, when they come," the spokesman says. "A question for Obama: after he sent troops to Baghdad: did he prepare enough diapers for your soldiers?"
Why is is ISIS releasing a video like this, filmed mostly in English? One of the most plausible explanations is that this video is aimed less at Iraqis and more at one of ISIS' other enemies: al-Qaeda.
ISIS, which was ejected from al-Qaeda, is "in the midst of a struggle to claim the mantle of the global jihadist movement, J.M. Berger, an expert on the use of social media by terrorist groups, told me previously. "They're in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader."
One way to impress other Islamic radicals and potential recruits is to show off your victories over the Iraqi government. Tying their enemy to the United States, and taunting the American President, makes this message even more resonant.
The Obama administration's decision to deploy 300 elite ground troops in Iraq really looks like a prelude to a possible US bombing campaign there. For those skeptical of a military intervention in Iraq, including myself, this might seem crazy: most of the arguments for some kind of US involvement have been pretty terrible. Obama's opposition to the Iraq War was prescient; how could he possibly think going back into Iraq is a good idea?
So I was surprised when I spoke to Douglas Ollivant, the former national security adviser for Iraq under both Bush and Obama and current managing partner at Mantid International, and he offered a clearer rationale for limited airstrikes in Iraq. Strikes, Ollivant argued, could significantly limit the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)'s ability to threaten the Iraqi government and civilians. He thinks that this would be helpful enough to merit the risks.
Ollivant's plan isn't without downsides, foremost among them that "limited" strikes don't typically stay limited. But if nothing else it's a good window into the kind of thinking that might actually be animating the administration's possibly in-the-works strikes plan.
Ollivant is no one's idea of a hawk. He's one of the leading critics of the so-called "Surge Narrative" — the idea that the Bush administration's decision to send 30,000 extra troops into Iraq in 2007 and adopt a counter-insurgency strategy turned the tide against al-Qaeda in Iraq. "The crisis of violence in Iraq in 2006-2008 was fundamentally a political problem," Ollivant writes, "that the U.S. lacked the capability to resolve."
He thinks the same thing about Iraq today. To hear Ollivant tell it, the current problem is fundamentally political, a deep conflict between Iraq's three main ethno-religious factions over who controlls the instruments of the state.
Nevertheless, when asked about the administration's hypothetical airstrikes — which he thinks are "likely coming" — he said "I'm a fan."
In Ollivant's view, ISIS and the Iraqi civil war are two fundamentally distinct problems: intertwined, to be sure, but ones that may need to be addressed separately at times. "Even in a world where we can imagine that Iraq transformed into Sweden, and had a well-trained Swiss guard-like force that makes all of Iraq impenetrable to ISIS," Ollivant told me, "ISIS is still a thing." Solving Iraq's internal problems, in other words, does not necessarily solve ISIS.
"If they can't get into Iraq, they'll go to Jordan, Lebanon, [or] Israel" from their base in Syria, he said. ISIS territory is "international jihadist central — it's not a safe haven in a weak state, it's a weak state that serves as a safe haven. That needs to be dealt with."
ISIS' offensive in Iraq, in that sense, presents something of an opportunity. "With ISIS massing for some kind of fight in and around Baghdad, that makes them uniquely vulnerable to airstrikes in the coming weeks," Ollivant said. ISIS militants hiding in cities or remote Syrian training camps are much harder to find, but "they come out of their hole, the US air force can destroy them in detail." Killing lots of ISIS operatives would, in the short term, severely degrade their ability to threaten the Iraqi government or other states in the region.
Even if they didn't mass together for a push on Baghdad, Ollivant says, US airstrikes could hurt them. "Even if they don't mass, they're very stretched out," he said. "From Raqqah [Syria] through Fallujah and Mosul to Kirkuk, they've got to be using convoys to move back and forth. You kill a couple of convoys, and all of a sudden it's a different game. They're isolated in these cities [and] that turns them into a different kind of target that maybe the Iraqi army would be able to handle."
Ollivant doesn't think this alone would come close to fixing the ISIS problem. The only real solution, in his mind, is political: "the broken internal politics of Iraq make it deeply vulnerable to ISIS and that needs to be fixed," he said.
But strikes can't wait on political reform, he says. ISIS attacked while Iraq was forming a new government, which Ollivant compared to "attacking the United States the day or two after a presidential inauguration." In his estimation, the fastest conceivable time the Iraqi government could be up and on its feet is two months, and that's if everything goes right. Meanwhile, the immediate ISIS crisis "is going to present itself in the next three to ten days; maybe one to 12 days." (We spoke on June 20th.)
"The only way to fix the politics is in the process of government formation, and lightspeed for Iraqis doing government formation is like 60 days," he said. "Airstrikes first, just because of the timing."
How plausible is Ollivant's argument? I asked Robert Farley, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky who studies airpower, for a second opinion. Farley has been deeply skeptical of various plans for the US to bomb ISIS, but he seemed more open to Ollivant's proposal.
"I think that's an argument that comports with my understanding of what airpower could accomplish at an operational or tactical level. It's what we saw airpower do in the Libya conflict, similar to what we did in the Afghanistan operation," he said. "In terms of your best case scenario for being able to use airpower, disrupting a conventional offensive is what makes the most sense."
But Farley cautioned that it might be hard to keep the bombing limited to simply disrupting ISIS' current offensive progress. If the broader strategic goals is to dislodge ISIS from the territory it currently holds, that could imply a much more ambitious airpower campaign than the one Ollivant proposes. "This is what happened in Libya," Farley warns. "We went from disrupting a Qaddafi offensive to close air support of a rebel offensive against the Qaddafi government."
Moreover, any campaign risks civilian casualties — and the more it expands, the riskier it becomes. Even the Obama administration admits that US intelligence in Iraq is too weak to support a bombing campaign at present; the president said publicly that the 300 troop deployment is designed to fix that. Bad US intelligence would mean the wrong people get bombed, a risk that becomes greater as the campaign becomes more ambitious.
If the Obama administration does begin bombing Iraq, the question will then become how good they are at keeping it limited. "Do they want to curtail this as just stopping the ISIS offensive?", Farley asks, "Or do they see this as a door opener to rolling back ISIS?"
It's impossible to say for sure, but Ollivant is surprisingly optimistic about the Obama team's plan for Iraq. "The conversations that are now going on in the administration are pretty sophisticated," he said. "I'm very, very critical of the administration's neglect of Iraq for the last six years. That said, once this crisis has started, I think they've done almost everything right."
If they keep doing what Ollivant thinks is right, we could expect airstrikes any day now.
Most everyone was shocked when Iraqi rebels, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), routed government forces and swept through northern Iraq in mid-June. But the truth is that the Iraq crisis had been building for some time.
The chart below shows the number of documented civilian deaths from violence per month, as tallied by the non-profit group Iraq Body Count. You'll notice a huge spike in June 2014, but also that civilian deaths have been rising since early 2013:
This month's spike in civilian deaths, of course, is an indicator of the conflict getting much worse and the fighting more intense. But the trend over the last year shows that this didn't come out of nowhere.
The obvious takeaway is that ISIS and its allies had been amping up their war against the Iraqi government for years now. "Iraq is a basket case these days," the Washington Institute's Iraq expert Michael Knights wrote back in March 2013, "and none of its problems came out of the blue." The chaos then was less from the sort of open battles you see now, and more from what you'd classically define as terrorism: car bombs, shootings, and the like. The escalation in those incidents suggested that ISIS was getting more powerful and assertive — as we now know they were. By early 2014, ISIS and the government were engaging in open combat in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi (and ISIS was winning).
The root causes of Iraq's current crisis — Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shia sectarian government, the Sunni demands for disproportionate amounts of political power, the civil war in Syria — aren't short-term problems with short-term solutions. The Iraq crisis isn't solvable in the near term.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal recently warned that the fighting "carries warning signs of a civil war." Political scientists typically define war as a conflict with over 1,000 battle deaths. While's Iraq's crisis is messy, this data suggests that the fighting is getting so bad and so quickly that the conflict could be close to crossing the line into civil war.
There is good reason to fear that, whether or not the conflict becomes a full-blown civil war, it is poised to get worse. ISIS and its allies hold a large chunk of territory and are seizing more as time goes on. That spike of deaths in June 2014 may, sadly, not be a one-time event.
There's an important divide between Arab Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni group, has grown powerful by exploiting Sunni discontent with Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
But Iraq wasn't always this way; this level of violent conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias is a very modern phenomenon. So what happened? Where did this conflict come from?
Fanar Haddad, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, has some answers. Haddad is an expert on the history and politics of Iraqi sectarianism and the author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity. We spoke via Skype about how modern nationalism gave way to Iraq's present sectarianism and how the US invasion allowed low-boil tension to become something much worse. One crucial point he made is that Sunni identity, as it exists now, was not present in Iraq before the last decade. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Zack Beauchamp: You're an expert on the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in Iraq. Can you talk about how this divide became so deep, historically and politically? I don't buy the line that it's "ancient hatreds" reasserting themselves, but was this kind of violence inevitable after the US invasion in 2003?
Fanar Haddad: You're right not to buy the ancient hatreds line. The roots of sectarian conflict aren't that deep in Iraq. In early medieval Baghdad, there were sectarian clashes, but that is extremely different from what you have in the age of the nation state.
Come the 20th century and the nation state, we're all part of this new "Iraq" entity — you feel a sense of belonging, so it becomes a question of how you divide the national pie. And I think that's the main driver, the main animator behind sectarian competition in Iraq.
That's a very new one. The state was established in 1921. Not too long after that, you start hearing about how the majority — the Shias — are being neglected, excluded, marginalized, or what you have you. After that, you've got the ever-present Arab-Iranian or Iraqi-Iranian rivalry that superimposed itself (not entirely by accident) onto sectarian relations. For whatever political end, people will try to conflate or suggest Iran with Shias. This has been particularly divisive.
I'll skip through the next 80 years of statehood, except to say that throughout them, the default setting was coexistence. Sectarian identity for most of the 20th century was not particularly relevant in political terms. Obviously, this is something that ebbs and flows, but there were other frames of reference that were politically dominant. Come 2003, plenty changes.
ZB: How did things change in 2003?
FH: You can chart a course to 2003 from the mobilization of Shia parties in the mid-20th century, the Iranian Revolution [of 1979], the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s], the rebellion of 1991, 13 years of sanctions. These are all part of a cumulative process.
Come 2003, the main opposition forces against Saddam Hussein were ethno-sectarian parties. That's a really important point. Yes, we can blame — and we should blame — occupation forces and the promises that they pursued, particularly enshrining identity politics as the key marker of Iraqi politics. But that was something that these ethno-sectarian parties, the ones who were the main opposition force, advocated before 2003. This, to them, was the answer.
From a Sunni Arab perspective, the Shia parties and personalities that came to power weren't just politicians who happened to be Shia. They were politicians whose political outlook was firmly rooted in a Shia-centric, sect-centric view of things. I would say there were a number of prejudices, Sunni suspicions of the new regime. These were unfortunately validated by the nature of the new political elite, and their subsequent decisions and policies.
Post-2003 Iraq, I'd say identity politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they're part of the system by design. The first institution that was set up in 2003 under the auspices of the occupation was the Iraq Governing Council — which was explicitly based on sectarian apportionment. You know, 13 Shias, six Sunnis, or whatever it was, based on what were perceived as the correct demographics.
Not to muddy the water further, but we don't actually have anywhere near an accurate census for these things. They're just sort of received wisdom — that Sunnis are increasingly rejecting. The idea that they're a minority, that they're only 20 percent: this is something that Sunni voices since 2003 have been rejecting. Whether that's rational or not is not the point. The point is that they basically look at the demographic claims as Sunnis being marginalized and accorded second-class status on the basis of a lie. They do not accept that they are a minority, and this is a system that's based on ethno-sectarian demographics.
ZB: How do these sectarian divides affect people's view of the Iraqi state — not just the Maliki government, but the entire set of political institutions themselves?
FH: I'd say this point is crucial to pre- and post-2003 Iraq: the idea of the legitimacy of the state. It's also sort of crucial to what's going on now.
When 2003 came along, a lot of Shias and certainly a lot of Kurds welcomed it. They saw it as their deliverance as Shias and Kurds as much as it was the deliverance of Iraq. On the Sunni side, there was no such sentiment because there barely existed a sense of Sunni identity before 2003. It simply didn't exist in Iraq.
Now, what you see is the reverse. The Iraqi government is not popular with anyone, the popularity of the government is rock bottom, I'd say, but Shias are more likely to accord the state, the post-2003 order some level of legitimacy. Whereas there is a body of opinion of among Sunnis who just do not ascribe any legitimacy to it whatsoever.
That explains why, now, this rebellion is sweeping parts of Iraq. It's not all religious fanatics. There's a lot of people who place hope in this rebellion as a revolution, who see it as a nationalist movement. They see volunteering in the armed services as almost a sin, because they do not accord the Iraqi state any legitimacy whatsoever.
ZB: I thought that the point that you just made about Sunni identity not existing before 2003 was really fascinating. Can you explain what that means and how the invention of Iraqi Sunni identity came about?
