In just one week the most extreme Islamists in the Middle East have possibly shattered the state of Iraq. ISIS and their Sunni allies have taken control of the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and now threaten Baghdad. The Kurds have seized their chance, and taken the city of Kirkuk, long coveted by Kurdistan. As Iran stands ready to support the Iraqi government, and calls for airstrikes are made in the US Congress, Iraq looks on the verge of a violent implosion. So who’s fighting who? What will happen next? And will this turn into a wider conflict?
Firstly, it’s important to realise that while ISIS is the biggest and most extreme danger, they are not the only ones fighting. Numerous other Sunni militias have joined ISIS’s push, along with former army officers from Saddam Hussein’s era. All these other groups are less focussed on creating an Islamic state and more intent on removing the Shia government. While ISIS wants to take Baghdad, and even sack the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, the other militant groups are willing to settle for control of Sunni areas.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that this is turning into an intense sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia, with the Kurds standing ready on the sidelines. Shia militias have formed to defend Baghdad, and while this seems to be having some success, it does make this a very clear Shia/Sunni battle, and will further alienate Sunnis. There’s the danger of a return to the civil war-like conditions of 2006-2008, when death squads killed civilians in terrible numbers. With reports of ISIS executing civilians and police officers in Mosul, this is already happening to some extent.
So what will happen next? ISIS is moving further south, and fighting Shia militias and the demoralised Iraqi army around the town of Samarra, just hours away from Baghdad. They’re well armed, and the millions of dollars they stole from Mosul bank will go a long way in restocking their arsenal. However, for the moment the Shia and the army are holding ISIS back, and have retaken a few small towns. According to journalists, Baghdad seems to have less of a mood of panic today, as the Shia rally to fight. However, whatever happens to Baghdad, an unofficial but very real division of Iraq seems to be the most likely scenario – an unrecognised Sunni area in the northwest dominated by ISIS, a practically independent Kurdistan in the northeast (including Kirkuk), and a Shia dominated ‘official’ Iraqi state in the south. This would be accompanied by conflict at the borders of these areas, especially around the capital.
There is also the potential that Iraq will turn into a battleground for the whole Middle East to take part in. Iran is extremely concerned by the advance of ISIS, who have called for the execution of Shia’s. If the situation gets much worse, there is the chance that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will show up to help protect the Shia areas of Iraq. This would heighten the conflict with the Sunni Gulf states, ISIS’s main behind the scenes backers. Countries like Saudi Arabia are perfectly happy with violent jihadists, so long as they don’t come too close to the Gulf, and much of ISIS’s finances have come from wealthy Gulf donors. A heavier Iranian involvement in Iraq will in turn escalate the Saudi involvement in the country.
Not only Iran, but Turkey and the US are considering intervention. ISIS is holding dozens of Turks (including diplomats) in Mosul, and any threat to them could lead to a Turkish intervention. This would raise the chance of conflict between them and the Kurds. While Turkey cooperates with the autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq, their history of conflict with the Turkish Kurds means they would not be enthusiastic about an independent Kurdish state. The US is also considering stepping up aid to the Iraqi government and airstrikes on ISIS are an option for President Obama. This could eventually lead to the interesting situation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the ground being backed up by US airpower. However, the US will be very hesitant to commit any extra aid or military force without an effort by the Shia government to reach out to Sunnis and reform their Shia-dominated army.
This may all seem like a very extreme situation, but it’s hard to exaggerate how serious the situation is. The Middle East is shocked by what has taken place, and all the big players in the area have real interests at stake in Iraq. The tragic irony of what is going on is that much of it is a direct result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. An invasion that was part of the ‘War of Terror’ has led directly to Islamist militants becoming a force in a country where al-Qaeda had no members before 2003. The complete failure to rebuild the Iraqi state after the war, coupled with a worst-case scenario of civil war in Syria, now looks like it will cause the collapse of the nation-state of Iraq.