The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) had a huge win a couple of days ago. They were able to enter with out opposition, the Iraqi city of Mosul. Such is their fearsome reputation that the Iraqi army there abandoned everything and fled, leaving behind all their equipment, weapons and uniforms. Tens of thousands of Mosul residents, mostly Sunni, have fled and continue to flee the city to nearby Kurdish controlled areas.
This is a major win for ISIS. Under the strict control and command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, what started as a small splinter group after its ejection from Al Qaeda for being too bloodthirsty even for them, has grown over the last 2 years into a well-organized, trained and equipped army. The capture of Mosul extends their area of control and influence that holds in its deadly embrace large areas of both Syria and Iraq. See map graphic below.
ISIS territory. Link to map source here
It is interesting that ISIS were allowed to develop in strength in Syria by Bashar al Assad. He wanted the civil war to become sectarian and helped them to grow. In this he has been very successful, however in so doing he allowed, for want of better words, a monster to develop. ISIS is causing worry in many countries in the middle east. This is why in Syria both Jordan and Israel are helping the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to create buffer zones along their borders, ISIS has intentions to take over most if not all Syria and many governments have finally woken up to the fact that their political games have led directly to the situation which exists today. Now on the doorstep of Europe is a very strong Islamic fighting force which is going to be hard to resist.
It is difficult to see how Iraq will be able to deal with the situation. Although it has a large well equipped army of 900,000 soldiers, most of those are patronage jobs, they are there for the money and not because they want to fight. Add to this, the fact they have very little training in guerrilla warfare, which is the modus operandi of ISIS, and one has to consider the real possibility that ISIS will make further large gains in the country. It could be that the Kurds will send Peshmerga fighting units to fight ISIS in Iraq, they have a lot of experience in asymmetric warfare and will want to protect their regional capital of Arbil against any possible threat.
This will not be the type of war where you can send in the air force to strike at well-defined targets, ISIS operate very much in a hit and run style, they are very good at disappearing while at the same time holding control. They really have become masters of psychological warfare as demonstrated by the huge exodus from Mosul by both the army and civilians. They are known as heartless butchers and their reputation precedes them wherever they go.
Looking at what their ultimate goals might be could also give a possible explanation for other developments in the middle east. ISIS believe they have a god given mission to set up an Islamic caliphate, one that would rule very harshly based on their narrow understanding of Islam. This religious caliphate would ultimately need to have Muslim holy sites such as Mecca at its centre. With rapid growth in strength and territory of ISIS over the last 2 years and with no sign of them slowing down, Saudi Arabia must be starting to worry that they will come into the cross-hairs. Saudi Arabia has a well equipped army but to be honest has no fighting experience and most of its commanders wouldn’t have a clue how to defend the country as many have the job as a result of royal patronage, to be honest they are not up to the job. ISIS would see the country as a soft target. This could also explain why Saudi Arabia has recently been making peaceful overtures towards Iran. Iran is possibly the only country in the middle east which can deal with ISIS. There are many in Saudi who are totally against any rapprochement with Iran, for them it is their biggest enemy mainly because the Shia Muslims of Iran and the Sunni Muslims of Saudi see each other as religious heretics. The new Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud is a contentious figure among the Saudi royal family because he is willing to talk to Iran, publicly many members of the family are against him because they say his is not a legitimate heir but privately it must also be due to his stance on Iran. However they can’t say this too loudly as the ageing King also backs better ties with Iran and he could cut off the funds of many royals if they were to jeopardise his wish for better ties. The problem is that many don’t realize the threat ISIS could pose to their comfortable existence, few have ever done any real work, they simply live off the oil wealth of the country, out of touch with reality.
The main sticking point in Saudi/Iran relations is their support for opposing sides in Syria. Iran supports the government of Bashar al Assad, it has committed huge resources in what is a very expensive war, not only financial but also in manpower. Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni revolt, Sunni are the majority of the population but with nearly half the population now displaced the Sunni majority is greatly reduced. The fact that ISIS is a rapidly growing problem in Syria and Iraq could lead to the 2 countries making some sort of compromise in Syria so that they can confront ISIS together. You can be sure Iran does not want to see Mecca in the hands of ISIS any more than Saudi Arabia does.
This situation also plays into the hands of Iran, if Iran is to lead the fight back against ISIS then it will also expect to be recognised as the leading power in the middle east, which has been its intention all along, its hegemonic ambitions are hardly a secret. Could it be that Iran secretly supported ISIS even though it is Sunni? Bashar al Assad has certainly done so in Syria and he is backed by Iran. Once a deal is done between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Syria this could be the moment Iran steps in to confine ISIS in the areas it generally holds now, both in Syria and Iraq. Saudi will be forced to accept Iran as the dominant power in the middle east. With ISIS being so close to the Turkish border it could also be the moment that Turkey steps in the create a buffer zone in northern Syria probably working in conjunction with the Kurds with whom it now has a better relationship. In Syria, this will leave areas of permanent warfare in the north and centre of the country between Syrian rebel militias and ISIS. In the south and east of Syria there is bound to come a time when the rebels know they can’t advance any further towards Damascus, it is too well supported by Iran and Russia so will settle for a semi autonomous area buffering Israel and Jordan and supported by those 2 countries against any threat from ISIS. Bashar al Assad will be weakened but still in power which will suit Israel perfectly. Syria will be divided.
As for Iraq, ISIS will hold power in certain Sunni dominated areas which is going to create yet another enormous refugee crisis. I wonder if ISIS realise how much of a pawn they are in this bloody game of chess. It will certainly resist any attempts at confinement. I’m sure the eventual plan is to reduce its power, which will lead to all sorts of other complications, there are always consequences. For the moment ISIS is being allowed to go from strength to strength as part of the bloody games being played in the middle east.