Kurdistan Has a New Neighbor – The Islamic State

A mere two and a half weeks ago, Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of foreign relations for the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), gave an interview to Vice News that contained several quite stunning statements (see below for details). At the time (i.e., in late July), the Kurdish Peshmerga had just taken over areas of Iraq that have been contested for a long time. Specifically, the Kurds regarded these areas – most important among them the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – as their territory.

There was an agreement that the status of Kirkuk would eventually be put to a vote, but Iraq’s central government kept delaying the promised referendum, probably because it suspected that the likely outcome would be a vote in favor of Kirkuk joining the autonomous Kurdish region. This would presumably have deprived Baghdad of a sizable chunk of oil revenue. So when ISIS conquered Mosul, the Kurdish Peshmerga took the opportunity to take over Kirkuk. The Iraqi army had already fled from the disputed region, so all the Peshmerga had to do was waltz in and move into the now deserted former Iraqi military bases (similar to ISIS, they also ended up with a nice chunk of Iraqi army equipment).

In late July, an uneasy truce obtained between the Kurds and ISIS. The general view on the ground was that ISIS could simply not afford to fight too many enemies at once. Moreover, rumor had it that ISIS and the KRG had worked out a sub rosa agreement to respect their respective areas of control and not tread on each other.

The interview with Bakir begins at approx. 0:50 in the video below. Several of his statements, as well as his demeanor and tone of voice strongly suggest that some kind of deal with ISIS did indeed exist at the time. Among other things, Bakir mentioned that the Iraqi army was lacking in morale, in spite of being extremely well equipped and in theory well trained, and that its dishonorable flight meant the Peshmerga had no reason to ever leave Kirkuk again. After all, so Bakir, if Baghdad really cared about Kirkuk, its army wouldn’t have turned tail and run away. Among his most stunning statements were however the following:


“The reality on the ground in Iraq has changed…today’s Iraq is different from last week’s Iraq.


“The political landscape in Iraq has changed…the balance of power has changed…and now we are a neighbor to another emerging state in Iraq: The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Today, Iraq is not our neighbor – ISIS is our neighbor.”


(emphasis added)

That sure didn’t sound like Mr. Bakir expected ISIS to go away anytime soon. He probably still doesn’t.


Part of a series of reports by Vice News on Iraq from late July, including an interview with Kurdish foreign relations chief Falah Mustafa Bakir (between 0:50 to 3:40).


However, in the meantime the situation has once again changed. ISIS is in fact fighting the Kurds now, and the vaunted Peshmerga were actually on the run until US airstrikes slowed ISIS down. Actually, they have so far failed to really slow it down much.


ISIS_map_economistA fairly recent map of the territory controlled and/or contested by ISIS via the Economist. Since this map was drawn, a few days have passed, and the Northeastern border has undergone a few additional shifts (see below for details) – click to enlarge.


The Islamic State Keeps Growing In Spite of Air Strikes

The initial reaction of ISIS to the news of US involvement was actually glee. Since the KRG and Baghdad also welcomed the US intervention, we may assume that almost everybody in Iraq is happy now. As Jason Ditz reports:


“ISIS fighters took to Twitter with glee over the weekend to celebrate the Obama Administration’s decision to join the war against them in Iraq, seeing it as both a big morale booster and a potentially huge recruitment tool.

“The crisis will become a gift,” noted one, saying that the US was ISIS biggest enemy, and that US involvement would quicken their takeover of the Persian Gulf. Many of the Twitter posts expressed eagerness to target US warplanes now involved in the war, as well as hopes to attack other US allies across the region.

New English-language ISIS videos are emerging urging Westerners to join ISIS as soon as possible. Some of those in the videos identify themselves as Americans and Britons. ISIS already had a bumper crop of Westerners join the war in Syria over the past couple of years, with large numbers of fighters coming from EU member nations. The early signs are that the US involvement will only help bolster those numbers further.


ISIS leaders seem to understand much better than the Obama Administration that the US involvement in the war is a game-changer on the ground, and not the good kind like you’d want.