The parallel we've always drawn with regards to Sunni identity is a parallel with race relations. There wasn't a coherent form of identity, like African-Americans or people in the UK from the [Indian] sub-continent or what have you.
The parallel that's being made is that Sunnis didn't see themselves as a having a perspective before 2003. It was not a Sunni view; it was the norm, the Iraqi view. [Zack here: this is sort of like the American notion of whiteness as the "normal" American view, a "default setting," or the "view from nowhere."]
Come 2003, it was a bit of a rude awakening. Because, for one thing, there was this abundance of previously curtailed or constrained expression. And a lot of it was sectarian expression. Nothing malicious, necessarily, but a lot Sunnis were completely oblivious to the deeply held Shia notions of identity they were just hearing about.
Again, the parallel with race relations is very obvious. Sunnis weren't concerned with or particularly knowledgeable about sectarian dynamics because it wasn't an issue for them. They did not perceive themselves to be on the losing end of sectarian dynamics, they weren't even aware of sectarian dynamics! So this is a game that they only started playing in 2003.
The other thing is that, in 2003, they had to form a Sunni identity whether they liked it or not because the system mandated it. The system required and made communal identity the central political marker. So they had to find that presentation along identity lines.
It's also reactive. You have this group, the Shias, that keeps banging on about the oppressed majority. There's the implication that you as a Sunni are kind of excluded from that. It's perfectly natural that they would form an identity along the lines that mirror the dynamic established in 2003.
And that has been accentuated over the past 11 years. Now you've got quite a strong sense of Sunni identity, one that has been anchored in a sense of victimhood. Perceptions regarding demographics play a role; as I said, they see themselves as being cheated into minority status. And yeah, victim identity at the hands of an overbearing, dictatorial Shia state — that's a very powerful feeling. It's got transnational echoes, which have helped accentuate this feeling of Sunni victimhood and identity.
ZB: So given this deep, emergent sectarian divide, is there any possibility that ISIS makes gains in Shia areas?
FH: No, I don't think so. A few towns might fall to ISIS forces and you hear about a massacre — that could happen. But in terms of taking Baghdad or going further south, I can't see that happening.
In terms of the pocket of Shia towns that are all over Iraq, it's possible that ISIS could take some of the ones [in largely Sunni areas]. But in terms of making gains in Shia areas, their ability is limited — otherwise, they would have taken Samarra by now.
ZB: Then there's the flip side of that question — how hard is it for the government and government aligned forces to make inroads into areas that ISIS controls?
FH: That is a harder question. Of course, it comes down to will they be able to take this territories? I don't think so, and for me, Fallujah is the benchmark. Seven months they've tried the city and couldn't take it.
Now they've got vast swaths of territory that have fallen out of control. The government is going to have to have some allies on the ground — and they do. But it's not ISIS that's the bigger threat. The bigger threat are the other [Sunni rebel] groups. They have much deeper roots in these towns and cities. There are a lot of people who are sitting on the fence trying to see which way the wind blows. I'd say the immediate threat is more from non-ISIS groups.
Perhaps the most important victory so far by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the extremist group tearing through Iraq, was not overwhelming the much larger Iraqi military or even seizing vast areas of northwest Iraq, including the major city of Mosul. It was convincing regular Iraqis that have come under ISIS rule to trust them.
"We have no problems, no blasts, no assassinations. We now feel the freedom. We are now in safe hands," a 42-year-old car mechanic from Mosul told the Financial Times' Borzou Daragahi and Erika Solomon of life in ISIS-controlled Mosul. While many residents of this city fled when the extremist group took over, fearing a severe Taliban-style government, things may have actually improved for most people there, and some who fled are returning. "Many of those interviewed said they preferred life now in the besieged city," the reporters write of their phone interviews with Mosul residents.
ISIS looks like it might be winning the battle for Iraqis' hearts and minds in the Sunni areas it has seized, and this could be enormously bad for Iraq's crisis. It could make ISIS more powerful and more resilient in the mostly-Sunni northwest. Maybe worse, it could increase the possibility of the crisis spiraling into all-out civil war.
One of the drivers of the conflict is that Iraq's government, which is dominated by the country's Shia Muslim majority, has badly mistreated the Sunni Muslim minority based in the north. ISIS, who are Sunni extremists, have risen in part by exploiting Sunni resentments against the government, and by linking up with local and national Sunni armed groups. So by actually improving life for the mostly-Sunni population of Mosul, ISIS is making people there more likely to support ISIS's takeover, more likely to resist any efforts by the Iraqi army to retake the city, and less likely to help the army uproot ISIS.
Mosul residents told the Financial Times that ISIS sacked alcohol shops and tore down a church that was under construction, but that otherwise personal freedoms have been unchanged. Their one complaint was the lack of electricity, which they blamed on the central Iraqi government, and said they were cheering on ISIS to seize a nearby refinery to fix the issue.
The trick that ISIS has pulled off here is seizing Mosul but not ruling it directly. The group appears to have handed authority for the large city over to local, tribal, Sunni armed groups. Those groups share ISIS's hatred of the Iraqi national government, so they're happy to help oust the Iraqi army, but unlike ISIS they are not as fixated on imposing extremist Islamism. "There is no ISIS in Mosul," a 58-year-old Mosul resident told the Financial Times. "The ones controlling city are now the clans. The power is with the tribes."
All of this strengthens ISIS. They get a base of popular support, an arrangement that makes local Sunni armed clans happy, and because they're not busy running Mosul they have more fighters to throw at the front lines.
This could also increase the risk of Iraq's crisis becoming a full-blown civil war, which is remote but real. A report out on Friday by the International Crisis Group warns that civil war, while not inevitable, could "be triggered by a disproportionate Iraqi Shiite and Iranian response that would cause Sunni ranks to close around the jihadis." In other words, if the Iraqi government is too aggressive in re-taking northern cities like Mosul, and too aggressive in putting down any pro-ISIS fighters there, that could actually convince more Iraqi Sunnis to take up arms against the government.
There is a silver lining to all this, though. Because ISIS is not controlling Mosul (and presumably other cities) directly, but instead working through local armed clans, that makes ISIS reliant on those clans. If ISIS and its other Sunni allies splinter or begin infighting, as disorganized insurgent coalitions often do, they will become much less effective and the Iraqi government would have a much easier time overtaking them.
Maybe more importantly, the Iraqi government will have to make some gains in the fight for Sunnis' hearts and minds, which it is losing very badly right now. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has convinced Sunnis that his government is bad for them; this is part of why the US and Iran are pushing for a new leader. If a new leader does come in, and he can persuade Sunnis that they would be better off by supporting reconciliation and peace, that is one of the most important things that Iraq can do to overcome ISIS's gains there.
The math seems so simple. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops; its enemies, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), somewhere around 7,000. The Iraqi army has tanks, planes, and American training. ISIS has never fielded a tank or a plane and its troops didn't get formal training from an advanced military. Yet ISIS is demolishing the Iraqi army on the battlefield, seizing a massive swath of the country's northwest. Why?
It comes down to two things: training and professionalism. ISIS learned how to fight, while the Iraqi army has long been a weak fighting force. All the weapons in the world won't matter if you don't know how to wield them. And ISIS's victories, not to mention the Iraqi army's repeated failures, tell you a lot about the country's larger crisis.
In Mosul, Iraq's second most populous city, about 800 ISIS fighters invaded and sent 30,000 Iraqi army troops running. That's been portrayed as a sudden collapse of the Iraqi army, but that's not quite right. "The Iraqi army has been collapsing for months now," Yasser Abbas told me.
Abbas, originally from Baghdad, is an analyst at the private research and consulting firm Caerus Associates. Before that, he served as a linguist in for the military in Iraq from 2005 to 2009. "At the end of 2006, I was involved in training the Iraqi national police in Baghdad," he said. "The amount of corruption and under-training was [astounding] ... insubordination became widespread."
So, for Abbas, the military's collapse "didn't happen at once. It's been happening for a very long time." For instance, the governor of Mosul ordered the military units in the area to go to a particular town, and "the battalion commander said no, it was too dangerous." It's the same insubordination problem the army has had for years.
And even when they do fight, many units aren't all that effective. "They'll stand up with a PKM [machine gun] and blast off 250 rounds" says Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland. "What is that doing?"
This isn't true of all Iraqi units, some of which, particularly around Baghdad, are quite well-trained. But many of the ones in the northern, Sunni-held regions of Iraq where ISIS made such large gains were some of the worst.
How did the Iraqi army get this bad? One explanation is sectarianism: the Iraqi government is dominated by Shia Muslims, whereas ISIS and its allies are Sunnis. Perhaps Sunni soldiers in the mostly-Sunni northwest simply ran because they didn't want to fight for a Shia government.
There's some truth to this theory, but "it's been overblown," according to Abbas. Two other things stand out. First, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki significantly weakened the army. He replaced effective Sunni officers with Shia ones and well-trained generals with loyalists. As Slate's Joshua Keating explains quite well, this was an attempt to protect his own political position. A strong, independent army could launch a coup d'etat. An army filled with your cronies is safer.
But, as the decade-long history of Iraqi army failures suggest, it's not just about Maliki. Rather, it's that the modern Iraqi army simply has never been a particularly strong institution. From the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s to the Gulf War to the 2003 American-led invasion, Iraqi units have performed pretty poorly. When the US military tried to rebuild the Iraqi army essentially from scratch after disbanding it in 2003, it just didn't have a lot of raw material to work with.
ISIS wasn't always strong enough to take real advantage of the Iraqi military's intrinsic weakness. "When the US fought ISIS in 2007, they were very weak," Abbas explained. "North of Baghdad, it took less than 24 hours for the whole organization to collapse in the face of a few soldiers and tribal militias."
But between 2007 and now, something changed. "When you like at the [ISIS] training videos from the mid 2000s, and compare them to ones from 2010, they're moving from terrorist tactics like how do you create an IED to things that include operations, strategy tactics," Nathaniel Rosenblatt, the head of Caerus' Middle East division, says.
Rosenblatt and Abbas say there's been an influx of skilled Saddam-era military leaders and soldiers into ISIS' ranks. "When you look at some of the reports about the leadership under [ISIS commander Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi," Rosenblatt said, "those second-in-command guys have very strong ties to Saddam's army." Acquiring lots of weapons, money, and experience over the course of the Syrian war allowed them to translate that new training into real military effectiveness.
It's hard to overstate how much of advantage this training and professionalism gives the Islamist group. "ISIS knows how to use smaller units" effectively against larger forces, says Smyth. They're "very efficient, and you have to deal with that."
This matters greatly. An undisciplined force, one whose movements aren't well coordinated or can't deploy proper tactics for taking city blocks, can be beaten by a much smaller opponent that knows what it's doing.
Superior training and motivation can also give defenders an extra edge. Smyth points to the World War II Battle of Wake Island as an example, where US troops held off a much larger Japanese force by digging in and creatively using their environment and dwindling resources. The Iraqi army has had a similarly tough time making progress in ISIS-held territory.
This leaves the conflict locked in a violent stasis. The Iraqi army will press ISIS-held territory, and possibly push them back on the margins, but it isn't strong enough to roll back ISIS all the way. "Bottom line: I think ISIS will be able to hold Mosul for some time," Rosenblatt says. "Unless Maliki is really pushed, I don't think he's going to be able to march all the way to Mosul with a Shia force. The political aspects are too sensitive."
Meanwhile, ISIS doesn't have the strength to challenge the more effective Iraqi army units defending Baghdad and the other largely Shia areas. "Technically, they do [want to take Baghdad]," Smyth says. "But I don't think they're stupid. They won't jump into the open jaws of the crocodile."
There are three critical factors that could break this bloody status quo.
First, a collapse in ISIS' popular support. ISIS has a long history of brutal treatment of civilians, and every analyst I spoke to agreed that a loss in Sunni civilian support would be a back-breaker for ISIS. "Insurgencies can make do with passive support from the bulk of the population, but if an ideology is too radical, it risks sparking a backlash," said Jason Lyall, an expert on counterinsurgency at Yale University. "Given the size of the outflow of people from Mosul, it is apparent that ISIS' ideology may find little support among the civilian populace."
Second, either side's allies could alter the military balance dramatically. ISIS fights with a broad range of Islamist, tribal, and Saddam-loyalist groups; if those groups turn on ISIS, which they very well might, it could break the group's hold on the territory.
On the flip side, the Iraqi army is backed by Iran and several Shia militias. It's also recruited thousands of Shia volunteers — about 200,000, by All Iraq News Agency's count — for impromptu anti-ISIS militias. According to Abbas, this "massive Shia recruitment" could potentially shift the balance of power dramatically.
Third, an unexpected military intervention by a third party. The semi-autonomous Kurdish area in northwest Iraq is adjacent to ISIS' stronghold. Their powerful military, which has already had small clashes with ISIS-aligned forces, could challenge ISIS. And who knows what effect large-scale a American air campaign against ISIS would have on the balance of power.
