We again welcome a guest post from James Devine:
With ISIS’ shocking invasion of Mosul this week, there has been speculation that this turn of events will eventually lead to the collapse of the Iraqi state along ethno-religious lines, and perhaps even the establishment of a Salafi Islamic Emirate straddling what is now the border of Iraq and Syria. This may eventually come to pass, however it is still too early to say where this week’s events will lead. There is a complex web of political dynamics at work in Iraq and its environs, some tearing the state apart, some also holding it together.
Given the sudden nature of ISIS’ victory in Mosul and the equally stunning collapse of Iraqi national forces in the city, it’s easy to imagine the militia running the table in Iraq. Within 24 hours of seizing Mosul, ISIS grabbed Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home village and a Ba’thist strong hold, and is moving toward Baghdad with approximately 6,000 fighters. This is in addition to large parts of Fallujah and Ramadi, which ISIS has controlled since the beginning of the year. The seizure of Mosul also netted ISIS approximately $425 million dollars, making it by some estimates the richest “terrorist” organization in the world. As ISIS’ successes mount, and its resource base expands, it will be able to attract more political followers. While ISIS has already been able to mobilize some disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis and anti-government tribes, it remains a relatively small organization. Mosul, for instance, was taken by approximately 800 fighters. However, if it can hold Mosul and make further gains around the state capital, ISIS’ following will likely grow and the Iraqi state would be fractured.
While this scenario is possible ISIS faces a number of substantial hurdles. First, and foremost, routing the Iraqi national army is one thing, fighting the Kurdish Peshmerga is something else altogether. The Peshmerga is well prepared and combat tested in Najaf (2004) against the Mahdi Army, and the second battle of Fallujah (2004) against Sunni insurgents. They are not likely to cut and run at the sight of 800 members of ISIS. They already appear to have taken control of Kirkuk and are likely preparing for Mosul. Moreover, President Hassan Rouhani has volunteered Iranian support and there are already reports of Iranian military units being dispatched to Iraq. It is not in Iran’s interest to have Iraq dissolve into chaos, and the IRGC along with Hezbollah are already fighting ISIS in Syria. Finally, ISIS continues to face threats to their home base in Syria. ISIS is not just fighting the Syrian government and its allies, but Syrian Kurdish groups and even other Salafi groups such as the al-Nusra Front. If ISIS stays in Iraq they will be fighting a war on two fronts against multiple enemies.
Having said this, while the military defeat of ISIS would end the immediate threat of Iraq splitting apart, it may trigger a slower but no less unstoppable breakdown of the state. Mosul and Kirkuk are on the Green Line that marks territories disputed by both the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous government in Erbil. Tensions between central government forces and Peshmerga forces have been high, particularly since the creation of the Dijla Operations Command in Kirkuk in 2012. Erbil saw the creation of this military command as a land grab, but did not use force to stop it. The decision not to confront Baghdad at the time received a great deal of criticism from within the Kurdish political community. It is therefore very unlikely that Erbil will give up the control it now has over Kirkuk, or the control of Mosul it would have if it expels ISIS in the future. These cities are important symbolically to Erbil, and important because they are the home to large Kurdish populations. They are also important because of oil. Indeed, it has been argued that controlling the energy resources around Kirkuk would give the KRG the income necessary for it to make the final break with Baghdad.
Even if Erbil did not decide the time was right to declare independence, the fact that the Iraqi state had to be saved by the Peshmerga and the IRGC may simply be too much. Iraq spent eight years at war with Iran in the 1980s and has been fighting the Kurds off and on since the country achieved independence. Now they are all that is left holding the Iraq state together? Certainly this would further alienate the country’s Sunni population. It would also signal the Shi’a population that the Malaki government is not up to the job. Although Malaki has earned his share of criticism, given the political divisions within Iraq, it is unclear that anyone else would be able to fill his shoes. Political deadlock and dissatisfaction could erode the state on their own while the Kurds simply wait out the process .
Despite all of this, there is reason to believe Iraq may continue to muddle along. While the state may be in disarray internally, none of its neighbors want to see it break up. Neither Turkey nor Iran wants to see an independent Kurdish state because of the potential impact on their Kurdish populations. Neither, of course, do the Syrians. The Syrians may not be able to do much about the situation but Iran and Turkey can. Both states have heavily infiltrated the Kurdish autonomous region and could create havoc if their interests were threatened. To the extent Iran helps fight ISIS, their influence over Iraqi internal politics will be significantly enhanced. Turkey also has leverage over the KRG because it is the main destination for Kurdish energy exports. The KRG has tried to build good relations with Turkey so that one day Ankara may not see and independent Kurdistan as a threat. However the relationship between the two has been strained by the fighting in Syria where Ankara has supported the opposition, includingISIS and other Salafi groups that have clashed with Kurds in the eastern part of the country.
The Saudis and the other Sunni states would be equally opposed to the breakup of Iraq. They see Iraq as a fellow member of the Sunni community. Not only would they be opposed to its dissolution on principle, if it were to break up they fear the immediate beneficiary would be Shi’a Iran. From Riyadh’s perspective in particular, things are already going far too much in Iran’s favor.
Given the opposition of Iraq’s neighbors, and the potential for instability, it is difficult to see the US supporting the dismemberment of Iraq either. There may be sympathy for Kurdish independence in Washington, but the US is focused on making a deal with Iran and managing its troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is even harder to see the US going along with idea if there was any possibility that it would allow an Al-Qaeda-like Salafi organization to set up its own state right in the middle of the Levant.
The point being made here is not that Iraq will or will not break up because of what has happened this week. The point is simply that there is no straight line between ISIS’ capture of Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi state. While this week’s events will leave an indelible mark on Iraqi politics, there are too many unknowns in the equation to make long term predictions. As we should have learned through the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s and 80s, and the current civil war in Syria, there is no way to predict what kind of alliances may form or how they may influence the outcome of events. Who knows, ISIS is a threat to the interests of the Americans, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Shi’a, the Kurds, and to moderate Iraqi Sunnis. They have even fallen out with Turkey. Perhaps this crisis will give them common cause to cooperate. Or, not…