(emphasis added)

With support from US air strikes, Kurdish Peshmerga forces managed to dislodge ISIS from several villages it had captured in the course of its recent march on Erbil, but even while that happened, the militants took several other towns in Diyala province, and arguably more important ones. The IS-held territory has increased further as a result.

ISIS is now approaching the border between Iraq and Iran, which is almost certain to be regarded as an alarming development by Iran’s government. As we noted already back when the group first came to everybody’s attention, a free-for-all in Iraq remains a good possibility (reportedly, Iranian military advisors are already in Iraq, in parallel with American ones).

For the details we once again consult a summary by Jason Ditz that links to a number of further information sources. Note that at the time of writing, the situation described below is already a day or so in the past, so there is a good chance that the realities on the ground will have shifted again by the time you read this. The main point is that ISIS’ conquest continues to have a great deal of momentum. Moreover, the report contains information that indirectly confirms that the fighting force ISIS is able to muster must be quite large by now:


“With US warplanes supporting them, the Kurdish Peshmerga has pushed back against ISIS in the area just southwest of Irbil, taking the villages of Gwer and Makhmour back, along the border between Kurdistan and the Nineveh Province.

The US airstrikes seem primarily focused in this area, trying to blunt the ISIS offensive as it nears the Kurdish capital at Irbil. Yet this isn’t the only site of combat between ISIS and the Peshmerga.

Indeed, the two villages ISIS lost were dramatically overwhelmed by the ISIS gain in the Diyala Province, where they routed the Peshmerga and seized the strategically important town of Jalawla.

Jalawla had been the site of an ISIS suicide bombing earlier in the day, which killed 10 Peshmerga fighters and wounded 80 others . By the end of the day, the Peshmerga was in retreat, fleeing northward, closer to their home territory.

The town is an important stop on the road between Baghdad and Iran, and just 20 miles from the Iranian border is the farthest east ISIS has yet advanced. It also gives them strategic control over yet another northern highway, limiting the flow of forces between Kurdistan and the remaining territory of the Iraqi central government.

Jalawla is one of the southernmost Kurdish towns in Iraq, and was a site of  major bombings against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in June. Its loss will be a morale blow to the Peshmerga, as well as a likely eye-opener for Iran, as ISIS draws ever nearer their border.

The US air war at present seems focused on the Kurdish-ISIS battles, though ISIS seems to be hitting targets all over their frontier, trying to force the Peshmerga into spreading themselves thin, and is having continued success in taking meaningful territory, despite the loss of Gwer and Makhmour earlier today.”


(emphasis added)

What we find most remarkable in this report is that it once again confirms that ISIS is able to concurrently strike numerous targets spread over a large area. Not to forget, the group continues to fight the Syrian army as well and is lately even engaging the Lebanese army. Most of the equipment it has captured in Iraq was reportedly moved to the Syrian theater, but presumably some of that will find its way back into Iraq now.

It is by now a near certainty that US involvement in the new Iraq war is set to expand considerably. President Obama has gone – within just three days – from “protecting the Yazidi and Erbil” to “protecting Baghdad” and now to “stopping the formation of an Islamic State on the territory of Iraq and Syria”. The “limited engagement” can no longer be expected to last a mere few weeks, but will be of indeterminate duration. Congress is split between those who want war, those who want even more war, and those who want all-out war. The media are of course gung-ho as well (no surprise there). President Obama took pains to point out that it was actually not he, but president Bush who signed the withdrawal agreement with Iraq’s government. He also expressed regret that the US engaged only in limited aerial bombardment in Libya, instead of providing support to the new government (by means of boots on the ground, one presumes). 

As a practical matter, it should be pointed out that aerial attacks already require a limited presence of ground troops, so as to properly guide the strikes. Moreover, since US military advisors are already in Iraq, it will only be a small step to full-scale escalation, especially in light of the fact that it seems nigh impossible to achieve all the lofty goals enumerated by the president solely by air strikes.