You may have noticed that all three of these scenarios trend badly for ISIS. That's true, and it's because ISIS has put itself in a precarious political position. It doesn't have any real reliable friends, and it's challenging a government that represents the Iraqi religious majority that also has backing from the United States and Iran.
But it's far, far too early to count ISIS out on the basis of hypothetical scenarios. Their military record in Iraq proves that they can outperform expectations.
On Thursday afternoon, President Obama announced that he would send up to 300 American military advisers to Iraq as part of his larger effort to address the crisis there. The advisers' goal will be to help the Iraqi army gather and interpret intelligence that will help them fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has taken over large parts of the country. While Obama did not explicitly say he was considering air strikes, those military advisers could also potentially be used to lay the groundwork for US airstrikes if Obama decides to launch them in the near future.
Obama's address laid out the first clear American policy responses to the growing crisis in Iraq. There are five prongs to that response. First, secure the US embassy in Baghdad. Second, devote more surveillance assets — drones, satellites — to Iraq. Third, push for political reform in Iraq, to make the Shia government more accommodating to the Sunni minority from which ISIS draws recruits and supports. Fourth, deploy US military assets to the region in case they're needed. Fifth, deploy 300 US military advisers to aid the Iraqi army in intelligence gathering.
That last policy could be a big step toward the US airstrikes hinted at by the fourth. The advisers would be deployed to "joint operation centers" on the ground to coordinate US and Iraqi intelligence on the conflict. Previous reports on Obama's thinking suggested that he had ruled out airstrikes in the near term because of a lack of intelligence about who to bomb. These centers could solve that problem, enabling the US to launch air strikes if and when Obama decides to.
Obama did leave limited military action on the table in his remarks, saying, "Going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it." That presumably means air strikes, as Obama said that American troops wouldn't enter direct combat. The US military assets Obama moved into the region include destroyers armed with cruise missiles.
The president ruled out the return of US troops to direct combat roles in Iraq. He also said that "there is no military solution inside Iraq, certainly one led by the United States." His remarks repeatedly emphasized that a more inclusive Iraqi government, one that better respected the interests of Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities as well as the Shia Arab majority, would be necessary to address the actual causes of ISIS' rise.
Obama also compared the situation in Iraq to Yemen, where the US has conducted a fairly extensive counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda affiliated insurgents. The Yemeni government, according to Obama, has been a good partner for this kind of operation. The implication seems to be that a reformed Iraqi government would be more likely to receive American air support. In other words, fix your politics and we'll do more to help.
All in all, the speech sounded a more hawkish tone than his last set of remarks on the topic. "The fate of Iraq hangs in the balance," he said near the end of the speech. Obama may be starting to think America can help tip it.
The big Iraq news out of Washington today is that the Obama administration wants Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to go. Both the Wall Street Journal and CNN report that US policymakers want to replace the Shia Maliki with a more inclusive "unity" government that better integrated the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities into the government run by Iraq's Shia majority.
In theory, this is the right policy. Maliki's administration has poisoned the already fraught relationship between Iraq's major ethno-religious groups, fueling the Sunni insurgency (led by ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the process. But in practice, removing Maliki won't be nearly enough to stop the crisis. The sectarian dynamics that underly the chaos in Iraq are much bigger than one man.
The case against Maliki is damning and persuasive; George Washington University's Marc Lynch makes it here at length. Lynch argues that Maliki repeatedly refused to make inclusive deals with the Sunni minority when he had the chance. When Sunnis organized a peaceful protest movement, he killed dozens of protestors and threw hundreds on jail. Maliki helped convince many Sunnis that there was no place for them in the Iraqi political system, and that a rebellion was the only option. Replacing him with a less hardline Shia leader might be able to change their minds.
At this point, though, that's history, and Maliki may already be on the way out. "Maliki was having a tough fight in his reelection campaign," Kirk Sowell, a political risk consultant and expert on Iraqi politics, told me. "It's hard to imagine he has any credibility at all after this complete disaster." The more important question is whether the United States or any other foreign actor can convince the next Shia government to adopt a more inclusive approach to the Sunni majority.
Lynch is skeptical. "Yes, the United States should try to use this moment of leverage to attach political conditions to any military aid," he writes. "But such leverage is going to face an obvious problem: It will be virtually impossible to force any meaningful political moves in the midst of an urgent crisis, and any promises made now will quickly be forgotten once the crisis has passed."
Moreover, Iraqi political reform is hard. "Even if Maliki weren't in power, there are some Sunni grievances than any Shia government would have problems with," Sowell says. Sunnis, according to Sowell, believe they're a much larger percentage of the population than they actually are. Sunni Arabs are about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, but they think they're a plurality. So the majority of Sunni — who believe in the political process and reject the rebels — demand a proportion of political power and economic resources that Shias see as unacceptable.
This is the core problem at the heart of the Iraqi national project. "The main driver, the animating force behind sectarian competition in Iraq" is "how you divide the national pie," says Fanar Haddad, an Iraq scholar at the National University of Singapore. Who gets what — both in terms of oil money and control over political institutions like the army and the judiciary — are the basic questions that divide Iraqi Arabs.
The Iraqi government's failure to satisfy Sunni demands for a bigger pie slice has called the very idea of an Iraqi state into question. "There is a body of opinion of among Sunnis who just do not ascribe any legitimacy" to a Shia-led Iraqi state at all, Haddad says. "The idea of the legitimacy of the state is crucial to this and sort of crucial to what's going on now."
In other words: the core of the conflict is that Sunnis and Shias want the government to look dramatically different, and be run by different people. That is an astronomically difficult problem to solve on its own terms. The idea that the United States could pressure a solution to it — in the middle of a civil war — overestimates how much influence America has over Baghdad .
It's not that Sunni-Shia divide is totally intractable. As Lynch notes, there have been opportunities to make deals that would have significantly calmed sectarian tensions. Deals that Maliki rejected, of course. And perhaps the US could help broker negotiations at one point in the future.
But the idea that the US could solve the deeper problems fueling the insurgency by removing Maliki oversimplifies just how deep those problems go, and ignores the bigger and more difficult issues. Removing Maliki is a first step, but the broader causes of the chaos in Iraq run much deeper than his administration.
The major news out of Iraq today is the battle over the Baiji oil refinery, a plant responsible for turning a full third of the country's crude into useful petroleum. The battle illustrates two important things about the Iraq conflict: first, don't come to quick conclusions about major developments. Second, there's a good reason the fighting hasn't yet rocked global oil markets — the Baiji refinery makes products for domestic consumption in Iraq rather than for export.
Different news reports have said different things about who controls Baiji. The New York Times reported that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) controlled the refinery, but also that "other Iraqi officials, including the commander of the garrison defending the Baiji refinery, asserted that fighting was still going on." Reuters quoted an Iraqi official saying that ISIS controlled "75 percent" of the refinery: "the production units, administration building and four watch towers."
As of 5 pm eastern, Iraq Oil Reports, a group with sources throughout Iraq, was reporting that the Iraqi government controlled the refinery, but were surrounded by rebels who controlled the territory around it. They note, however, that different people they've spoken to tell quite distinct pictures of the state of the fighting.
The point is that news out of Iraq right now is tentative at best. Sometimes it's because the situation is changing; other times, it's because people simply have limited ability to know what's happening in a war zone. What we hear is "not really news, it's rumors," Fanan Haddar, an Iraq expert at the National University of Singapore, told me. It's always good to be skeptical about immediate, major reports.
Perhaps that's part of the reason global oil markets didn't spike in response to the news out of Baiji. The Brent Crude Oil Index, a solid measure of oil prices, went up 77 cents today in response to the Baiji news. That's not nothing, but it's hardly a panic.
The most important reason for the minimal reaction is that Baiji isn't important to the global oil supply. As Steven Mufson explains, Baiji doesn't really export petroleum. It's mostly responsible for domestic supply, and largely within the areas contested by ISIS at that. Since Baiji doesn't produce for export, global markets aren't all that concerned.
Iraq's largest oil fields, in northeastern and southeastern Iraq, are largely sheltered from the fighting. But concerns about Iraq's ability to continue exporting amidst the crisis have already sent the Brent index up to its highest price since last September. So there's been a real effect on global oil prices — and a potential for more.
Reporting from Iraq, is sketchy but it appears the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has the momentum. The ultra-violent Sunni Islamist group made massive gains in northern Iraq and, according to some reports, they're already threatening to encircle Baghdad.
Few experts think the Iraqi army will rally to easily rout ISIS. "ISIS will not be destroyed by anyone in the region - or by the US," said Chas Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "The only force that can destroy them is their own misbehavior. We can only hope they are their own worst enemies again."
ISIS can't maintain its gains without deep support from Iraq's Sunni population. But the group's brutal tactics may send civilians running into the hands of ISIS' competitors. This happened in 2006, when ISIS — then called al Qaeda in Iraq — was crushed by the "Awakening" militias that emerged in protest to their medieval application of Islamic law.
The Sunnis who support ISIS aren't, by in large, motivated by deep support for ISIS' hardline Islamist ideology. "They're not religious fanatics," Fanar Haddad, an Iraq scholar at the National University of Singapore, said. "A lot of people who place hope in this rebellion...see it as a nationalist revolution." According to Haddad, they believe the Shia Iraqi government is fundamentally illegitimate — they're fighting to retake the state for their coreligionists, but not necessarily replace it with a theocracy.
"ISIS is not a majority on the grassroots level," Kirk Sowell, a political risk consultant and expert on Iraqi politics, said. According to Sowell, ISIS has become the leading insurgent force through superior training, firearms, and financial resources, but their ideology only appeals to a fraction of Sunni Iraqis.
The major competing rebel factions, aside from a few smaller Islamist groups, are the so-called "neo-Baathists:" Sunnis who want to restore a Saddam-style Sunni dictatorship, but don't share ISIS' hardline interpretation of Islam. The largest such group is Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), a powerful militia led by former Saddam deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri. According to Sowell, JRTN is "very well organized, but they're not as large [as ISIS] and they don't have the financial resources."
Currently, the neo-Baathists and other Islamists are cooperating with ISIS. But "this marriage of convenience can't last forever," according to Haddad. "ISIS has an awful track record of making allies...they just do not abide allies because they don't see themselves as a run-of-the-mill insurgent group, they demand obedience and allegiance." In Syria, "ISIS engaged in shocking brutality, even against rival Islamist groups," NYU fellow Lawrence Wright notes.
In a war for Sunni support, the neo-Baathists and less extreme Islamists have the upper hand. Not only are Sunnis motivated more by nationalism than theology, but ISIS' brutal governing strategy can sharply alienate the people they want to govern. In some of their Syrian territory, they've banned smoking, music, and the display of women's hair. They sometimes behead and crucify civilians.
"Insurgencies can make do with passive support from the bulk of the population, but if an ideology is too radical, it risks sparking a backlash," said Jason Lyall, an expert on counterinsurgency at Yale University.
ISIS is aware of the risk, and "they're trying to run a hearts and minds campaign," says Nusseibah Younis, a fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center who studies Iraq. "Especially in Mosul, [ISIS is] telling locals that they are there to protect them from the Maliki government and that they will try to make life better."
But Younis doesn't think it'll work. "ISIS is such an extreme ideologically driven organisation that it won't be long before they start to impose their incredibly oppressive beliefs on the local population," she says. "At that point I think there will be real Sunni alienation."
Absent this hypothetical Sunni backlash, the Iraqi government has had a really tough time retaking territory from ISIS. Iraq "had some of the cream of the crop" Iranian-trained militants fighting (and losing to) ISIS in Mosul, said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who focuses on Shia militias in Iraq. The government has been fighting for practically all of 2014 to retake Fallujah, an insurgent-controlled city in Anbar province, and failed.
Smyth doesn't think Sunnis will side with the Shia government forces. "What's better, he asks rhetorically, "your fellow Sunnis who are a little nutty, or the Shia who are a bigger enemy?"
That's why the neo-Baathist groups are a potentially mortal threat to ISIS' ambitions to control Sunni Iraq. If ISIS alienates the population, it's easier to turn to other nearby Sunni rebels for protection than the government. If their support evaporates, ISIS could eventually lose control over the territory they currently hold. "My money says that ISIS will not be able to entrench itself in Iraq the way it has in Syria," Haddad concludes.
This isn't a great outcome for Iraq. The other Islamists still want to wage a sectarian war against the Iraqi central government. Given their more resonant ideology, they might actually be able to mount a more powerful and deadlier insurgency. "I think the more immediate threat [to the government] would be more from non-ISIS groups," Haddad says. "They have much deeper roots in these towns and cities."
What's more, no one thinks ISIS is going to fall apart. Even if they are no longer the leading rebel group in Iraq, they still have bases in Syria. They'd still be able to mount vicious, devastating terrorist attacks in Iraq. Even Haddad thinks "they're not going away." They've "had a presence in Mosul for years."
Iraqi Sunnis and Shias are so far apart, in other words, that the war between them would likely continue even if many of ISIS' gains evaporated.
