The radical group, the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),” has scored a huge achievement with the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city with over 1.5 million inhabitants, and areas of the Kirkuk oil producing province.1 By controlling Mosul, ISIS has succeeded in creating a territorial contiguity that stretches from Ramadi and Fallujah, north of Baghdad, to the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous areas west of Arbil, the Kurdish areas of Syria, past the city of Al-Raqqah, parts of Aleppo, and facing the Turkish border near Qamishli.
According to the pattern already implemented in the “conquered” areas in Syria, the ISIS will likely begin its rule by establishing a Caliphate governed by Islamic law – Shari’ah – and headed by its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a jihadist who began as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in 2003. In February 2014, Al-Baghdadi refused to declare allegiance when Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri demanded that he subordinate himself to the Jabhat Al-Nusra jihadist organization fighting the regime in Syria.
ISIS presented the non-Muslim population with three choices: either convert, pay a special tax (the Islamic per capita tax “jizya“) applied to non-Muslims, or leave the area. A first signs of this development are the 500,000 residents of Mosul fleeing the area, mostly Assyrians of Christian faith, who historically were the majority of the population in the Ninawa (Nineveh) Governorate surrounding Mosul.
The Meaning of the ISIS Victory
The ISIS’ achievement in Mosul has very dire implications:
Analysts originally estimated ISIS’s strength to be around two to three thousand fighters. The Mosul campaign means that the assessment was a gross underestimation.
Moreover, it appears that ISIS has mastered communications and tactical operations suggesting that it may have adopted the pattern of an organized army, graduating from guerrilla warfare and undisciplined bands.
The Iraqi army’s disintegration and disorderly retreat show a lack of leadership, a low morale and a weak resolve to fight the insurgents. This may lead the ISIS to exploit its victory and carry out further attacks on army outposts and to enlarge ISIS’s territory (perhaps towards the oil city of Kirkuk).
The ISIS now neighbors the Iraqi Kurdish area which leads to several assessments:
1. The Kurds, seeing the Iraqi central regime’s weakness, will take all the necessary measures to protect their autonomy and expand their influence to neighboring Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurds understand very well that they could be the next target after the Assyrians and accordingly will preempt any attempt by the jihadists to step foot in their areas. The fall of Mosul could become the beginning of Kurdish quest for independence.
2. Mosul is a strategic city at the crossroads between Syria and Iran. Several strategic oil and gas pipelines crisscross this area to the west, north and south. The presence of the ISIS represents a threat if the ISIS takes possession of oil-producing areas and shipments. Destabilizing northern Iraq and further deteriorating the security of other areas such as Baghdad and further south to Basra, could have dire consequences of Iraq’s production and export of oil. In an extreme scenario, one could envisage a situation similar to Libya, where militias’ rule brought Libya’s production of oil almost to a halt.
Today, Iraq fills the gap created by Libya’s absence in the oil market. Would Iran and Saudi Arabia be able to replace Iraq production?
A Titanic Cataclysm
3. The city of Mosul is 45 miles south of the mammoth Mosul Dam formerly known as the Saddam Dam.2 Built on a water-dissolving gypsum foundation, the dam’s stability has generated great concerns and led to major reconstruction and rehabilitation program since 2003. A man-made or natural collapse of that dam could unleash a trillion-gallon wave of water, possibly killing tens of thousands of people and flooding the largest cities in the country, according to assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. officials.
American officials have warned that the dam’s collapse could lead to as many as 500,000 civilian deaths by drowning Mosul under 65 feet of water and parts of Baghdad under 15 feet. “In terms of internal erosion potential of the foundation, Mosul Dam is the most dangerous dam in the world,” the Army Corps concluded in September 2006.
At this point in time, it is not known if the ISIS controls also the dam or if it is in the hands of the Kurds or the Iraqi Government. Falling into ISIS hands could represent a huge threat of “titanic” dimensions were the jihadists to use the dam as an extortion weapon against the Iraqi regime. Even without trying to destroy the dam, the possibility of the dam remaining under their control raises the question of the maintenance and the resilience of its foundations if not taken care on a continuous basis.
4. In order to keep Iraq as a unified political entity, the regime has no choice but to declare war on the ISIS. Failure to dislodge the ISIS from Mosul and from other cities will signal other communities that they have to take care of their own interests. This could lead to the partition of Iraq into four main autonomous areas: the Kurds in the northeast, the Sunnites in Baghdad area, ISIS in the northeast and the Shi’ite autonomous areas in the south comprising Najf, Karbala and Basra.
Unknown Iranian and American Reactions
5. Facing this situation, Iran will likely intervene in order to assist its Shi’ite neighbor. Iran cannot accept the partition of Iraq as a solution because the irredentist trends in Iraq might find an echo in Iran itself. Then, as in the case of Syria, losing Shi’ite Iraq to the Sunnites would mean in the long run another conflict with Iraq. In this situation would Iran choose to intervene like in Syria, through proxies such as Iraqi Hizbullah or expeditionary Lebanese Hizbullah units, or through its own Basij units?
6. The U.S. Administration also has to act swiftly to preserve its own national interests and to prevent “newcomers” replacing the U.S. role in Iraq. A divided Iraq or an Iraq caught up in civil war is not of America’s interests. The U.S. choices stop short of sending troops to Iraq. American assistance would be limited to actions such as providing intelligence, carrying out drone attacks, training, and/or supplying sophisticated lethal and intelligence equipment. In this perspective, the U.S. administration might be led to assess that its ongoing dialogue with Iran could also include regional issues, such as the stability of Iraq.
7. Finally, the ISIS victory in Mosul could become a beacon to rally other jihadist organizations (such as in Nigeria) and another threat to the monarchies of the Gulf. The ISIS has proven that years after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and of Mali by the MNLA, the jihadist organizations are still capable of mass operations and not only limited to small scale guerrilla warfare.
On the other hand, the same examples of Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Central African Republic demonstrate very clearly that no terrorist organization can withstand a head-on collision with an organized, well-led regular army. It is up to the Iraqi government to make the tough decision to enter into armed conflict in order to prevail.
1. “Jihadists Seize Areas in Iraq’s Kirkuk Province,” Beirut Daily Star, June 10, 2014, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Jun-10/259607-jihadists-seize-areas-in-iraqs-kirkuk-province-police.ashx#axzz34KM3evkY.
2. Amit R. Paley, “Iraqi Dam Seen in Danger of Deadly Collapse,” Washington Post, October 30, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/29/AR2007102902193.html.