Meanwhile, in Baghdad

The attempt to unseat the “not inclusive enough” Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is widely (and rightly) blamed for alienating Iraq’s Sunni minority, is running into unexpected problems:


“Further destabilization rocked Iraq on Sunday as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused President Fouad Massoum of engaging in a “coup” by failing to choose a new prime minister by an Sunday’s deadline.

In a last-minute bid to cling to power, Mr. al-Maliki declared the inaction to be “a clear constitutional violation” and said he planned to file a legal complaint against Mr. Massoum, who was named the new president in late July.

“This attitude represents a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system,” Mr. al-Maliki said in a surprise address on Iraqi TV. “The deliberate violation of the constitution by the president will have grave consequences on the unity, the sovereignty, and the independence of Iraq and the entry of the political process into a dark tunnel,” he said.

Mr. al-Maliki’s party won the largest share of seats in the parliament and said the president should have appointed a prime minister from that bloc by now. A parliamentary session to discuss picking a new prime minister has been delayed until Aug. 19.

In the hours following Mr. al-Maliki’s accusation, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, announced via Twitter that the U.S. would continue to support Mr. Massoum. “Fully support President of Iraq Fuad Masum as guarantor of the Constitution and a PM nominee who can build a national consensus,” he tweeted.”


(emphasis added)

Al-Maliki is having none of it. In order to underscore who’s who in the zoo in Baghdad, he ordered his most loyal troops to deploy in the city, blocking bridges and surrounding the government district (i.e., the so-called “Green Zone”):


“Iraqi troops, security forces and tanks surged into Baghdad on Sunday as political turmoil deepened over who should lead the country. Military tanks were deployed to several neighborhoods in central Baghdad, two Iraqi police officials told CNN. The officials said there are also significantly more troops in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the secure area where many government buildings, the military headquarters and the U.S. Embassy are located.

The stepped-up troop presence comes as Iraqi forces battled Islamist militants in northern Iraq, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused Iraq’s newly elected President of violating the country’s constitution by extending the deadline for Iraq’s biggest political coalitions to nominate a candidate for prime minister.

The precise reason for the growing number of troops in the Iraqi capital was unclear. But CNN military analyst retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona described it as an “ominous” development.

“You’ve got Nuri al-Maliki refusing to step down. Now he’s mobilized not just security troops loyal to him, but now he’s mobilized army units to put tanks in the streets. Some of the bridges have been closed,” Francona said. “It looks like he’s trying to lock down the city in some sort of confrontation with the President, so this does not portend well.”


(emphasis added)

In other words, the reason for the growing number of troops occupying Baghdad is actually crystal-clear. Al-Maliki evidently realizes that political power depends on who’s got whom outgunned, especially in today’s Iraq. After failing to consummate any of the power-sharing deals he promised to engage in before he was elected, al-Maliki incidentally retained not only the office of prime minister, but also that of interior minister and  minister of defense. In other words, he formally controls the police and the army – and apparently he controls them de facto as well. As the expert interviewed in the above excerpted article drily notes at one point:


“U.S. officials who put their faith in al-Maliki for years may have misjudged him, Francona said.”


This was hardly the US government’s first error of judgment in Iraq and is highly likely not to have been the last.


fouad massoumIraq’s new president Fouad Massoum was elected by parliament with a large majority. An unwritten agreement regarding the division of power in Iraq stipulates that the president must be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shi’ite and the president of parliament a Sunni. This tradition continues to be respected – it is only al-Maliki personally who is increasingly seen as a divisive figure. Massoum is an “old hand” in Iraqi politics and his decision to postpone the nomination of the prime minister is a strong sign that an attempt to unseat al-Maliki is underway.

(Photo credit: Reuters)


Things are happening at great speed in Iraq these days. While we were writing the above, it transpired that Maliki has been officially forced out as prime minister of Iraq – but refuses to accept the decision.


