The Syrian Civil War has now officially spilled into the heart of Iraq, a country that by all accounts the United States made the poor decision to spend 2 TRILLION dollars on in an attempt to remake it into a Jeffersonian democracy. This week, a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) spilled across Northern Iraq from Syrian origins, took most of Kirkuk and Mosul (Iraq’s Chicago to the US’s New York) and have since been pillaging and raiding their way south along the main road to Baghdad. These reavers are the same heart eating extremists that the United States sent weapons and money to last year (I wrote about it at the time) in the misguided belief that they would overthrow Syria’s authoritarian regime and then install, what else, a Jeffersonian democracy in Syria.
Since ISIS’s push into the heart of Iraq, the news media and members of Congress have all gone into 100% panic mode. Is Iraq going to become a terrorist state? Should the US have kept all its troops there despite the Iraqi government telling us to leave? Should we reinvade? Can the Iraqis defend themselves?
Some of these are valid questions. Certainly, the fact that the Iraqi Army simply deserted many of their positions in the north is cause for great concern but this is mostly a morale issue, not a capability issue. However, the rest of these questions are just an attempt to spin public concern in the wrong direction or score political points. As a former Iraq and Middle East analyst for nearly 10 years in the 2000s, I want to help you separate fact from fiction so here are the three points to keep in mind with the aid of a map of Iraq.
1. The Geography Of Iraq Works Against ISIS
ISIS came in from Syria along Iraq’s northwest border. They gathered support from some Iraqi Sunni tribes (ISIS is made up of Sunni extremists) in the west of the country who are largely disaffected with how Iraq’s Shi’ite President has treated them (nearly totally cut them out of the government). ISIS took over Mosul, parts of Kirkuk and then moved south to Tikrit and have been on the march since. Since then, the Kurds in the north have retaken Kirkuk (they did it in a day) and have sworn to defend Iraqi Kurdistan from any incursion. Mosul is within spitting distance of Kurdish forces and they could, frankly, invade and begin retaking it at any time if they chose to.
Western Iraq is a desert and if ISIS is routed on its way to Baghdad and tries to retreat back into Syria it will have an enormous problem doing so. They’d have to either go back north whence they came and possibly face Kurdish forces or they’d have to head straight west across the desert where they’d be sitting ducks for Iraqi (or even Iranian) air strikes. This is a classic case of bad strategy on the part of ISIS. They can get in but unless they take the capital of Baghdad then they have no way of getting out and despite what the news is saying, Iraqi Sunnis don’t have the stomach to engage in a protracted civil war. They’re too few in number, no one would support them, and they’re ultimately Iraqis, not heart eating al-Qa’ida affiliates.
2. Shi’ite Militias Will Mobilize In Huge Numbers In And Around Baghdad
The traditional Shi’ite militia is known as Jaysh al-Mahdi. They were a thorn in the side of the US all during the US occupation of Iraq and they’re the most powerful militia in the region. They’re also indirectly supported by Iran’s military and intelligence agency. They’re trained, willing, and numerous. They also haven’t had much to do for the last few years.
Baghdad, if ISIS can reach it, will absolutely not fall. They’ll smash themselves against the city and be routed. Yes, they’ll set off a lot of suicide bombs and cause destruction but they don’t stand a chance. They’ll be sent limping northward or westward or killed where they stand. Understand that with every city ISIS “controls” they have to leave fighters behind to hold it. That means they lose manpower every time they take control of a territory and no reinforcements are coming.
The combination of a rallied Iraqi Army and Shi’ite militia will be more than a match for ISIS whether the extremist group has heavy weapons or not.
Just checked the news on Google. Shi’ite militias have engaged ISIS as of two hours ago.
3. This Could End Up Being A Turning Point For The Syrian Civil War
Until now, Middle Eastern nations (with the exception of Lebanon and Iran) have largely been content to let Syria tear itself apart but now that Sunni extremists have begun spilling out into surrounding countries the game could change dramatically.
No one wants to see a destabilized Iraq and countries like Turkey who a border with both Iraq and Syria certainly don’t want ISIS’s brand of extremism in their country (they’re still hoping for an EU membership one day).
If the Kurds agree to push outward against ISIS from the north while the Iraqi military and Shi’ite militias push against them from the south then that’s a pincer movement that will send ISIS straight for the border. Should Iraq request Turkey begin air strikes against ISIS members along the Syrian-Iraqi border then ISIS will be crushed and the damage to their efforts in Syria could suffer a devastating blow because it has taken a lot of people and resources to invade Iraq.
Obviously, that’s a fair amount of ‘ifs’ (three) but do not be surprised if you see it happen.
Aside from all of those points, this is a fight that Iraqis have to win themselves. Their government is sectarian, its members are embittered and squabbling. This is an opportunity for them to pull together and repel a foreign strain of extremism that in no way represents the hopes or beliefs of the average Iraqi be they Sunni or Shi’ite. Here’s hoping that the different factions can see that narrative and seize upon it.