Daily Intrigue: June 11, 2014 ‘ISIS and the Fall of Mosul’

Yesterday, government security forces in and around Mosul in northern Iraq continued to abandon their positions. The Iraqi government security forces fled as hundreds of militants of the international terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fought their way into the city. ISIS, a group fighting in both Syria and Iraq in an effort to destabilize the two countries’ governments, lays ostensible claim to territory throughout the region from Iraq westward to Syria and Lebanon. Bill Roggio, founder and editor of The Long War Journal, relates reports of Iraqi security personnel fleeing their positions as militants close in on the city:

Fighters from the ISIS took control of government buildings, including the provincial headquarters, as well as police stations and military installations inside and outside of the city, according to reports. Several police stations were torched by the ISIS. Some Iraqi soldiers and policemen are said to have shed their uniforms before fleeing their posts to avoid being captured and executed by ISIS fighters.

The ISIS has raised the black flag of jihad and “announced over loudspeaker that they had ‘come to liberate Mosul and would fight only those who attack them,'” the BBC reported.

Usamah al Nujayfi, the speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives whose brother is the governor of Ninewa, told Al Baghdadiyah Satellite Television that “the right and left sides of the city of Mosul as well as its districts and subdistricts have been completely occupied.”

Nujayfi also accused Iraqi security forces of abandoning their posts and leaving weapons, ammunition, and armored vehicles behind. (Roggio, The Long War Journal, June 10)

Following the latest fighting, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quickly appealed for the Iraqi parliament to declare martial law. The fall of Mosul, a city of nearly two million residents, is an unavoidable marker in the history of insurgency in Iraq. Analysts and observers have expressed alarm at the recent ISIS capturing of significant population centers in northern Iraq. Further, many have intimated that the group has demonstrated malleability and strength over the past two years, reflected in consistent territorial gains from Syria to Iraq:

The fall of Mosul to the extremists on Tuesday, after the apparent collapse of Iraqi security forces there, offers only the latest example of the extraordinary resurgence of the militant organization in the past 2½ years, aided to a large extent by the vacuum of authority in neighboring Syria.

The al-Qaeda in Iraq organization that confronted U.S. troops has since renamed itself to reflect its expanded activities in Syria, and it has fallen out with the al-Qaeda leadership. It has also become a far more lethal, effective and powerful force than it was when U.S. forces were present in Iraq.

“This is a force that is ideologically motivated, battle hardened and incredibly well equipped,” said Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation, who advised the Obama and George W. Bush administrations on Iraq, served two tours of duty in that country and has business interests there. “It also runs the equivalent of a state. It has all the trappings of a state, just not an internationally recognized one.” (Sly, The Washington Post, June 10)

ISIS has grown to rival other Al Qaeda affiliated groups in regional reach, gaining strength from remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and sustaining momentum in acquiring control of important territory throughout northern Iraq and Syria:

ISIS has little to no sway outside the Sunni community in Iraq and Syria, but because of its power base in each country, the Obama administration views it increasingly as a regional problem that threatens broader interests.

Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, said during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this month that the Sunni-based group has emerged from the “remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Instead of being destroyed, he said, the organization appears to have melted away temporarily only to regroup. (Gearan and Lamothe, The Washington Post, June 10)

Al Monitor reports that ISIS is quickly outmaneuvering state security forces in Iraq. The fall of Mosul is just the latest in a successive, momentum-generating effort that has captured territory throughout Syria as well:

Organizationally, ISIS considers the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq as one land that is part of a single state. ISIS is fighting in both countries according to that vision, which is based on “expansion,” a term that has become one of its most important principles and objectives. So it was natural for the border between Syria and Iraq to see back and forth movements of ISIS elements according to its field and organizational needs.

This vision is driving ISIS to fight fiercely against the “Golani and Awakenings Alliance” in Deir ez-Zour to control the border areas with Iraq, so as to ensure supply lines of ISIS and to ease of movement between the “two parts” of the state, especially since ISIS controls large swathes of the Anbar desert, which is adjacent to the Syrian border.

As if the Syrian arena is not complicated enough, the ISIS “expansion” strategy came to make it even more complicated. It led to the overlap of the warring parties in both countries. (Al Monitor, June 10)

On the last point, others have begun suggesting that, given its territorial control, ISIS effectively acts as a defacto state. Joshua Keating, writing for Slate, notes that while estimates of ISIS forces range from 7,000 to 10,000, ISIS may in fact fit the internationally accepted definition of a ‘state’:

Unlike other Syrian rebel groups, ISIS is focused less on the overthrow of the Assad regime than on enforcing its harsh and austere brand of Islamic law in the areas it controls as well as the broader aim of establishing a unified Islamic state. From all reports, it certainly appears to be a more dominant political force in the areas under its control than either the Syrian or Iraqi governments.

So should we start thinking of ISIS as a proto-state, an unrecognized but de facto sovereign entity? Or will it meet a similar fate to that of Azawad, the rebel state in Northern Mali that declared independence after chasing out the Malian military, only to be routed by a French-led international force the following year.

I’d tentatively lean toward the latter. For one thing, the brutal brand of Shariah law ISIS enforces in the areas of Syria it controls—including beheadings and amputations—seems to be provoking enormous resentment among the people who live under its black flag. The Malian Islamists had a similar problem. It seems one difficulty of establishing an “Islamic State,” as extremist groups narrowly define it, is that they aren’t really places anyone wants to live. (Keating, Slate, June 10)

Whether or not control of territory can effectively characterize ISIS as a “state”, at least two facts appear to be indisputable:

1. The fall of Mosul is a seminal moment for ISIS as an organization.

2. ISIS is quickly gaining control of strategically vital areas quickly and the fall of Mosul in recent days is the proverbial canary in the coalmine for analysts concerned about the future stability of both the government of Iraq and those of the wider middle east.

The response of al-Maliki and the Iraqi government will largely determine whether ISIS faces even nominal resistance or whether the fall of Mosul will catapult the group to further territorial gains throughout Iraq.

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(Map photo courtesy of NordNordWest and Spesh531)

Eric Jones
Managing Editor
Senior Writer
Foreign Intrigue

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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Eric.Jones@Foreign-Intrigue.com. Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ForeignIntrigue.