Chas Freeman is a longtime American diplomat and foreign policy expert who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council. We spoke this morning by phone about how a group as small as ISIS could take and hold so much territory in Iraq and about whether the US can really do anything to stop them. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Ezra Klein: How did we get to a point where a terrorist organization with only a few thousand core fighters could take control of roughly a third of Iraq?
Chas Freeman: There's been a chain of events beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which destabilized the country and ignited a sectarian struggle that has metastasized and spread widely in the Eastern Arab World. This struggle has become part of a geopolitical contest between Sunni powerhouses like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar on one side and Iran and its ambitions for regional hegemony on the other side.
So you have both a geopolitical and religious struggle that has erased borders. What we're seeing, I think, is the end of the post-Ottoman order that the British and French cooked up in 1916. They created six states, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Those borders are now up for grabs.
EK: But to ask the dumber question here, even if those borders are up for grabs, how can an organization as small as ISIS capture them? Estimates put their core fighting force at well under 10,000 people. That's compared to the Iraqi army, with hundreds of thousands of fighters, not to mention Iran. The numbers here just don't seem to work.
CF: Baghdad and Syria have both failed to integrate dissident minorities into their political structures. So in the case of Iraq, which is where the rapid advance of this statelet has taken place in recent days, you also have an autonomous Kurdish region that's less and less under the sway of the Maliki regime and you also have an extremely alienated Sunni population. So you basically have a population that detests the status quo and is open to change. Whether they like the changes ISIS will bring about is another question.
EK: Do you think ISIS can actually hold onto the territory it's grabbed to build a state or do you think this is a disturbing but temporary situation and they'll quickly be beaten back?
CF: I think they are already building a state. They have been operating courts. They have been making decisions. They have been levying taxes. They have half a billion dollars in bullion and cash from Mosul. They are well armed. They are media savvy. They are very good at propaganda, And so they are behaving like a small state. Actually, not so small: it's a state the size of Jordan.
ISIS will not be destroyed by anyone in the region — or by the US. The only force that can destroy them is their own misbehavior. We can only hope they are their own worst enemies again.
EK: For a reasonably small and very extreme terrorist group ISIS seems to have been really focused on revenue generation and governance issues from the beginning. Where did they develop that expertise?
CF: There are probably two factors: ideologically they broke with al Qaeda precisely on the issue of whether their objective should be the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, or state, managed along the lines of early Islam. So they have had as an objective the establishment of a state from the beginning. And second, they have a lot of practice. They've controlled significant areas inside Syria for some time now. They have learned as they have grown. They've implemented engineering and computer expertise into their operations. This is in effect a militia that has grown into a state.
EK: Others have made the point that in helping the opposition in Syria and now in trying to strengthen the government in Baghdad we're really intervening on both sides of the same conflict. Do you think that's fair?
CF: I think that's correct. The contradictions and incoherence of our strategy really beggar the imagination. And it's not limited of course to the Iraqi and Syrian issues. We are trying to arm moderate opposition to Assad but that armed Islamists. We're trying to back Baghdad which is helping Assad remain in power. Any solution that boosts Assad or Baghdad helps Iranians. So all of this boosts Iran's prestige in the region and alienates Saudi Arabia and other traditional partners in the region.
EK: Do we end up with such a tangled strategy because we view the Middle East through the borders on the map and see Syria as one conflict and Iraq as another when really you have these ethnic and religious conflicts that encompasses many countries?
CF: I think the reason is strategic incoherence and tunnel vision on our part. Sometimes, yes, we define an issue in narrow terms and miss the fact that that issue isn't easily connected to a single country or border. We also are the prisoner of special interests including Israel's views, which are heavily tinged with anti-Iranian paranoia, and the views of the Saudis, who are equally paranoid if not more so about Iran. We have special interests in the United States that have traditional sought the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria.
What we have not been able to come up with is a coherent overall strategy that helps us set priorities. Are we in favor of democratizing the region? Sometimes, in some places, but not when it leads to governments we don't like. Do we favor constitutionalism and the rule of law? Well, we're all for elections, but if the elected governments do things we don't like we're happy to see them overthrown. Is our main focus terrorism? Well then why are our policies creating so many terrorists and now, potentially, a state that would be a base for Islamist terror in the region and potentially in our homeland? Are we against Iranian nuclear weapons? Then why do we accept Israel's nuclear weapons? Is our main problem with Iran the nuclear weapons or their influence in the region? From the Israeli perspective it's the weapons but from the Saudi perspective it's the influence. So we have not been able to sort all this through into a coherent set of priorities.
EK: What do you think America's next move in Iraq should be?
CF: I don't think there's a military solution. If we funnel in more weapons we're just likely to see more of them turned against us by the people we're trying to combat. The paradox of all this is that the the idea behind the invasion of Iraq by the neoconservatives was to show the invincibility of American power. Instead we have shown its weakness.
It's interesting that both Washington and Tehran have gone out of their respective ways to urge the government in Baghdad to address the problems of disdain and discrimination against the Sunni minority. There has to be political leadership in Iraq that can integrate Sunni Iraqis into the political structure rather than exclude them.
This is a hard thing to say given the 3 trillion dollars the US has invested into Iraq, but if you ask who has the political clout to get Iraq to do that, it is not us. It's Iran. We get nowhere in places like Syria when we exclude key players from the dialogue. We tried to run a process there that did not include Iran and Saudi Arabia. That was doomed to fail from the beginning. The first rule of diplomacy is that agreements require the buy-in of those with the capacity to wreck them. So we need to find a way to enlist the key interests in the region in stability. We can't do it from 8,000 miles away.
Late Tuesday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration has ruled out airstrikes in Iraq in the short term.
Instead, the paper reported, the administration is leaning more toward providing non-combat assistance to the Iraqi military, with options ranging from intelligence cooperation to sending special forces to train the Iraqi military.
President Obama decided to hold off on airstrikes because "U.S. military officials lack sufficient information to hit targets that would shift momentum on the battlefield," the Journal noted. Gathering sufficient intelligence to identify Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) targets is extremely hard absent a US ground presence. Obama apparently judged either that these difficulties were too severe, airstrikes alone weren't enough to turn the tide, or both. Either way the administration believes strikes can't be justified in the immediate term.
What the American response to the crisis in Iraq will look like still isn't clear. The leading option appears to involve three planks. First, the deployment of US special forces to gather intelligence, provide battlefield guidance to Iraqi combat units, and possibly train Iraqi soldiers. Second, securing commitment to political reform from the Iraqi government, whose favoring of the Shia majority over the Sunni minority has exacerbated the conflict. Third, look for some avenue to cooperate with other countries in the region to support the anti-ISIS campaign (how that would be accomplished isn't specified).
That said, airstrikes aren't permanently ruled out. "U.S. strikes are still actively under discussion," the Journal reports, "but [senior administration] officials cautioned Tuesday that they don't expect Mr. Obama to put military action back on the table quickly."
One last interesting nugget: Pentagon planners reportedly put together a strategy that involved sending 1,400 military advisers to work inside Iraqi battalions, but "that plan was rejected by top defense officials as overly ambitious and against White House preferences."
It's official: President Barack Obama is sending American troops back to Iraq. Though they probably won't do any fighting, it's a sign that the US is increasingly concerned about the situation on the ground in Iraq.
Late Monday afternoon, President Obama informed Speaker of the House John Boehner that "up to" 275 American troops would be deploying to Iraq "to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad." The War Powers Resolution requires the President notify the Speaker of the House, among others, when deploying US troops "into the territory, airspace or waters of a foreign nation, while equipped for combat."
This isn't a combat deployment. In fact, judging from Obama's statement, it probably isn't a mission aimed at helping the Iraqi army fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), it's main antagonist. It seems, instead, that the purpose is to assist in the evacuation of some American personnel from the embassy in Baghdad.
According to an accompanying letter from the Press Secretary's office, "the personnel will provide assistance to the Department of State in connection with the temporary relocation of some staff rom the US Embassy in Baghdad to the US Consulates General in Basra and Erbil and to the Iraq Support Unit in Amman."
Basra is a major city in southeastern Iraq, far away from the fighting. Amman is the capital of Jordan. While Erbil, in northeastern Iraq, is much closer to the fighting, it's safely within Kurdish-held territory. The semi-autonomous Kurdish region has beefy security forces, militias called the peshmerga, and ISIS has yet to seriously challenge them.
So this doesn't mean the US is going to war in Iraq again, or even helping the Iraqis fight theirs. It does, however, say that the US wants some of its embassy personnel out of Baghdad. The reasons why could be safety, or they could be something more subtle (say, to liase more effectively with the Kurdish authorities). According to the Press Secretary statement, "the US embassy in Baghdad remains open, and a substantial majority of the US Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place if the embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission." The full Obama letter to Speaker Boehner is posted below:
Rasmussen Reports released a poll today that says a plurality of Americans want to intervene in Iraq's civil war. You should be skeptical.
According to Rasmussen, 46 percent of American "likely voters" favored American "military airstrikes in Iraq to help its government" fight insurgents. Thirty-two percent opposed the idea, while 22 percent weren't sure.
This seems like a pretty clear finding: by a hefty 14-point margin, Americans with an opinion want President Obama to order airstrikes on Iraq.
But there are three reasons, broadly speaking, to be skeptical. First, the wording of the Rasmussen question says something important — that's also false. Here's how the Rasmussen question in airstrikes read:
Do you favor or oppose the United States making military airstrikes in Iraq to help the government fight al Qaeda-led insurgents?
The premise of Rasmussen's question is wrong. The most important anti-government group, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS), is not al-Qaeda led. They splintered from al-Qaeda in February, essentially over the question of whether al-Qaeda could order ISIS around (ISIS had stopped obeying al-Qaeda orders, including ones to tamp down on civilian casualties).
Not only is this a clear mistake, but it's a relevant one: al-Qaeda has a particularly bad perception among the American public. Americans believe, rightly, that al-Qaeda is out to attack the American homeland, and would likely be more supportive of fighting it than a separate group of Islamist militants.
Second, Rasmussen's sample of Americans appears to be off. A Nate Silver assessment found that Rasmussen polls consistently overestimates support for Republican candidates. According to an earlier Silver review, that's because Rasmussen "house effect is endemic to their overall sample construction" — which is poll wonk for "Rasmussen talks to a disproportionate number of Republicans."
Given that Republicans tend to be more hawkish on both terrorism and Iraq-related issues than Democrats are, it would make sense that they'd find an implausibly high amount of support for a bombing campaign in Iraq.
Finally, Americans have fully turned on the Iraq war — and are also skeptical of new interventions. Gallup polls over time show remarkably consistent negative views about the initial decision to invade Iraq for the past four years:
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from April found that only a small number of Americans wanted the country to be "more active" internationally than it is:
NBC/Wall Street Journal also found that Americans opposed the Obama administration's military bombing campaign in Libya and its proposed bombing campaign in Syria. A December 2013 poll, from Pew, found a historically high percentage of support (52) for the idea that "America should mind its business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." So if Americans are turning away further foreign entanglements, and bombing campaigns in the Middle East specifically, why would they support an intervention in Iraq — of all places?
The answer is that there's a decent chance they don't. Better polls might show that conclusion to be wrong, but Rasmussen's effort really isn't good enough to tell us anything useful about American public opinion.
Over the weekend, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS for short) released horrifying photos of a massacre of captured Iraqi Army troops. ISIS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, claims to have slaughtered 1,700 Shia Iraqi soldiers taken prisoner during their rapid march across north-central Iraq. No one has verified the claims about casualties, but the pictures are strong evidence that a massacre happened. Warning that several pictures are posted below, and that some of them are graphic.
This isn't just ISIS bragging about their murderousness. ISIS has a well-developed social media presence, which they're using deliberately in this campaign to do two things: intimidate Iraqis who might oppose them and win supporters in their battle with al-Qaeda for influence over the international Islamist extremist movement.
ISIS has an incredibly sophisticated social media organization, rivaling major corporations' work (albeit put towards much, much darker ends). "American ad companies could learn a lot from what ISIS is doing now," J.M. Berger, editor of Intelwire and a well-regarded expert on the use of social media by extremist groups, told me. "They've designed social media applications that will broadcast tweets at regular intervals and manipulate hashtags" to get their message across.
Berger thinks the first goal of broadcasting these gruesome images is to scare Iraqi civilians. "They're trying to intimidate the populations in the areas where they're headed," he said. This makes sense: as ISIS progresses southward from northern Iraq, they're moving towards land with larger Shia populations. Instead of trying to win over Sunni civilians by adopting sectarian grievances against Iraq's Shia government, they need to scare Shia civilians (who will never side with ISIS) so they don't actively oppose their march.
Take Baghdad, a formerly diverse city that's now predominantly Shia. ISIS wants Baghdad, though they aren't strong enough to take it. If you searched "Baghdad" in Arabic on Twitter Sunday night, "your first result would be an ISIS poster that said ‘we are coming to Baghdad,'" Berger said. That social media manipulation is consistent with the goal of intimidating Shia populations.
According to Berger, the second goal of ISIS' social media campaign is to win its global competition with al-Qaeda. ISIS actually used to be part of al-Qaeda, but the two groups split in early 2014. ISIS had stopped following al-Qaeda leadership's orders, particularly with respect to killing civilians. al-Qaeda wanted ISIS to slow down the pace of civilian killing, and ISIS wouldn't.
