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The ISIS offensive: what next for Iraq, Syria and the Kurds?

The ISIS offensive: what next for Iraq, Syria and the Kurds?

Analyzing what lies ahead for the region

In the early hours of 10 June, militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also called ISIS) swept through Mosul in northern Iraq. Photographs of Iraqi army and police uniforms scattered on the ground quickly circulated on social media, as it emerged that divisions of the Iraq army deployed in the city had abandoned their posts in the face of a coordinated militant offensive.

In the following days, ISIL fighters moved south and southeast. Towns including Tel Afar, Samarra, Baiji and Dhuliuyah, 90km north of Baghdad, fell to the militants, with the Iraqi security forces seemingly incapable of holding back their advance. An ISIL spokesman issued a statement calling on fighters to ‘march to Baghdad’, saying that ‘the battle will rage’ in Baghdad and Karbala.

However, the southwards movement of militants has since slowed, and militants do not appear able to take the Iraqi capital. Nonetheless, the ISIL offensive has exposed serious weaknesses in the Iraqi security forces and deep sectarian divisions in the country. But, at the same time, it also presents an opportunity for the Syrian and Kurdish regional governments.

Iraq: Back from the brink

The rapid advance of some ISIL fighters and their Baathist, Sunni Islamist and tribal backers in Salah Al-Din, Nineveh and Diyala provinces has led some commentators in the international press to suggest that a new Sunni state could emerge in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.

At this stage, such a scenario seems unlikely. But as each day passes, the challenge faced by the Iraqi security forces (ISF) to re-take territory in northern and central Iraq grows.

The situation in northern Iraq is highly fluid and details are frequently unclear. ISIL has claimed on several occasions that it is in control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, the Baiji facility in Salah Al-Din province. However, the Iraqi government has countered that it is still holding off militant assaults. The situation in Tel Afar, just west of Mosul is similar, with districts of the city seeming to change hands several times over the last week.

Meanwhile, militants seem to be consolidating their control of Mosul, western Anbar and Tikrit. While ISIL claims to be predominant in these areas, the situation on the ground appears to be much more complex, and cracks have already emerged in a coalition between various competing Sunni militant factions. These divisions, combined with local opposition to the brutality of ISIL fighters, suggest that the group may struggle to hold on to major cities for more than a few months.

Despite their initial failings, the Iraqi security forces, with the backing of some allied Sunni tribal fighters, Shia militia and foreign militaries (namely Syria, Iran and the US) will probably manage to push back militants to far western Anbar and rural districts of northern provinces. However, this still leaves them facing a strong Sunni insurgency for the foreseeable future. ISIL in particular will probably be able to use its pockets of control – and newly gained wealth – to regularly threaten major Iraqi cities.

Syria: Friend or foe?

Ahead of its surprise offensive, ISIL already controlled large areas of eastern Syria, mainly around Raqqah and Deir Al-Zour. Reports that fighters have been taking loot back to Syria suggest that the group will try to consolidate its rule in eastern areas of Syria and extend this into Anbar as far as possible. Over the last year, the Syrian government seemed to have reached an uneasy understanding with ISIL, in which the Syrian security forces have not directly challenged the group’s control of Raqqa and Deir Al-Zour provinces in the east.

This informal agreement appears to have allowed both the government and ISIL to benefit from oil revenue, and enable the Syrian government to concentrate its military on the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo axis, which is strategically more important at this stage. At the same time, the continued presence of ISIL plays into Damascus’s narrative that it is fighting a war against terrorists. Indeed, the role of extremist groups in the Syrian opposition appears to have been an important factor in dissuading the West from providing advanced weapons to the opposition.

For these reasons, it seems to be in the Syrian government’s military and economic interests to continue to allow ISIL to operate in eastern Syria, while at the same time appearing to take some steps towards countering the terrorist group. Demonstrating this strategy, the Syrian government has been conducting sporadic airstrikes against ISIL positions in eastern cities for at least a year, and these seem to have become more frequent in recent weeks. However, it appears unlikely at this stage that the Syrian government would re-direct already stretched ground troops away from western regions to counter the ISIL threat.

KRG: Independence by stealth

Iraqi Kurdistan seems to be bearing much of the immediate burden of the ISIL offensive. The latest figures from the UN show that 135,000 have fled to Erbil and 232,000 to Dohuk in the last few weeks. There are also reports of long queues for fuel in Erbil, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have faced repeated attacks by ISIL-affiliated fighters in the Kirkuk area, which they assumed control of in the face of an Iraqi military retreat. However, in the longer term, the militant offensive also affords Iraqi Kurds the chance to push towards greater autonomy, or even independence.

A month ahead of the ISIL offensive, Kurdish diplomatic sources told us that the KRG was planning to move towards full economic autonomy, in response to continued obstruction from the government in Baghdad. With the Peshmerga now deployed in Kirkuk, Erbil now seems capable of pushing ahead with further oil exports and establishing de facto control over the city – and its substantial oil reserves there.

The President of the Iraqi Kurdish region has made increasingly strong statements in recent weeks, indicating that in light of the current security and political situation in Iraq, his government will be seeking increased autonomy, if not independence, from Iraq. President Barzani told CNN that ‘Kurdish people should seize the opportunity now – the Kurdistan people should now determine their future’.

While the KRG seems poised to take full advantage of the opportunities that disarray in Baghdad presents, there are still several factors which will probably prevent it from pushing for full independence in the coming years. Iraqi Kurdistan has been carefully building up a wide coalition of foreign support – including from Ankara and Washington – and these foreign allies are still pushing the KRG to cooperate with Baghdad. As a result, the KRG will maintain a gradual process of partition along similar lines to the last decade.

Outlook: Time to intervene

Ultimately, the growing strength of Islamist extremists in Syria, combined with growing concerns in Europe about foreign fighters increases the likelihood of greater western military intervention in Syria and western Iraq in the coming years. Indeed, the US has already sent 300 military advisors to Baghdad and the New York Times reports that US drones are now flying over Iraq. Alternatively, in the absence of Western backing for Baghdad, Iran seems poised to deepen its influence over its southern neighbour. 

Published: 8th July 2014