Some Realism About Iraq and ISIS
As the Scriptures remind us, “Do not believe the hype.” The hype of the moment is ISIS, the Sunni militia that just drove the so-called Iraqi Army out of Mosul, Tikrit, and other Iraqi cities.
This is one of those dramatic military reverses that mean a lot less than meets the eye.
The “Iraqi Army” routed by ISIS wasn’t really a national army, and ISIS isn’t really a dominant military force. It was able to occupy those cities because they were vacuums, abandoned by a weak, sectarian force. Moving into vacuums like this is what ISIS is good at. And that’s the only thing ISIS is good at.
ISIS is a sectarian Sunni militia—that’s all. A big one, as militias go, with something like 10,000 fighters. Most of them are Iraqi, a few are Syrian, and a few hundred are those famous “European jihadis” who draw press attention out of all relation to their negligible combat value. The real strength of ISIS comes from its Chechen fighters, up to a thousand of them. A thousand Chechens is a serious force, and a terrifying one if they’re bearing down on your neighborhood. Chechens are the scariest fighters, pound-for-pound, in the world.
But we’re still talking about a conventional military force smaller than a division. That’s a real but very limited amount of combat power. What this means is that, no matter how many scare headlines you read, ISIS will never take Baghdad, let alone Shia cities to the south like Karbala. It won’t be able to dent the Kurds’ territory to the north, either. All it can do—all it has been doing, by moving into Sunni cities like Mosul and Tikrit—is to complete the partition of Iraq begun by our dear ex-president Bush in 2003. By crushing Saddam’s Sunni-led Iraq, the Americans made partition inevitable. In fact, Iraq has been partitioned ever since the invasion; it’s just been partitioned badly, into two parts instead of the natural three: the Kurdish north, and the remainder occupied by a weak sectarian Shia force going by the name of “The Iraqi Army.” The center of the country, the so-called “Sunni Triangle,” had no share in this partition and was under the inept, weak rule of the Shia army.
By occupying the Sunni cities, ISIS has simply made a more rational partition, adding a third part, putting the Sunni Triangle back under Sunni rule. The Shia troops who fled as soon as they heard that the ISIS was on the way seem to have anticipated that the Sunni would claim their own territory someday. That’s why they fled without giving even a pretense of battle.
So, Iraq is now partitioned on more natural, sensible lines, thanks to ISIS. It’s going to be a messy transition, as Iraqi transitions tend to be, with mass executions of collaborators like those already happening in Mosul and Tikrit.
But in the long run, ISIS has simply swept into a power vacuum, like it’s done from the start.
ISIS has always been good at generating scary stories about itself, like the notion that it was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being “too extreme.” It’s true that ISIS has a beef with Zawahiri, the nominal head of Al Qaeda, but the issue isn’t extremism. Their quarrel was a turf war about who would get the Al Qaeda franchise in Syria, and it just showed ISIS’s most pronounced characteristic in action: A real knack for moving in on vulnerable turf.
In fact, ISIS’s quarrel with Zawahiri was a lot like a corporate boardroom feud. It’s always worth remembering that Jihadis are just friggin’ people, and their disagreements tend to be about very ordinary organizational issues. Granted, it’s a little harder to see that when they solve those disagreements with public beheadings and overly-cinematic rituals, but at heart this is just standard human behavior—primates squabbling for rank and power, Game of Thrones with Islamic voiceover.
Even the name, “I.S.I.S.,” is the result of a series of policy disputes and turf wars. “I.S.I.S.” is an English-language acronym, standing for “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams [Greater Syria].” You may have seen people insist on calling it “I.S.I.L.,” because they translate “al-Shams” as “the Levant,” the old-fashioned term for the Eastern Mediterranean shore. Arabs don’t use either of these acronyms; the Arabic acronym for the group is “Daash,” as in this headline describing the aftermath of I.S.I.S.’s conquest of Mosul: “Daash Executed 12 Imam [sic] who refused to pledge allegiance.”
The most important thing about this name is that it’s clear about policy—“Islamic State”—and very flexible about territory. The Islamic State is supposed to cover the whole world, so it doesn’t matter very much which chunk of turf it starts on. None of the borders of the Arab Middle East—Iraq, Syria, Jordan—mean much if you believe in a Caliphate that should encompass the whole Ummah, every believer in the world. So I.S.I.S. has always been vague about territory. It’s a fluid group, moving away from pressure and toward chaos, toward regions where authority is weak and there’s room to expand. Think of I.S.I.S. as something between a liquid and a gas, always striving to fill a void.
A really good analysis, worth reading the whole thing...
Of course, it's important to note that at some level these guys are also supported by the US. Possibly through the CIA; certainly by the Saudis, who of course are supported by the US. And after defeating the Iraqi army, who had US arms and armor, ISIS now has US arms and armor.