“Iraq’s president named a new prime minister to end Nuri al-Maliki’s eight year rule on Monday, but the veteran leader refused to go after deploying militias and special forces on the streets, creating a dangerous political showdown in Baghdad. Washington, which helped install Maliki following its 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, congratulated Haidar al-Abadi, a former Maliki lieutenant who was named by President Fouad Masoum to replace him.

But Maliki’s Dawa Party declared his replacement illegal, and Maliki’s son-in-law said he would overturn it in court. Washington delivered a stern warning to Maliki not to “stir the waters” by using force to cling to power.


(emphasis added)

Presumably the outcome will depend on whether Maliki can keep control of the armed forces.


Conclusion  – An Intractable Situation

ISIS has attracted an entire generation of radicalized Sunni militants to the region. If one watches interviews with their enemies such as e.g. Peshmerga fighters, one topic that is occasionally mentioned is that they don’t seem to fear death much. Combined with their well-known brutality, this unfoubteldy makes them a formidable fighting force. However, there is evidently far more to ISIS than that.

In this context, we recommend watching the Vice News report on ISIS filmed in Raqqa, the current capital of the “caliphate”. One impression one comes away with is that ISIS is quite careful not to alienate the population too much, in spite of strictly enforcing the sharia. Along similar lines, since ISIS is running Mosul, a number of Sunnis that have initially fled have returned to the city – which for the first time in an eternity has electricity around the clock. ISIS is a bit like Hitler in that way: it is so to speak making the trains run on time, while mercilessly killing large numbers of its perceived enemies and assorted “apostates” at the same time. The group also runs what appears to be a highly effective propaganda campaign – not only via electronic media, but also on the ground in the areas it conquers (its recruitment drive in Iraq is flourishing).

The Islamic State even has something like a national anthem by now, a jihadist anasheed (a piece of Islamic a capella music with very light or no instrumentation) – “Ummaty Qad Laha Farujn” (My Ummah, Dawn Has Appeared) – which actually sounds quite interesting (never mind the martial lyrics). In fact, the music is probably the only good thing to come from ISIS so far:


 The ISIS “anthem”  Ummaty  Qad Laha Farujn – an interesting sounding a capella piece in the anasheed style


All of the above suggests that it will be exceedingly difficult to effectively destroy ISIS. One method of countering it would in theory be the strategy that has already been successfully employed in almost defeating its predecessor organization AQI (“Al Qaeda in Iraq”). This mainly involved alienating AQI from its local support base. A guerrilla force cannot persist unless it has the support of the local population. However, it seems uncertain whether the same strategy can be used with success again. For one thing, Maliki’s suppression of the Sunnis has made ISIS the lesser evil in the eyes of many locals. For another thing, the organization has evolved a great deal and is highly unlikely to repeat AQI’s mistakes.

It seems to us that if the goals the president has announced in recent days are to be achieved, nothing short of a full-scale invasion of Iraq (as well as of Syria for good measure) is likely to suffice – and even then, success is by no means guaranteed. Another possibility – a remote one at this stage, but it cannot be ruled out just yet – is that the regional forces arrayed against ISIS actually get their act together for a change.



A map of the Ummayad Caliphate, which lasted from AD 661 to AD 750. In terms of territory, this was the largest of the three early Islamic caliphates. It was also far more tolerant than the retro-Islam preached by ISIS – click to enlarge.


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2 Responses to “ISIS and the Coming Escalation in Iraq”

  • roger:

    This is just another case of intervention begets more intervention. In fact, this is not unlike the European bailout story. First it was Greece bailout, then we get contagion, thereafter we figured Greek problem wasn’t solved and needed another bailout, and another, etc…then things got calmed down after “whatever it takes” speech by Draghi & LTRO. But all these not only didn’t solve the problem but made it even larger.

    There are just too many parallels, from the finance world, from the previous failures deemed as successes.

    This one will likely be more complicated. Even against AQI – which was despised by the local populace – the US still found it difficult, try now with ISIS seemingly more adept and much more well-armed. Trillions may easily be just blown again to “solve” this problem, assuming it’s ever “solvable”. Can the US afford this?

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