The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s March

There is much to say about the recent news from Iraq but perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of ISIL/ISIS and its recent gains in Iraq is the group’s declaration that the Sykes-Picot agreement is null and void. The Sykes-Picot agreement was the secret deal struck between the French and the British during World War I to divide up the Ottoman Empire between themselves as the spoils of war. The agreement did not stay secret for long as the Czarist Russia was initially a party to the deal until the Bolshevik Revolution withdrew Russia from the pact and exposed French and British duplicity (the two had promised Arab self-rule to revolting tribes). Anyway, they arbitrarily drew lines in the region and divvied up the region in the most harmful way imaginable. ISIS and their push to unite the Sunni Muslim regions of Syria and Iraq and probably much more in the future (i.e. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc) is, in the eyes of the extremist group, a resolution to the imperial catastrophe visited upon the region nearly 100 years ago.

ISIS is vehemently anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iran and you can bet that the Saudis are providing weapons, training, and money to the group. ISIS is avowedly anti-Saudi, or at least it is verbally, but even if it is authentically anti-Saudi it doesn’t mean that the Saudis aren’t supporting the group. Indeed, the Saudis are probably thinking more short-term; that the group’s anti-Shi’ite/Iran stance is aligned with Saudi foreign policy priorities. ISIS’s anti-Iranian nature is evident in their referral of Iraqi Shi’ites as “Safavids,” implying that Iraqi Shi’ites are Iranian traitors and warrant ISIS’s wrath.

Iran understands this well and it is reported that Qassem Sulaymani, the master strategist of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign arm, the Quds Force, is heading a contingent of 150 military advisers to help the ineffectual and beleaguered Iraqi government take back lost territory. There are reports that this has already made a difference with a portion of Tikrit back under central government control.

Iran has long supported the Iraqi and Syrian governments but with Iranian military personnel on the ground participating in armed conflict in one capacity in or another in two wars represents an unprecedented historical occurrence. Never has the Islamic Republic been so heavily involved in two wars outside of its borders concurrently.  Having said that, I think Iranian support has definitely made a difference in Syria and will be very consequential in Iraq.

ISIS is certainly emboldened after seizing Mosul and Tikrit so easily and quickly. The lightening speed with which they have marched onwards has caused ISIS to promise to move on Baghdad soon and even Karbala and Najaf. This is simply hubris. First, there is reason to believe that they were able to take Mosul so easily not because of their military prowess but because someone may have bought off the 3 Iraqi generals in charge of the military security of Mosul, who promptly told their soldiers to stand down. In other words, Mosul fell without a fight.

Baghdad will not be the same and ISIS will certainly suffer a very different fate in the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf should the group miscalculate and try to replicate the history of 200 years ago when Wahabbis sacked and burned the shrine cities.

For one, Mosul is predominately a Sunni city and although not all Sunnis support ISIS, the group will certainly be able to swell its ranks. ISIS set up recruitment drives when it seized Fallujah months ago and they will do the same soon, if they haven’t done so already in Mosul.

Baghdad, however, is a predominately Shi’ite city–a consequence of the sectarian war in 2006-2007–which the Shi’ites won in Baghdad. Thus, there will be no generals who take money and order their soldiers to stand down in Baghdad, no local Sunni support, and certainly no recruitment drives, which will be important to maintain control of the city. On the contrary, Ayatollah Sistani has issued a call to arms and hundreds of Shi’ite Baghdadis are signing up to form popular committees to support the Iraqi military. What’s more, Iran is now party to the conflict as well as the Kurdish Permeshga who have taken the oil city of Kirkuk to keep it and its oil wealth out of ISIS hands.

But incredible damage has already been done. ISIS made out with half a billion from Mosul and achieved an monumental propaganda victory. The media keeps saying that Mosul is Iraq’s 2nd biggest city, which it is not (Basra is the 2nd), but with 2 million residents it is nevertheless far more consequential than Fallujah. ISIS also secured some very valuable and hi-tech American military hardware, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, which they will use to good effect. The half a billion will pay the salaries for all those new recruits from Mosul which will predictably join the group.

A hard fight is on the horizon. Shi’ite groups are re-forming in preparation for a major dust up. Things just went from very very bad to even worse. Brace yourself for the fact that Zawahiri is no longer the most powerful and fearsome jihadist leader of al Qaeda, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the al Qaeda-disavowed ISIS.

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