Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing following the fall of Mosul and Tikrit to a jihadist group. FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto examines a crisis that has been brewing across the Iraqi-Syria border and its impact.
The lightening speed and sheer audacity of the latest jihadist assault on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, followed by Tikrit within 24 hours has shocked the international community. But FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto notes that this is a crisis that has been gradually brewing and has been largely ignored – until it crossed the tipping point.
Strategically, how significant is the fall of Mosul to Islamist militants? How did we get to this stage?
The significance of the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city cannot be overstated. As US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said, it presents a threat not just to Iraq, but to the region as well – and, I may add, to Western interests in the region.
What we are seeing here is a perfect storm of crises: a militant jihadist group that even al Qaeda is trying to keep at arm’s length that has extended its territorial gains across national borders. We’re seeing sectarian superpowers waging a proxy war for supremacy in Iraq, the collapse of a once-powerful Arab army and finally, local politicians fiddling over parliamentary seats while Rome burns.
First of all the fall of Mosul represents a huge territorial gain for ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) – or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) as it’s sometimes called – and its allies. This group now effectively controls a region that stretches from the eastern Syrian city of Raqaa, over the Syria-Iraq border, through the western Iraqi desert up to northern Iraq.
By Wednesday, ISIS had advanced as far as Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, located just 150km north of Baghdad.
Mosul is the capital of Iraq’s Nineveh province. To the south of Nineveh, in the restive Anbar province, ISIS has controlled the town of Fallujah and parts of the Anbar capital of Ramadi since earlier this year.
Nineveh is one of the most multi-religious and multi-ethnic regions of Iraq. Almost all the religious and ethnic groups in the region has have historic roots here – Christians, Kurds, Sunnis, various Shiite sects, ethno-religious groups such as the Shabaks, Turkmen, Assyrians – they’re all here.
ISIS is a hardline Salafist group, notorious for its brutality, and minority groups have good reason to fear them. This is why were are seeing hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing the area.
It must be said that we don’t know as yet what ISIS’ plans for Mosul might be: do they plan to hold the city or simply send a message to the Iraqi authorities before abandoning the city? We’ll have to monitor the situation.
But the message to Iraqi authorities is loud and clear: the country’s security forces are no match for ISIS.
Iraqi security forces in Mosul simply melted earlier this week, abandoning their positions in the latest onslaught.
The planning of the final ISIS assault is a display of the group’s formidable fighting power and military strategy.
Over the past few days, the group managed to conduct an assault on a number of Iraqi towns and cities – using diversionary tactics to draw and disperse Iraqi security forces to cities like Samara in central Iraq before they went for their main target: Mosul.
ISIS militants targeted prisons and police stations in Mosul, freeing hundreds of prisoners, including their fighters. They then seized key installations – including the provincial headquarters and the airport – as Iraqi security forces abandoned their posts, leaving behind heavy weapons, military vehicles and uniforms – all of which are assets for ISIS.
Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi on Tuesday told journalists in Baghdad that the entire province of Nineveh is right now under militant control.
What can be done to address the situation?
Well, some Iraqi politicians have called for US help. Washington can certainly provide logistical help such as drones. But the real work must be done by the Iraqi security forces.
Iraq’s army was once a formidable military that waged an eight-year war with Iran. Today, it simply lacks the capacity for a US-like surge strategy, which was implemented in 2008.
More importantly, a military surge also requires political leadership including forging alliances with tribal chiefs and community leaders, which Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has simply not provided.
Maliki is still trying to put together a government following the April parliamentary elections. He’s proved to be a political survivor, but the Shiite politician has managed this at the cost of alienating Iraq’s significant Sunni minority.
He has managed to exacerbate Iraq’s sectarian divisions by systematically marginalising and even purging prominent Sunni politicians and using Shiite militia groups dreaded by the Sunni community. Many Iraqi Sunnis see him as a figure too closely aligned to Shiite conservatives and neighbouring Shiite powerhouse, Iran.
On Tuesday night, Maliki declared a state of high alert and has called for the mobilisation of “all efforts to face up to the existing challenges”.
But few are assured that Maliki has what it takes to truly confront those challenges.
He talked tough when Fallujah fell earlier this year, but that restive western Iraqi city is still under jihadist control.
Maliki is unlikely to succeed in re-establishing full control in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq.
What do we know about ISIS?
ISIS basically emerged from remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq following the 2011 US troop pullout. The group declared itself fairly recently – in April 2013, when the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued a statement announcing the merger of his group with a Syrian rebel group, the al-Nusra Front under the new ISIS banner.
The statement prompted a number of al-Nusra fighters – including foreign fighters – to join ISIS. But the leader of al Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, denied the merger.
Then in November 2013, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the dissolution of ISIS and stated that the group should withdraw from Syria and concentrate on the fight in Iraq.
But Baghdadi disregarded Zawahiri’s order and has continued operations in Syria and Iraq. It’s one of the few groups that effectively controls territory across two countries.
It first came into the spotlight when it took over the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa and established what it called its first Islamic wilaya (province) where it gained a reputation for its harsh rule, earning Raqqa the moniker, “Syria’s Kandahar”.
Known for its brutality, the group has at times conducted operations alongside the al-Nusra Front, but it has mostly tense relations with other Syrian rebel groups, including Islamist ones. There have been reports of deadly clashes between ISIS and other rebel groups, including a reported assassination of an FSA (Free Syrian Army) commander.
Nobody knows for sure how many fighters ISIS has – estimates range in the thousands. As for the funding, it’s believed to come from private donations from the Gulf States as well as taxes and duties levied on goods and businesses in the territories it controls. In the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, it has seized oil refineries and managed to expand its sources of financing. Seizing a major city like Mosul will represent a major financial boost for ISIS.
On Wednesday, the group advanced on the Iraqi oil refinery town of Baiji. According to local sources, the jihadist group sent a delegation to convince security guards at the facility to withdraw, which they did.
Date created : 2014-06-11