Now ISIS is "in the midst of a struggle to claim the mantle of the global jihadist movement, Berger said. "They're in competition with al-Qaeda, and they want to be the leader." One way to do that is to show how powerful and vicious you are by executing captured Shia soldiers.
Aside from the strategic considerations, this makes plain that, however bad the Iraqi government is — and they're likely to start bombing indiscriminately in cities soon — ISIS is much worse. Last week, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth got in a lot of trouble for tweeting this:
"That tweet was kinda nuts," Berger said. "The idea that ISIS would be more inclusive and less sectarian than [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki is absurd."
After looking at these photos, it's really hard to say he's wrong.
Iraq's government draws support from the country's majority Shiite community, possesses the considerable advantages of being an internationally recognized sovereign state, has access to vast oil revenue, and is able to avail itself of weapons and training provided by the United States of America during a years-long period of tutelage.
So why is it unable to field a military force capable of standing up to the numerically smaller, poorer, worse-equipped, and less-trained fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)? Congressional Republicans know the answer: Barack Obama.
"Everybody in his national security team, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ought to be replaced," said John McCain.
"It appears to me that the chickens are coming home to roost for our policy of not leaving anybody there to be a stabilizing force," according to Senator Roy Blunt.
Many pundits agree. Reihan Salam argues that keeping American military forces in Iraq would have simultaneously strengthened the central government while also restraining it from undertaking policies that alienated the minority Sunni Arab community. Richard Haas says that "after inheriting an improved Iraq, thanks to the surge undertaken by the George W Bush administration, [Obama] should have pushed harder for a residual US or international force to remain." This force "could have damped local rivalries and trained Iraq's army."
The logic on display here shows the toxic self-justifying nature of American military adventures. If a war accomplishes its stated objectives, that goes to show that war is great. If a war fails to accomplish its stated objectives — as the Bush-era surge miserably failed to produce a durable political settlement in Iraq — then that simply proves that more war was called for.
But there is simply no reason to believe that the presence of American soldiers in Iraq makes a durable political settlement more likely, and there never has been. If eight years weren't enough, why would one more — or two more or twenty more — be the key to success?
The truth is the opposite. The speed with which the apparent gains of the surge melted away in the face of Iraq's entrenched domestic political problems underscores how futile the US-led campaign there was.
The US military is the finest military in the world, the sharp spear of the mightiest empire in human history. But the considerable virtues of America's fighting forces do not give it any particular expertise in micro-managing Iraqi politics. And the fundamentals in Iraq have simply never been very good for a peaceful and democratic settlement. The country is not only divided between sectarian groups, but sandwiched between two rival regional powers, with Iran tending to favor Shiite interests, Saudi Arabia tending to favor Sunni ones, and neither power having any particular interest in democracy and pluralism. Throw in the well-known phenomenon of the oil curse and the country's lack of stable institutions, and you've got a recipe for problems, problems that a bunch of heavily armed young people — no matter how well-intentioned or well-led — are not capable of solving.
And of course the reality is that nobody would ever have claimed otherwise (does anyone think a US military occupation would magically produce a stable democracy in Egypt?) except for the fact that American boots were already on the ground in Iraq. But the invasion that led to their presence was a tragic mistake — one driven as we now famously know by the entirely erroneous presupposition that the American people were threatened by Iraq's nonexistent nuclear weapons program.
In the finance world, banks sometimes make bad investments and end up insolvent. Regulators then need to step in and take prompt corrective action to rescue as many of the remaining assets as possible. The reason is that, from a management point of view, once your firm is already insolvent then there's no reason to worry about additional losses. You're going bankrupt and getting fired anyway. The self-interested strategy is to start gambling recklessly with the depositors' remaining money, in desperate hope that you'll strike it lucky and end up back in the black before anyone notices.
That is essentially what we were doing in Iraq for the past ten years.
Nobody would have suggested invading the country for no reason and then mounting an open-ended military occupation in the vague hope that something good would happen. One of the great virtues of Obama's election was that with his hands personally clean of the original sin of invasion, he was able to judge forward-looking policy on the merits. The situation in Iraq was a mess, but a mess that the United States of America was not capable of fixing. That was true in 2003 and it was true when our troops left and it remains true today.
Sending in the Marines and hoping for the best is no more likely to work than keeping the Marines out and hoping for the best, and it never has been. Admitting that we made a mistake and that the wisest course was to cut our losses and get our troops out was one of the best calls Obama ever made.
The ongoing vicious fighting in Iraq is often characterized as a battle between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the Iraqi government. Many people think of that as simply being a proxy war between Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority and Shia majority.
But it's much, much more complicated than that. There are Sunnis on both sides of the conflict, and some who are neutral. There are multiple insurgent groups that aren't ISIS. And the Kurds— non-Arab Sunni Muslims who have a semi-autonomous state in northeast Iraq — have a totally unique role in the ongoing fighting, and may actually be benefitting from it.
To untangle some of these threads, I spoke to Kirk Sowell, a political risk analyst and expert on Iraqi politics. Sowell's firm, Utcensis Risk Services, publishes Inside Iraqi Politics, a biweekly publication covering the latest developments in Iraq. Sowell walked me through the divisions within the Sunni groups, why both ISIS and Iraq's Prime Minister are probably going to fail, and how the Kurds are the big winners of this conflict. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Zack Beauchamp: One of the major drivers of the rise of ISIS has been Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's policy towards the Sunni Muslim minority. Can you talk about the reasons his government has persecuted Sunnis and why that's such a major problem for the country?
Kirk Sowell: The Sunnis have lots of different grievances. As someone who considers himself a neutral analyst, there are some that I think are fairly reasonable and there are others that I don't think are.
The ones I think are pretty reasonable are illegal arrest and treatment of prisoners. It's not just that Sunni prisoners are treated badly, but that they're disproportionately the ones who are prisoners. There's no transparency in terms of prosecution.
Last year, there were a series of operations to counter what was then a rising insurgency. It was part of the same insurgency, the second Sunni insurgency. They arrested 800 people in a month — nobody knows what happened to these people, how many were innocent, how many were guilty, or if they were prosecuted. Oftentimes Iraqis sit in prisons for years without a trial. Sometimes they're tortured; sometimes people, especially Sunnis, have to pay ransoms to get their family members out of prisons even if they didn't do anything wrong.
There's also been an increasing and very unwise reliance on Shia militias by the Maliki government, particularly their alliance with Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), translated as League of the Righteous, a [radical Shia leader] Moqtada al-Sadr splinter group. Then there's the Badr Organization, which is part of Maliki's coalition and controls the Transportation Ministry. It was founded as the military wing of the Iran-backed Shia group called the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
ZB: So is Maliki's policy responsible for all of the Sunni anger at the Iraqi government?
KS: Even if Maliki weren't in power, there are some Sunni grievances than any Shia government would have problems with. For example, there's a perception problem that exists from the senior leaders to the bottom: Sunnis think they're the demographic majority even though they're not. This was a belief promoted under Saddam, and it's amazingly survived. Typically, when people say that they include the Kurds — they say Sunni Arabs are the plurality and Sunni Arabs plus Kurds are a majority.
This matters because one of the basic demands of the Sunni protest movement last year — and probably the thing Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujayfi, perhaps the most important Sunni politician in the country, talks about the most — is this concept of "balance." Balance [between Sunnis and Shias] in the institutions of government. There's some justification for this; de-Baathification [the removal of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party members from government] has been taken too far.
This counts in the legitimate grievance category. But it's not just a problem with Maliki. There are some problems Maliki is responsible for. There's certain problems that would exist whether it's Maliki or whatever. You have protestors out there flying the Baathist flag, sometimes talking positively about the old regime or the Iraqi army under Saddam. They want there to be balance, meaning a [Sunni] majority.
So to sum up: there's two categories of Sunni grievances. One is the legitimate grievances and others which are problems of expectation or perception.
ZB: Let's talk about the cleavages inside the Sunni community. Do most Sunnis support ISIS?
KS: There's three major groups, and then I'll subdivide them.
One group are those who are in the insurgency. A second group would be those who are in the political process, but opposed to Maliki. And a third group would be those who are in the political process and aligned with Maliki.
There's no scientific polling, but I would say that a clear majority of Sunnis at the grassroots level believe in the political process. There's also a lot of people on the borderline, who are willing to vote but they're also willing to support the insurgency.
In those who are part of the insurgency, you've got ISIS, who is the most radical element. Then you've got more nationalist-focused groups like the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), which means "The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandia Way." It's headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, who was the former deputy of Saddam Hussein. Reportedly, he's in Tikrit now — Saddam's hometown and where the Baath was strongest. Also southwest Kirkuk and Mosul. They're an important group. Their goal to restore a centralized Sunni dictatorship, but more secular than the jihadist caliphate the ISIS would put in place.
You've got other groups, but ISIS and JRTN are the two biggest. Some of the other groups are very small, and I don't think any of them have a national organization. More like isolated pockets of support here and there.
I can't really give you numbers, but I can say that ISIS is not a majority on the grassroots level. That said, they're the most organized and their fighters are very battle-hardened, having spent years fighting in Iraq and Syria. The JRTN is also very well organized, but they're not as large and they don't have the financial resources. ISIS has an extensive extortion racket and a large segment of Syria's oil industry. The extortion racket is based in Mosul, which is going to weaken because [as the fighting goes on] the money's going to dry up.
Of those Sunnis that are in the political process, the clear majority are of the second group I mentioned earlier: those opposed to Maliki. Of those who are opposed to Maliki, Nujayfi's Mutahidun is the largest group — they won 27 seats in the last election. That's down from 45 in the previous. But nonetheless, Mutahidun and the factions that make it up clearly represent the plurality of Sunnis in the political process.
You've also got Iyad Allawi's cross-sectarian, but mostly Sunni, Nationalist Coalition. They won 21 seats; I think about 15 or 16 were Sunni. Allawi himself is Shia, but his key allies were Sunni. Then you've got Salih Al-Mutlak's Arab Coalition, which has 11 seats. There, they're closer to Maliki — they don't support Maliki per se, but they're willing to work with him.
Finally, you've got another category: Maliki-aligned Sunnis, most of whom are basically bought and paid for or threatened. You've got people like like Saadoun al-Dulaimi, the acting Defense Minister, whose people are basically paid for. Then you've got some groups who've been forced to flip based on legal threats, based on crimes genuine or fabricated. Maliki will just sit on the criminal files until they become useful. That's what happened with [prominent Sunni politician] Jamal Al-Karbuli.
These bribed and threatened politicians only represent an extremely, extremely limited portion of Sunni Iraq. They're a very, very small percentage — probably no more than those who support ISIS, frankly.
ZB: So, given these wide sets of divisions inside the Sunni population, what does that tell you about the prospects for ISIS and the other Sunni insurgent groups to carve out a semi-autonomous state? Many people are saying they have the power to partition Iraq.
KS: The insurgents can only win if they get the Shia to give up.
The mainstream Sunnis are divided and extremely weak. The units that just dissolved when fighting the insurgency were heavily Sunni, and there was clearly some collaboration going on [between them and the insurgents].
But if you have a Shia unit, highly motivated, they have huge advantages in hardware and numbers. They're going to sweep all before them. That doesn't mean they'll exterminate the insurgency, but they'll guarantee the insurgency can't control a region.
Now, if they just keep fighting over two or three years, and the Shia just give up and just let them go, then sure.
But there's no money [in northwest Sunni Iraq]. All these provinces are dependent on Baghdad for their budgets. This is what held Iraq together all these years — it would have fallen apart years ago had it not been for this financial dependence. Anbar [an insurgent-contested Sunni province] is totally dependent; over 95 percent of their money comes from Baghdad. They got a little bit of money from customs when they controlled the [Syrian] border, but they don't even get that now. Ninevah [the insurgent-controlled province containing Mosul] is going to suffer a complete economic collapse.
My point is that, in theory, the insurgents could just keep fighting until the Shias give up and form a region. But the regions they control are not viable entities. The Kurds would annex the north and northeastern parts of Ninevah. Most of the oil there is in the Kurdish controlled area or on the borderline already.
And even if the insurgents had some oil, they couldn't develop it. They're able to make use of the Syrian oil infrastructure because it's already developed; but to the extent that there are oil reserves in the insurgent-controlled territory they're not developed. So there's nothing to sell.
So in principle they could make their own state, but only if they'd be willing to starve. It'd be a permanent downward economic spiral — like Gaza, basically.
ZB: Let's talk a little bit about the Kurds. So far, it seems like they're the winners of the crisis. They've managed to take Kirkuk, an oil-rich city, and have carved out this zone where they can pump even more oil than they've been able to pump before. Do you think that's accurate? And what is the Kurdish role going to look like in the crisis going forward?
KS: Yes, that's completely accurate. Their role going forward will be the same it is now: they'll take actions that will serve their interests, but they're not going to go out and fight for the Arabs.
