The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a relatively small force of Sunni militants seeking to establish an Islamic Caliphate that would sprawl across Iraq and Syria. The group’s ambitions were largely ignored until they overtook Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, on June 9. Since then, the non-state organization has been rapidly consolidating its territorial gains across northern Iraq, and now threatens to redefine Middle Eastern borders, restructure regional alliances, and pull the U.S. into another conflict in the Middle East.
Can ISIS’s success last?
When ISIS seized key northern cities from the Iraqi military, a force bolstered by $25 billion of U.S. investment since the 2003 invasion, there was widespread fear that the extremist insurgents would go on to take Baghdad, and eventually the southern cities that dominate Iraqi oil production.
But Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings, pointed out that ISIS only has about 8,000 fighters, and overtook those cities with the tacit support of the Sunni population, who have been largely neglected by Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since seizing territory, ISIS has been joined by Baath party loyalists from the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi, a group led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
Last year, ISIS found short-term support in Syria while fighting another unpopular leader—President Bashar al-Assad. But the Syrian opposition fighters came to reject their violent practices and quickly exiled the group. According to Lister, “Mosul residents might be praising the current stability and ISIS-subsidized bread and fuel prices, but once the public flogging, amputations, and crucifixions begin, this may well change. In fact, it is not surprising that tribal elements are already preparing to force ISIS from captured areas.”
ISIS’s prospects in Baghdad and the south of Iraq are even bleaker. While the Iraqi army is poorly organized and fractured in its loyalty to the current government, the troops in Baghdad and the south are mostly Shia and will put up more of a fight. They are the beneficiaries of Maliki’s sectarian rule and have a high incentive to protect their oil, the main source of the country’s revenue. The military is also bolstered by Shia militias in these areas, who are amassing volunteers after a call to arms by Maliki and Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani.
“Maliki has put a lot of Shias in top positions in the central command to consolidate control, but it’s still not clear to what extent the army has been infiltrated by Sunni dissidents,” said David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “I think one of the reasons Maliki is calling on these militias to come to the rescue is because he’s not sure either,” he added.
Will the U.S. step in militarily?
After much speculation about whether the U.S. would revert to airstrikes, which have become the Obama administration’s favored alternative to troops on the ground, the White House is now leaning against it. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, military officials don’t have good enough intelligence information to effectively target militants.
“It strikes me as completely plausible that the administration does not want to use airstrikes in Iraq,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former defense intelligence officer. “For airstrikes to work, the U.S. needs to develop the intelligence assets to know who’s where, how are they acting, how are they moving around, what is the best weapons system to use?"
Anthony Cordesman, a defense strategy expert at CSIS, added that the use of airstrikes is further complicated by the lack of unity within ISIS. “They are taking advantage of three years of what Maliki has done to provoke a civil war. There’s serious reason to avoid targeting Sunnis that have been pushed into affiliating with ISIS,” he said.
President Obama has told the Iraqi Prime Minister that a more inclusive government is a pre-requisite to U.S. help, but it’s unlikely that a militant Sunni uprising will compel Maliki to embrace the Sunnis.
Over the past week, the U.S. has been building up its offshore presence in the Persian Gulf. On Monday, a warship carrying 550 Marines and several Osprey military helicopters arrived in the Gulf, joining two warships armed with Tomahawk missiles that arrived a few days earlier. Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said this “provides the commander in chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them.”
The U.S. doesn’t want to intervene. Will someone else?
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long clashed over interpretations of Islam, oil export policy, and competition for influence in the Middle East. The two countries have been arming opposite sides of the Syrian conflict—with Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Gulf countries funneling arms to the opposition fighters, and Iran propping up Assad. It is increasingly likely that this proxy war will spill over into Iraq.
Iran has already sent a small cadre of Revolutionary Guard troops to fight alongside the Iraqi military. Though Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would not confirm the presence of Iranian troops in Iraq, he said, “If the Iraqi government asks us for help, we may provide any assistance the Iraqi nation would like us to provide in the fight against terrorism.” He also indicated a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on scaling back ISIS.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has not commented publicly on the events in Iraq, but the Kingdom is definitely a key player in this conflict. While Saudi Arabia officially considers ISIS a terrorist organization, they were also extremely unhappy when the U.S. replaced Saddam Hussein with a Shia Prime Minister supported by Iran. This is their opportunity to reverse the damage.
“The Saudis see this as a Sunni intifada underway in Iraq, and they will support the Baathists Sunnis, even if they are allied with ISIS. They want to get rid of Maliki,” said Ottaway.
But the Kingdom’s support for jihadis has the potential to backfire—while most of the extremist Sunni violence has been directed at Saudi’s rivals in Syria and Iraq, King Abdullah faces the threat of extremism at home as well. ISIS views the Saudi Kingdom as equally infidel as Maliki’s Iraq.
At the same time, Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing for U.S. support for the first time in over thirty years. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranians and U.S. have had no diplomatic relations, while Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a strong relationship with the U.S. based on weapons and oil trade and a shared counterterrorism agenda. But now Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have divergent interests in Iraq and Iran is best positioned to quell ISIS’s rise.
The West is slowly warming to international cooperation with Iran—the U.K. announced it would reopen its embassy in Tehran this week and Iran’s negotiations with Western powers over its nuclear program are progressing. Saudi Arabia, however, is growing frustrated with the U.S. refusal to increase the supply of arms to the Syrian opposition and its failure to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Last October, the Kingdom rejected a seat on the U.N. Security Council, citing U.S. policy failures in Syria and Palestine as the key reason. At this point, if Saudi Arabia, threatened by Iran’s rising power, sees supporting the Sunni insurgency as a strategically beneficial move, it is unlikely the U.S. has the power to convince them otherwise.