Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and a key commercial and trading centre, fell early on the morning of June 10 to militants belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This is a major blow to security and stability in Iraq and the larger Middle East. After the fall of Fallujah a few months ago, the fall of Mosul will reverberate across the world and cause widespread angst about the rise of al Qaeda. Since the withdrawal of American troops some two years ago, Iraq’s government, led by the unpopular and divisive Nouri al-Maliki, has failed to establish its writ amidst growing violence. The fall of Mosul is evidence that things have reached a tipping point.
The manner in which Iraqi security forces capitulated in Mosul showcases that they are incapable of defending Iraqi cities. Meanwhile, ISIS fighters are battle-hardened and have gained vital field experience in Syria. With Syria already home to a large number of radical militants, the fall of Mosul means that radical militants now control large swathes of land in the heart of the Middle East. To counter this offensive by ISIS, the Iraqi government has declared a state of emergency and Mr Maliki has appeared on television appealing for a unified effort to stop terrorism. A similar effort was made by the Iraqi leader after the fall of Fallujah, but efforts to wrestle back control from militants largely failed.
When the American presence in Iraq ended some two years ago, boastful claims about a ‘strategic defeat’ to al Qaeda were made by both American and Iraqi leaders. With the passage of time, those claims have proven to be ill-founded and completely wrong. Reports coming out of Mosul say that ISIS fighters have freed thousands of prisoners, raided ammunition depots, and have raised their flags on a number of government buildings.
Whether the Iraqi government and security forces are able to launch an effective counter-offensive against ISIS remains to be seen. The prime minister has vowed to arm civilians and mount a widespread operation against ISIS. A second Sunni Awakening could bolster the government but the lack of trust that Sunni leaders have in Mr Maliki will be a major handicap. The 50,000 or so fighters that were critical in helping American forces defeat al Qaeda are estranged with the current government and sitting on the sidelines. The Iraqi government has also been requesting missiles and artillery from the United States and with the situation in Iraq close to reaching a point of no return, one can expect the Americans to ratchet up military and intelligence support.
As the war in Syria dragged on and militants became more radicalised, there were fears of blowback in Iraq. These fears were initially brushed aside and there was a lot of confidence about the capacity of American-trained Iraqi security forces. With the passage of time, however, those concerned about the safety and security of Iraq after American withdrawal were proven correct due to two main reasons. Firstly, Mr Maliki has proven to be an ineffective leader and has marginalised Iraqi Sunnis, resulting in popular unrest against a largely Shia government. Secondly, ISIS has received training, motivated fighters and vital experience across the border in Syria, giving the group sufficient room to manoeuvre. The extreme nature of these militants can be judged by the fact that even al Qaeda, a group known for its brutality on the battlefield, had distanced itself from ISIS . A dysfunctional government coupled with a resurgent militant group has created a perfect storm, allowing ISIS to rapidly gain ground against a crumbling Iraqi security establishment.
To effectively deal with this rising tide of militancy, the Iraqi government must reach out to Sunni tribal leaders and bring them on board. Efforts must also be made to engage with regional and international powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States. A sustained and united effort is needed if Iraq is to turn around the momentum and defeat ISIS. Iraq is on the verge of collapse and should ISIS gain further ground, the entire Middle East could plunge into the abyss. The Iraqi prime minister has ruled in a manner that has isolated Sunni Iraqis and frustrated the international community. He must change course in short order, for a quick and effective response against ISIS is the only way to rescue Iraq from this crisis.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2014.