And understandably so. Before this happened, Maliki was starving them out because of a dispute over the Kurds exporting oil to Turkey. In January, Maliki cut off their monthly payments. And they're almost as economically dependent on Baghdad as Anbar is.
Maliki made half payments for January and February. Then for March, April, and May, he didn't make the payments because the Kurds wanted to export oil to Turkey without Baghdad's approval.
So, coming in to this crisis, the Kurds were on the verge of insolvency. Like, complete insolvency. The only thing that kept them alive was that the Barzanis and the Talabanis [leading Kurdish families] have massive amounts of money stored back that they'd been stealing all of these years. They used it to keep the Kurdish region afloat, or at least pay the peshmerga [independent Kurdish militias].
They've developed their economy on the sort-of Saudi or Emirati model of expanding the public sector based on oil income, because that maintains the support of the two major political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. While that may work well politically, it doesn't work as an economic model. When Baghdad cuts off their money, they're in a hole.
This crisis is a lifeline for the Kurds. Maybe they can get Baghdad to restore their payments, maybe they can't. If Baghdad doesn't restore their payments, they might as well declare independence right now. Now that they control Kirkuk, they can export the oil they control to Turkey. They don't yet have the infrastructure to replace what they were getting from Baghdad, so it would be rough for a year or two. But eventually they'd do OK. So they're really the big winners here.
ZB: Can you explain what the Shia religious establishment's role in the Iraqi politics is and how they play in to this crisis?
KS: Their role has not been as great as it was several year ago. Ali al-Sistani is the highest clerical authority, and he's sort of taken a step back. And there are other clerics, some of them are only semi-legit: Muqtada al-Sadr is really a politician, not a religious authority per se.
Really it's Sistani and the clerical establishment in the city Najaf that matters. I don't view them as absolutely crucial. It is a big deal that Sistani's representative made a statement saying "we call on Iraqis to defend the country," but they were definitely going to do that. Now what's going to happen is that the Maliki government is going to make a reserve army that's all Shia. And then there's militias; there's going to be multiple parallel armies. That said, this all would have happened if Sistani said nothing.
I should be clear that Sistani has always encouraged support of the national military, not militias. But nonetheless, this very general statement about taking up arms — different factions can use this statement to justify picking up guns.
ZB: Is there anything really critical to understanding Iraqi politics that we haven't talked about yet?
KS: Maliki was having a tough fight in his reelection campaign; it's hard to imagine he has any credibility at all after this complete disaster. Our assessment was already that the main challenge was already going to come from within his State of Law coalition. For all we know, there could already be an agreement on his replacement.
None of this has been announced. The Shia leaders have not come out with a resolution yet, they want to get through this. But at this point, it's hard to see how Maliki survives this.
One last thing. Look out for lots of sectarian cleansing in Baghdad.
This is a real disaster for Sunnis. There are Sunnis cheering this, but it's really foolish. The Sunnis will suffer more from this than anyone. The Kurds will benefit, Iran will benefit, and the Shia will suffer but not as much. Life is going on in the Shia provinces; this crisis is not disrupting daily life in Karbala or Basra.
For those who are in Baghdad, it's a security threat — not that the insurgents will overturn Baghdad, but that the number of attacks in Baghdad will increase. The Sunnis will be further cleansed in Diyala and Baghdad, and to the extent that their areas fall out of government control, they will just go into absolute, total socio-economic ruin.
The third Iraq war has just begun in earnest. And it's created what may be the most devilish foreign policy problem of Barack Obama's presidency, pitting two pillars of his administration's foreign policy against each other: his strategy of using drones to counter violent extremism versus his ironclad commitment to ending Bush's war in Iraq.
Obama views terrorism dramatically differently than Bush did. Both believe terrorism is the greatest national security threat the United States faces. But where Bush saw an epochal challenge to Western civilization, Obama sees a web of small groups that can be isolated and destroyed through global cooperation and limited military action.
Obama's vision implies two things about American foreign policy. First, when you need to use force against terrorists, do it in a narrow way — targeted strikes, usually from drones, designed to pinpoint terrorist leaders and fighters and coordinated with local governments. Second, overreaction to terrorism can be a devastating own-goal. And the most obvious such overreaction — the Iraq war — must be repudiated without reservation.
These are the two core values at the heart of Obama's approach to terrorism. And the ongoing crisis in Iraq has brought them into direct, irresolvable conflict.
Normally, the Obama Administration deals with threats like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) by bombing them. Radical militant organizations exploiting weak governance to take and hold chunks of land in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have all been met with drone strikes.
Iraq is arguably more important than any of those places. According to Clint Watts, an expert on violent Islamism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, "the most probable" future is a world where ISIS eclipses al-Qaeda as "the new global jihadi leader."
Yet bringing the targeted killing campaign to Iraq means, in some important ways, reigniting the Iraq war Obama pledged to end. CNN's Barbara Starr and Tom Cohen report that the US simply doesn't have good enough intelligence about ISIS to know where or what to bomb. Getting more precise intel means, at a minimum, deep American cooperation with the Iraqi government.
But intel gathering is hard, and the US can't necessarily trust the Iraqi government's sources. It would likely have to have a CIA and/or special forces presence on the ground to wage a drone campaign in Iraq. And those deployments always risk further escalation, meaning redeployment to Iraq. The more troops the US deploys to Iraq, the more it risks retrospectively legitimizing the Bush administration's vision that you need boots on the ground to deal with threats from terrorist groups. Iraq's unique symbolic importance means any deployment there is much more important than an equivalent move in, say, Yemen.
So either Obama keeps American drones away from Iraq or he risks embroiling America into an Iraqi civil war — again. There's no option here consistent with both the Obama administration's strategy for fighting terrorism and its strategy for withdrawing from Iraq. From his point of view, this is a problem from hell.
So which way is Obama leaning? As of now, it looks like he's trying to keep America out of this fight.
First, his Friday speech on Iraq set a very high threshold for US military involvement in Iraq. Obama blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shia sectarian government for the rise of Sunni extremist group ISIS. His core argument, repeated throughout the speech, is that the crisis can't be solved without Iraqi political reform. Obama genuinely does not appear to believe that a few American bombs would help that much in this case, even though he left the possibility open.
Now, this could be overridden if it looked like ISIS was about to seize Baghdad and sweep the country. But most Iraq analysts think this is impossible. ISIS' most impressive victories were in largely Sunni areas against largely Sunni military units — and most Sunnis do not want to die for Maliki's Shia government.
Finally, Obama's political identity is built around leaving Iraq. Obama won the Democratic primary on an anti-Iraq war platform. He sees the withdrawal from Iraq as one of his administration's core foreign policy accomplishments. The president doesn't want his legacy to be getting America involved in yet another Iraq war.
President Obama just wrapped up remarks about the ongoing crisis in Iraq in a speech in the Rose Garden. And he said something really important:
The US is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis.
If this is is true, then Obama has ruled out the most likely scenario for military action in Iraq: a short-term drone campaign designed to help the Iraqi military halt ISIS' momentum. Political reform inside Iraq is really complicated, and would involve serious reform from Nuri al-Maliki's Shia sectarian government to accommodate Sunni demands. Putting together a credible political reform plan will take a long time, and certainly won't happen in time for the US to get involved in the immediate fighting.
Throughout his speech, Obama took pains to emphasize the importance of Iraqi political reform and minimize the prospects of US military involvement. While he said he was considering military action, he flatly ruled out deploying US troops. He also repeatedly stressed the need for the Iraqi government to reform itself to deal with the root causes of ISIS' success, sectarian divisions and poor governance.
That being said, the standard he set in the Q&A — plan for political reform first, and only US military action afterwards — is way more stringent and specific than anything he said in the prepared text of the speech. So it's possible this was more than Obama meant to commit himself to.
Allegedly, that's how American policy on military action in Syria was created. During a 2012 press conference, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a "red line" for American military intervention in Syria. The New York Times reported that his aides did not see this coming: Obama "had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back."
But if Obama is serious about the political reform test, then Americans can breathe easy. There will be no US military involvement in Iraq in the immediate future.
The crisis in Iraq is tectonically important. Fighting between the Iraqi government and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or, as it's abbreviated, ISIS) is tearing Iraq apart. The conflict has the potential to transform the politics of the broader Middle East.
It's also extremely complicated. So we've broken down the 11 most important things you need to know to understand the issue, starting from the beginning.
ISIS is, in a roundabout way, a product of the Iraq war.
It's essentially a rebooted version of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamist group that rose to power after the American invasion. US troops and allied Sunni militias defeated AQI during the post-2006 "surge," but it didn't demolish them. The US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, described the group in 2010 as down but "fundamentally the same." "What they want," the general continued, "is to form an ungoverned territory or at least pieces of ungoverned territory, inside of Iraq, that they can take advantage of."
In 2011, the group rebooted. ISIS successfully freed a number of prisoners held by the Iraqi government and, slowly but surely, began rebuilding their strength. The chaos today is a direct result of the Iraqi government's failure to stop them.
Their goal since being founded in 2004 has been remarkably consistent: found a hardline Sunni Islamic state. General Odierno again: "They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq." Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in large part because ISIS was too brutal even for al-Qaeda), ISIS' goal remained the same.
Today, ISIS holds a fair amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria — a mass roughly the size of Belgium. One ISIS map, from 2006, shows its ambitions stopping there — though interestingly overlapping a lot of oil fields:
Another shows their ambitions stretching across the Middle East, and some have apparently even included territory in North Africa:
Now, they have no chance of accomplishing any of these things in the foreseeable future. ISIS isn't even strong enough to topple the Iraqi or Syrian governments at present. But these maps do tell us something important about ISIS: they're incredibly ambitious, they think ahead, and they're quite serious about their expansionist Islamist ideology.
Perhaps the single most important factor in ISIS' recent resurgence is the conflict between Iraqi Shias and Iraqi Sunnis. ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS.
The difference between the two largest Muslim groups originated with a controversy over who got to take power after the Prophet Muhammed's death, which you can read all about here. But Iraq's sectarian problems aren't about relitigating 7th century disputes; they're about modern political power and grievances.
A majority of Iraqis are Shias, but Sunnis ran the show when Saddam Hussein, himself Sunni, ruled Iraq. The civil war after the American invasion had a brutally sectarian cast to it, and the pseudo-democracy that emerged afterwards empowered the Shia majority (with some heavy-handed help from Washington). The point is that the two groups don't trust each other, and so far have competed in a zero-sum game for control over Iraqi political institutions.
So long as Shias control the government, and Sunnis don't feel like they're fairly represented, ISIS has an audience for its radical Sunni message. That's why ISIS is gaining in the heavily Sunni northwest.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, has built a Shia sectarian state and refused to take steps to accommodate Sunnis. Police have killed peaceful Sunni protestors and used anti-terrorism laws to mass-arrest Sunni civilians. ISIS cannily exploited that brutality to recruit new fighters.
When ISIS reestablished itself, it put Sunni sectarianism at the heart of its identity and propaganda. The government persecution, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Studies' Michael Knights, "played right into their hands." Maliki "made all the ISIS propaganda real, accurate." That made it much, much easier for ISIS to replenish its fighting stock.
That wasn't the only way the Iraqi government helped ISIS grow, according to Knights. The US and Iraqi governments released a huge number of al-Qaeda prisoners from jail, which he thinks called "an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower - an infusion at a scale the world has never seen." US forces were running sophisticated raids "every single night of the year," and Knights believes their withdrawal gave ISIS a bit more breathing room.
Unlike some other Islamist groups fighting in Syria, ISIS doesn't depend on foreign aid to survive. In Syria, they've built up something like a mini-state: collecting the equivalent of taxes and selling electricity to fund its militant activities.
My colleague Max Fisher has an in-depth breakdown of how they managed to do this, which includes extorting money from humanitarian workers and selling electricity to the Syrian government that it's currently fighting.
There are two important takeaways here. First, as Max explains, these clever revenue bases have made ISIS much more effective on the battlefield than other militant groups:
This money goes a long way: it pays better salaries than moderate Syrian rebels or the Syrian and Iraqi professional militaries, both of which have suffered mass desertions. ISIS also appears to enjoy better internal cohesion than any of its state or non-state enemies, at least for the moment.
Second, it makes the idea that ISIS' near-term goal is to hold Iraqi oil and power facilities more credible. Some reports suggest they've restarted oil fields in eastern Syria. If that's true, then ISIS isn't just a strong military force: they're also smartly laying the economic groundwork to accomplish their dream of an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.
Kurds are mostly Sunnis, but they're ethnically distinct from Iraqi Arabs. They control a swath of northeast Iraq where a lot of the oil fields lie, and are something of a wild card in the conflict between the Iraqi government and ISIS.
Iraqi Kurdistan in northeast Iraq is governed semi-autonomously. The Kurdish security forces are partly integrated with the government, but there's somewhere between 80,000 and 240,000 Kurdish peshmerga (militias) who don't answer to Baghdad. They're well equipped and trained, and represent a serious military threat to ISIS.
You'll notice that Mosul is inside the dotted lines of territory under defacto Kurdish control. Indeed, according to Knights, Kurdish security forces control eastern parts of the city. More broadly, Iraqi Kurdistan borders ISIS territory at a number of different points.
