Over the last few days the Middle East has been rocked by the news that Iraq’s second biggest city, the northern city of Mosul, has been taken over by Islamic militants. The takeover by ISIS, one of the most extremist groups in the Middle East, has caused an immense flood of refugees to immediately flee the city. 500 000 people have left Mosul, which is the equivalent of the entire population of the Hague leaving the city within 3 days. And today ISIS attacked the city of Tikrit, just 150 km north of Baghdad. So who are ISIS? How could they take over such a big city? And does this spell the end for the nation-state of Iraq?
For a look at previous ISIS attacks in Iraq, and an explanation of the religious divide, see my previous post “Civil War in Iraq? – The Third Battle of Fallujah“
It says a lot about ISIS that they are considered almost too extremist by the official al-Qaeda branch fighting in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Sham) originally started out as al-Qaeda in Iraq, where they gained notoriety for beheading foreign hostages. Since the Syrian Civil War started, they have become a powerful rebel force in the country. However, Syrians living under their rule live in terror. ISIS imposes strict sharia law, and persecutes non Sunni Muslims. They are hated by other rebels for focussing more on controlling their own territory rather than helping to fight the Syrian government. They’ve clashed with other rebel groups numerous times, even Islamist groups like the al-Nusra front who are loyal to al-Qaeda. In other words, they are just about the most extreme and violent Islamist group in the Middle East – and they are now spreading through Iraq.
On Monday night around a thousand ISIS militants launched an attack on Mosul, targeting government buildings. Just a few days later, the entire city of 1.8 million people was in their hands. In a humiliating defeat the Iraqi government forces, who outnumbered ISIS 15 to 1, lost the will to fight and fled the city. ISIS now control the entire province of Nineveh, and seem to be moving out to take more territory. The flood of refugees is bound to create a humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq, whose Kurdish militias will provide some security.
Despite all these refugees, ISIS does actually have some support in the city. Mosul is a mainly Sunni city, and during the US occupation of Iraq it provided a great deal of resistance from former Iraqi soldiers and supporters of Saddam Hussein. Many of ISIS’s current supporters will have similar attitudes. They may not be extremist Islamists, but they are deeply opposed to the Shia government who seem to shut Sunnis out of power.
The loss of Mosul is a terrible blow to the Iraqi government. It shows just serious the Islamist insurgency is, and the collapse of the army shows how little they can do to fight it. The towns of Fallujah and Ramadi were captured months ago, and the Iraqi government has done nothing. With the army spread thinly across the country, the only other real forces in the north are Kurdish militias. But they have their own disagreements with Baghdad, and the conditions they demand for helping the government may be too much.
The conflict in Iraq has consequences for the wider Middle East as well. ISIS brings together an unholy alliance of opponents – the Syrian government and Iran, the United States and Israel, and other moderate Sunni governments like Jordan. None of these countries want to see Iraq fall apart into anarchy or under the control of a group everyone in the Middle East sees as terrorists. But with no outside powers yet showing a real desire to join the battle, and ISIS gaining more and more territory, Iraq is in serious trouble.