So far, there hasn't been any major conflict between the Kurds and ISIS. The Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos to occupy Kirkuk, a city near massive oil deposits that they've wanted for some time. That means the crisis has been, in a strange way, a boon to the Kurds — provided that they can remain out of the fighting.
The crisis in Syria is one of the most important reasons why ISIS grew capable of mounting such an effective attack on the Iraqi government. To see why, take a look at this map from March, paying special attention to the blue ISIS-controlled areas in eastern Syria:
The chaos in Syria allowed ISIS to hold this territory pretty securely. This is a big deal in terms of weaponry and money. "The war gave them a lot of access to heavy weaponry," Michael Knights said. ISIS also "has a funding stream available to them because of local businesses and the oil and gas sector."
It's also hugely important as a safe zone. When fighting Syrian troops, ISIS can safely retreat to Iraq; when fighting Iraqis it can go to Syria. Statistical evidence says these safe "rear areas" help insurgents win: "one of the best predictors of insurgent success that we have to date is the presence of a rear area," Jason Lyall, a political scientist at Yale University who studies insurgencies, said.
Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq, second only to Baghdad. It's the capital of the northwester Ninevah province, and fairly close to major oilfields. The Mosul Dam, according to McClatchy, plays an important role in the country's water supply. ISIS conquered most of Mosul on June 10th, and it's unclear when the Iraqi army will make a serious play to take it back.
Since then, ISIS has moved out to other parts of northern and central Iraq, including Saddam Hussein's hometown Tikrit and the significant oil town Baiji. Here's a good map of where things stood on June 12th, and how far ISIS is from Iraq's biggest oil fields:
As Brad Plumer explains elsewhere on Vox, ISIS' gains threaten one important oil pipeline that ships to Turkey, but not the broader oil infrastructure. Right now, then, ISIS controls a significant part of Iraq's territory, but hasn't yet majorly threatened the industry that makes up 95 percent of Iraq's GDP.
The Iranian government is Shia, and it has close ties with the Iraqi government. Much like in Syria, Iran doesn't want Sunni Islamist rebels to topple a friendly Shia government. So in both countries, Iran has gone to war.
Iran has sent two battalions of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to help Iraq fight ISIS. These aren't just any old Iranian troops. They're Quds Force, the Guards' elite special operations group. The Quds Force is one of the most effective military forces in the Middle East, a far cry from the undisciplined and disorganized Iraqi forces that fled from a much smaller ISIS force in Mosul. One former CIA officer called Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today." Suleimani, the Journal reports, is currently helping the Iraqi government "manage the crisis" in Baghdad.
These Iranian troops outclass ISIS on the battlefield. According to the Wall Street Journal, combined Iranian-Iraqi forces have already retaken about 85 percent of Tikrit. That alone demonstrates the military significance of Iranian intervention: Iraqi forces have previously floundered in block-to-block city battles with ISIS.
However, Iranian intervention could also help ISIS in its quest to build support among Iraq's Sunnis. The perception that the Iraqi government is far too close to Iran is already a significant grievance among Sunnis. That's part pure sectarianism and part nationalism. Many Iraqis don't like the idea of a foreign power manipulating their government, particularly Iran (memories of the Iran-Iraq war haven't faded).
So Iranian participation in actual combat risks legitimizing ISIS' propaganda line: this isn't a conflict between the central Iraqi government and Islamist rebels, but rather a war between Sunnis and Shias.
Here's one other scary thought. Iran is now helping both the Iraqi and Syrian governments fight largely Sunni rebels. What happens if the two battlefields get joined?
ISIS cannot challenge the Iraqi government for control over the country. On a basic level, it's simple math. A rough count of ISIS' fighting strength suggests it has a bit more than 7,000 combat troops, and it can occasionally grab reinforcements from other extremist militias. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, plus armed police. That Iraqi military also has tanks, airplanes, and helicopters. ISIS can't make a serious play for the control of Baghdad, let alone the south of Iraq, without a serious risk of getting crushed.
But the Iraqi army is also a total mess, which explains why ISIS has had the success it's had despite being dramatically outnumbered.
Take ISIS' victory in Mosul. 30,000 Iraqi troops ran from 800 ISIS fighters. Those are 40:1 odds! Yet Iraqi troops ran because they simply didn't want to fight and die for this government. There had been hundreds of desertions per month for months prior to the events of June 10th. The escalation with ISIS is, of course, making it worse.
Sectarianism also plays a role here. The Iraqi army is mixed Sunni-Shia, and "it appears that the Iraqi Army is cleaving along sectarian lines," Yale's Jason Lyall said. "The willingness of Sunni soldiers to fight to retake Mosul appears limited." This makes some sense out of the Mosul rout: some Sunni Muslims don't really want to fight other Sunnis in the name of a government that oppresses them.
This suggests a natural limit to ISIS' expansion. Mosul is a mostly Sunni city, but military resistance will be much stiffer in Shia areas. ISIS needs to stick to Sunni land if it doesn't want to overreach.
That's not 100 percent clear. So far, there's no evidence that the administration is leaning towards strikes. But in a press conference about Iraq, Obama didn't rule them out.
There are lots of competing incentives for the president on this issue. His administration has always touted withdrawal from Iraq as a major accomplishment, but it also (rightly or wrongly) sees drone strikes as a highly effective way of fighting extremist groups like ISIS. The administration is skittish about siding with a repressive creep like Maliki, but it has already publicly committed to assisting the Iraqi army in as-yet unannounced ways.
There's also a growing political debate over whether the Obama administration deserves blame for the chaos. Some conservative critics say Obama should have convinced Iraq to allow him to leave a residual force of American troops to conduct raids on ISIS. The administration's defenders say that would have been impossible, and probably wouldn't have prevented this regardless.
So, to recap. Iraq has essentially just began another civil war, and it's totally unclear how long it's going to last or how it's going to end. And no one's sure what to do about it.
So what does the violence in Iraq mean for oil? So far, the turmoil has only affected a small slice of the oil infrastructure and hasn't touched any of the major oil fields in the south (which produce 75 percent of Iraq's oil). But there's still the potential for things to get much worse.
This map from Securing America's Future Energy is a great place to start:
Some basics: Iraq has the world's fifth-largest proven oil reserves. But the country has only recently begun churning out significant amounts of crude oil again (production dropped sharply after the 2003 US invasion).
In April 2014, Iraq was producing an estimated 3.3 million barrels per day — equal to about 4 percent of global supply. And the country was expected to keep ramping up production, with plans to produce at least 5 million barrels per day in the years to come.
Or at least that was the idea. The recent takeover of northwestern Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) could complicate those plans considerably.
True, as the map above shows, ISIS isn't close to any of the massive oil fields in the southern regions of Iraq, which produce 75 percent of the country's oil. And ISIS has yet to enter the Kurdish regions in the north, another major oil-producing area.
But the fighting has threatened some of Iraq's other oil infrastructure, including a pipeline that can deliver 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Kirkuk to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan. (That pipeline had been damaged by a 2013 attack and was offline receiving repairs — that work has now been halted.)
There's also potential for things to get a lot worse. If the conflict spreads further into the Kurdish regions, that could disrupt operations in the large Kirkuk oil field near the city of Mosul, which now produces around 260,000 barrels of oil per day — and accounts for one-sixth of the country's proven reserves. Iraq had plans to invest heavily in that oil field in the years ahead, and that's a lot harder now.
Oil markets, for their part, appear jittery but not yet panicked. The price of Brent crude oil for July delivery jumped 2.8 percent on Thursday, to $113 per barrel — the highest level since last September:
It's worth noting that prices have been hovering around this level for the past three years. So clearly Iraq isn't the only reason prices are high. More fundamentally, there's a supply and demand issue — the world is growing and demanding more oil, and suppliers are struggling to keep up.
Still, the recent growth of Iraq's oil industry was supposed to bring more oil to the global markets and ease this pressure somewhat. But as we've seen repeatedly over the last three years, unexpected conflicts — in Libya, in Syria, in Venezuela, and now in Iraq — always seem to throw a wrench in those plans.
Further reading: Steve Mufson has a nice piece at Wonkblog looking at Iraq's recent efforts to rebuild its oil industry — and the violence that could undo those efforts.
Here's a crazy map of the land ISIS wanted to take over, made back in 2006 at the height of their Iraq war-era power:
So yeah. It looks a whole like ISIS' plan, given the contours of the map, is to take over oil lands in eastern Iraq and western Syria.
There's something else chilling about that map. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence and the guy who first dug up this map, points out that they've actually managed to take a lot of that land in recent months. The implication — that ISIS may have executed a strategy first developed at least 8 years ago — suggests the group is way better at strategic planning than you might think.
JERUSALEM — 23 years ago, in a long moment of national terror, Israelis strapped on gas masks and fled into bunkers to wait out chemical-weapons tipped SCUD missiles they feared would fly in from Iraq at any moment. Though the worst never came — SCUDs did hit Tel Aviv, but not with chemical weapons — Saddam Hussein was a terrifying and near enough neighbor that Israelis felt an attack could be imminent.
Today, as al-Qaeda-style Islamist terrorists seize Iraq's northern provinces, as well as the eastern half of Syria, which shares a border with Israel, there is hardly a peep in Israel. The news was not even mentioned on the front page of today's Ha'aretz newspaper. It instead featured a story on Congressman Eric Cantor's election defeat and what it meant for Jewish Republicans in the US, which was apparently considered a more relevant question for Israelis than whether a terrorist organization would succeed in taking a neighboring capital.
People in Jerusalem are eager to discuss Israeli news — frozen settlements, a new president — and relations with the US and Europe, but people don't seem concerned about the rapidly-expanding catastrophe next door. Baghdad felt nearer when I was in Washington than it does here, though it is only as far from Jerusalem as New York is from Columbus, Ohio.
It is not for nothing that Israelis appear to be more concerned about the ups and downs of an American political party thousands of miles away than about the potential rise of an al-Qaeda-style mini-state in their own region and awfully near to their own border. It is a jarring reminder of the Israelis' popular disconnect from the Middle East around them, which for so long captivated their attention and threatened their survival.
The Israeli sense of distance from its own immediate neighborhood has been long-running and long-worsening; there is a growing sense of isolation from the Arab world, which was far more relevant to Israelis in the years of their conflict than it has been in today's relative peace. This is partly a function of Israeli regional policy during the Arab Spring, which has been to avoid choosing sides and favor the status quo, deepening a sense of "not our problem."
Partly it's a matter of the national identity, which as Israelis have prospered has become a bit more Europe-facing than it had been in the decades of trying to hack it out as a Middle Eastern nation.
But mostly, like so many things here, it is a function of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the occupation, which has come to so disproportionately affect Palestinians that Israelis are hardly affected at all. The Israeli policies of walling off, suppressing, and forgetting have been a catastrophe for the Palestinians. But for most Israelis, this has given the West Bank, and the larger Arab world with which it is commonly associated here, a sense of being a million miles away.
Visiting the predominantly Arab section of Jerusalem's Old City on Thursday, I found every single shop and stall closed. I asked a dozen different Jewish Israelis what was happening. Not a single one had any idea; some speculated it was a Muslim holiday. In fact, they had closed their stalls in sympathy with 285 Palestinian prisoners who are hunger-striking in protest of their detention without charge, one of the many abuses of the Israeli occupation. But Israelis were simply blind to the conflict that was happening literally around them.
It's one of the ironies of the Israeli and American conflicts in the Middle East that America's wars made the region seem closer, more innately tied to American politics and to many Americans' lives, while Israel's still-ongoing conflict has pushed the region ever-further away.
The national near-shrug with which many Israelis greeted ISIS's takeovers in northern Iraq, compared to the terror of Iraqi threats during the 1991 Gulf War, are a sign of just how disconnected the nation has become from its own region. The occupation has encouraged Israelis to forget, and in a sense many of them have. This is an immediate danger to Palestinians, who are left with an occupation that can feel awfully permanent, but also to Israelis themselves. As Israelis are so often warned, if the occupation continues long enough then Israel will lose its claim to democracy, or to a Jewish national identity as the Palestinian population grows, or both.
That much nearer threat may be an even greater threat than the expansion of the ISIS-dominated Syrian-Iraqi mini-state, but like so many threats here it has been present so long it's become part of the background.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Iran sent two battalions of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to help the Iraqi government in its battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is hugely important, if not totally surprising given Iran's intervention in Syria. Iran has the power to crush ISIS in open combat. But Iranian intervention could also make the conflict inside Iraq much worse.
These aren't just any old Iranian troops. They're Quds Force, the Guards' elite special operations group. The Quds Force is one of the most effective military forces in the Middle East, a far cry from the undisciplined and disorganized Iraqi forces that fled from a much smaller ISIS force in Mosul. One former CIA officer called Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today." Suleimani, the Journal reports, is currently helping the Iraqi government "manage the crisis" in Baghdad.
According to the Journal, combined Iranian-Iraqi forces have already retaken about 85 percent of Tikrit, a city in north-central Iraq and Saddam Hussein's birthplace. That alone demonstrates the military significance of Iranian intervention: Iraqi forces have previously floundered in block-to-block city battles with ISIS.
But these sorts of victories could prove ephemeral quickly, as Shia Iran's intervention could infuriate the Sunni Muslims whose allegiance ISIS needs to win in the long run. The internal Iraqi conflict is firmly sectarian: ISIS is a Sunni Islamist group, and the Iraqi government is Shia-run (a majority of Iraqis are Shia). Iran is also a Shia state.
Iranian intervention in the conflict could convince Sunni Iraqis who don't currently support ISIS to shift their allegiances. The perception that the Iraqi government is far too close to Iran is already a significant grievance among Sunnis. That's part pure sectarianism and part nationalism. Many Iraqis don't like the idea of a foreign power manipulating their government, particularly Iran (memories of the Iran-Iraq war haven't faded).
Iranian participation in actual combat risks legitimizing ISIS' propaganda line: this isn't a conflict between the central Iraqi government and Islamist rebels, but rather a war between Sunnis and Shias.
That risk becomes much higher if joint Iraqi and Iranian units kill Sunni civilians during the fight against ISIS — which the Iraqi military has done in the past. Indeed, the Iraqi government's brutal repression of Sunnis is one of the core reasons ISIS managed to recruit enough troops to challenge the Iraqi government in the first place. And a strong Sunni support base is the key to ISIS building up a powerful enough force to maintain an effective rebellion, as Brookings Doha's Charles Lister explains:
Iranian intervention in the Syrian conflict has helped Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad hold on to power when it looked like all was lost for him. We'll see if it ends up similarly helping the Iraqi government — or undermining it.
This is an incredibly striking sentence from The Guardian's coverage of the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)'s takeover of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul:
Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers - roughly 30,000 men - simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters.
The Iraqi army outnumbered ISIS by about 40:1 in Mosul. Yet the army still turned tail and ran — ran so fast, in fact, as to leave some of their tanks and helicopters behind.
This tells us three important things about the conflict between ISIS and the Iraqi government: two bad, and one good.
First, the Iraqi army has serious training and discipline problems. Despite the United States spending billions of dollars training the Iraqi army before the American withdrawal at the end of 2011, the Iraqi army is chronically unable to fight like a professional military.
Soldiers have been deserting in large numbers for some time. In Mosul, soldiers didn't run because they were doomed to defeat at the hands of a much smaller ISIS force. They ran because they didn't want to fight.
Second, sectarianism is a huge problem even inside the professional Iraqi military. The Iraqi government, and a majority of Iraqis, are Shia Muslims. ISIS is Sunni. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has treated the Sunni minority very badly, which is one of the most important reasons ISIS has grown as powerful as it has. The Iraqi army has both Sunni and Shia soldiers.
And it looks like sectarianism is severely hampering the army's response to the crisis. "It appears that the Iraqi Army is cleaving along sectarian lines," Jason Lyall, a Yale University expert on insurgency, told me. "The willingness of Sunni soldiers to fight to retake Mosul appears limited." This makes some sense out of the Mosul rout: some Sunni Muslims don't really want to fight other Sunnis in the name of a government that oppresses them.
Now, for the silver lining. The Iraqi Army massively outnumbers ISIS. After Mosul, it may seem like ISIS is an unstoppable juggernaut. But if they could only send 800 troops to the critical battle for Mosul, it suggests they don't exactly have a deep bench.
Indeed, a rough count of ISIS' fighting strength suggests it has a bit more than 7,000 combat troops, and it can occasionally grab reinforcements from other extremist militias. The Iraqi army has 250,000 troops, plus armed police. Non-government Kurdish militias (called "peshmerga") in northern Iraq, no fans of ISIS, number anywhere from 80,000 to 240,000.
Even if you account for desertions and sectarian strife, ISIS simply doesn't have the manpower to unseat the Iraqi central government. Michael Knights, an expert on ISIS at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me ISIS would get smashed if they tried to make a real play for Baghdad.
So many factors contributed to the catastrophe that is ISIS — the Sunni extremist group that has seized swathes of first Syria and now Iraq — that it can be difficult to hold them all together at once.
There was the political failure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government that left the state weak in the Sunni north. The Iraqi-demanded American withdrawal that left the country without a sufficiently viable military. The Iraqi Baathist elements urging along ISIS in Iraq. The Gulf states that funded extremist groups in Syria that have since metastasized out of control. The extremism itself and its own complex roots. And of course the Syrian civil war that has been ISIS's recruitment center and staging ground.
But there may be another major factor here: the economics of Syria's civil war, which ISIS appears to have actively and adroitly exploited in ways that have helped along its rise. The New York Times' Thanassis Cambanis profiled ISIS's surprisingly cunning economic strategy; I've added emphasis to one of the most stunning facts about this terrorist group:
But the group is not only following a stone-age script. It also rapidly establishes control of local resources and uses them to extend and strengthen its grip.
It has taken over oil fields in eastern Syria, for example, and according to several rebel commanders and aid workers, has resumed pumping. It has also secured revenue by selling electricity to the government from captured power plants. In Iraq on Wednesday, the militants seized control of Baiji, the site of Iraq's largest oil refinery and power plant.
Soak that in: a terrorist group that actively seeks the Syrian government's destruction, and is so extreme that al-Qaeda rejected it, has become so powerful that the Syrian government has to buy electricity from them.
There is reason to be skeptical that ISIS can really re-start eastern Syria or northern Iraq's oil fields, much less move and sell the oil, but the fact that the group has this ambition at all is telling. As the chaos of Syria's war breaks apart the state and its ability to function economically, ISIS is moving in to replace the state and its tax collectors, then using that revenue to launch its invasion of northern Iraq, which just so happens to be rich in oil itself.
There's more. ISIS, Cambanis reports, takes a cut of humanitarian and commercial operations in areas under its control. It confiscates money and property from Christians and from Muslims it doesn't like.
This money goes a long way: it pays better salaries than moderate Syrian rebels or the Syrian and Iraqi professional militaries, both of which have suffered mass desertions. ISIS also appears to enjoy better internal cohesion than any of its state or non-state enemies, at least for the moment. It rules over an area the size of Belgium.
Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, found this 2006 map produced by ISIS, showing the areas it hoped to control and overlapping oil sources. The correctness of the map aside, it shows that the group has been thinking about the economics of its war and how to self-fund:
Again, there is much more to ISIS and its rise than economics. But at some point armed movements, especially ones that seek to control country-sized stretches of territory, require a self-sustaining cash-flow to function. That ISIS appears to have been so successful at this says a lot about their strategic foresight, their long-term ambitions, and their ability to outlast their opponents.
On Tuesday, a group of Islamic militants that were thrown out of al-Qaeda for being too violent took over Iraq's second largest city.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (abbreviated as ISIS) kicked the Iraqi Army out of Mosul, a wealthy city in northwestern Iraq. Today, ISIS secured another northern city, Tikrit. It currently controls an area "the size of Belgium," according to Jason Lyall, a Yale University political scientist who studies insurgencies.
Right now, the Iraqi government has no answer to the ISIS threat. And a hard look at the reasons behind ISIS' rise and the causes of its current success suggest a grim future for the Iraqi government's efforts to beat back the dangerous militant group.
ISIS used to be known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the leading Islamist extremist group during the Iraq War. AQI controlled significant amounts of Iraqi territory during the war, until the US military and allied Sunni militias famously defeated it during the post-2006 "surge."
But they hadn't destroyed it.
Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an obsessive ISIS watcher, had been warning of the group's resurgence for quite some time. In 2012, he was asked to brief the US intelligence community on AQI's condition. "It was an NSA/CIA ambush," he recalled. "There were 30 intelligence analysts" insistently denying that AQI might be making a comeback.
The NSA/CIA folks were wrong and Knights was right. There are two reasons why, broadly speaking: the Iraqi government's incompetence and the Syrian civil war.
AQI had been "ripped down to the roots by US special forces" during the Iraq war, Knights says. In 2011, the group rebooted. They focused their identity around Sunni sectarianism, challenging the Shia majority and government's control over the Sunni population.
The government, according to Knights, "played right into their hands." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "made all the ISIS propaganda real, accurate." They persecuted Sunnis and shut down the Sunni militias that had fought AQI during the war. That made it much, much easier for ISIS to recruit new Sunnis.
It doesn't stop there. The US and Iraqi governments released a huge number of al-Qaeda prisoners from jail, which Knights called "an unprecedented infusion of skilled, networked terrorist manpower — an infusion at a scale the world has never seen." US forces were running sophisticated raids "every single night of the year," and Knights believes their withdrawal gave ISIS a bit more breathing room.
Then there's Syria. Look at this map, from March, of territory controlled by different factions in Syria. Notice all of that blue ISIS territory in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border and Mosul:
The chaos in Syria allowed ISIS to hold this territory pretty securely. This isn't just a safe haven, though that matters a great deal. When I asked Knights where ISIS was getting the money and weapons to fund their campaign, he said, simply, "Syria."
"The war gave them a lot of access to heavy weaponry," he added. ISIS also "has a funding stream available to them because of local businesses and the oil and gas sector."
So the Iraqi government's missteps provided ISIS with trained operatives and a Sunni recruiting pool, while Syria gave them the opportunity to arm and fund themselves. That's how they grew strong enough to take Mosul.
Mosul is an extremely important city. It's Iraq's second most populous and sits near a lot of oil wealth. ISIS' ability to take it tells us that the group is even more powerful than most analysts believed beforehand.
"The ability to take Iraq's second city, and so quickly at that, speaks volumes about ISIS," Jason Lyall, the Yale insurgency expert, told me. "It suggests that the organization has a high degree of internal cohesion, strong command and control, and an ability (and willingness) to fight fixed, positional battles to oust Iraqi forces." In other words, that they can fight like a modern military.
I asked Lyall to compare ISIS to other insurgent groups he's studied. One of its core advantages, he said, is that it controls areas in both Syria and Iraq. When fighting Syrian troops, it can safely retreat to Iraq; when fighting Iraqis it can go to Syria. Statistical evidence says these safe "rear areas" help insurgents win: "one of the best predictors of insurgent success that we have to date is the presence of a rear area," Lyall said.
ISIS' big problem, according to Lyall, is their ideology. They were kicked out of al-Qaeda in February 2014 because they ignored repeated warning to stop killing civilians. Indeed, US State Department data says ISIS attacks are on-average some of the bloodiest of any terrorist group on Earth:
"Insurgencies can make do with passive support from the bulk of the population, but if an ideology is too radical, it risks sparking a backlash from among the population," Lyall says. "AQI [is] a good example of an insurgent organization overreaching because of its ideological principles," so ISIS may have overreach its DNA.
There's some evidence that ISIS is already alienating its support base. "Given the size of the outflow of people from Mosul, it is apparent that ISIS' ideology may find little support among the civilian populace," Lyall says.
But, in a way, that may be just what ISIS wants. Mosul "is a ghost town," Knights says, "and a ghost town is where ISIS dominates." If you destroy the police and other municipal institutions, it limits the government's ability to use police and civilian militias to challenge your dominance.
So can the government take Mosul back?
"I think [Mosul] is too big for [ISIS] to hold," Knights says. Already, ISIS only really controls the western part of the city.
But there will be a huge struggle over taking the whole city back.
The Iraqi Army is not a fearsome institution. Iraqi soldiers fled Mosul en masse when the ISIS takeover appeared imminent, leaving behind tanks, helicopters, and a fair number of weapons. "As recent efforts in Fallujah" — another city controlled by ISIS — "demonstrated, the Iraqi Army does not have the skill or the will to push back ISIS in house-to-house fighting," Lyall says.
Both Knights and Lyall think the next step is some kind of proxy militia battle, possibly on sectarian lines. Knights suggested local Mosul police and civilian militias, while Lyall bet on Iraq using Shia militias and Shia-only units of the army to dislodge ISIS. The Iraqi Army has an an airforce that it has used against ISIS in the past — with real cost to civilian life in tightly packed urban environments.
So there's likely a long, vicious, bloody battle in Mosul's future. And that's to say nothing of dislodging ISIS from its more securely held bases in both Syria and Iraq, the ones that Lyall suggests allow it to operate more effectively in both countries.
ISIS is not a problem with an easy solution. One might, though, expect calls for some kind of American involvement. After all, AQI, the group that eventually spawned ISIS, grew as a result of the post-invasion chaos. What else can it do?
One possibility Knights floated sounded a lot like a significant redeployment. "Nobody knows how to take ISIS apart like US Special Forces," he said. "If you had half a dozen US Special Forces teams working hand-in-hand with Iraqi special forces, with some fast-strike aircraft, some drones based at key Iraqi air force bases, and probably about 200 advisers sprinkled around Iraqi military units, they would make a lot of difference."
Even assuming that plan would work — which is highly debatable — it's not happening. Americans really don't want to go back in Iraq. "I think there is little that the US could do to change the situation short of actually doing some of the fighting (which no one is contemplating now)," Lyall said.
America's Iraq War is over. But the next Iraqi one may just be getting started.
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