The Inexorable March of ISIS

US secretary of state John Kerry is on a quick visit to Baghdad while there is still someone to visit there. The headline on CNN is telling: “John Kerry arrives in Iraq as more cities fall to ISIS militants”. Over the weekend, ISIS has conquered several more towns, with the Iraqi army engaging in what it terms a “strategic retreat”. However, as strategic retreats go, the supply lines of ISIS have actually been strengthened rather than weakened by these recent moves, as the group now controls a long stretch of the border between Syria and Iraq from both sides (“Sunni militants seize Iraq's Western border crossings”, as the BBC informs us).

Meanwhile, a major problem appears to be that ISIS has the undivided support of the Sunni tribes in the Anbar province at present. Below is an excerpt from the BBC, providing some background on this. Note that the Iraqi army has not only fled, but has left all its equipment behind. Some of the US built Humvees the Iraqi army uses have reportedly already turned up in Syria, where ISIS continues to battle Bashar al-Assad, the Allawite with nowhere else to go.


Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar say Isis militants make up only a small number of the fighters involved in taking over the province – most are tribes people and former security personnel from the Saddam Hussein era.

Shaikh Raad al-Suleiman, a senior figure in Ramadi, said the reason they had captured so much territory was because soldiers in the Iraqi army were not prepared to fight.

"Most of the officers and men came to their senses, left their arms, guns and vehicles and fled out of Anbar," he said.


(emphasis added)


Iraq mapA map – via BBC – showing the current situation, insofar as it is known. ISIS  controls a large part of Northern Iraq (excl. Kurdish areas) and Northern Syria by now – click to enlarge.


A new wrinkle is also that the Obama administration is trying to force Nouri al-Maliki to find common political ground with Sunni politicians in Iraq. Apparently US help is currently withheld awaiting developments on that front. While this is in principle a wise decision, it has a few potential drawbacks: first of all, the Maliki government is already in dire straits. It cannot be ruled out that ISIS will actually overrun Baghdad. If that happens, there will be no-one to talk to anymore. Secondly, Maliki is highly unlikely to deliver on any promises he makes with respect to a political realignment (based on his past performance), so that the US administration has already let it be known that it would actually prefer Maliki to retire early.

This idea is however plainly detested by Iran's government, which regards al-Maliki as a strong and dependable Shia ally it wants to keep in place. Hence the Iranian ayatollah-in-chief, Ali Khamenei, has spoken out strongly against any further US involvement in Iraq. This comes on the heels of a seeming rapprochement between Iran and the US over the need to confront ISIS.


“Despite the ongoing threat of Iraq descending into civil war and repeated warnings that the conflict could spread across the Middle East and beyond, Iran's spiritual leader has said he strongly opposes the idea of US intervention. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today insisted that the crisis is not a sectarian one, warning instead that the US is seeking to use the opportunity to seek an Iraq “under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges”.

Swathes of northern Iraq have been seized by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which made further gains today, but Khamenei said he was against the US getting involved, with or without Iran's cooperation.

“We strongly oppose the intervention of the U.S. and others in the domestic affairs of Iraq,” Khamenei was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency. Khamenei, who has the final say over government policies, added: “The main dispute in Iraq is between those who want Iraq to join the US camp and those who seek an independent Iraq. The US aims to bring its own blind followers to power since the U.S. is not happy about the current government in Iraq.”

Khamenei said Iraq's government and its people, with help of top clerics, would be able to end the “sedition” there, saying extremists are hostile to both Shiites and Sunnis who seek an independent Iraq. Another senior figure, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said Tehran did not want to meddle in other nations but also hoped to mediate to “extinguish the fire” in Iraq.”


(emphasis added)

Thus, the US stance regarding Maliki's future is complicating matters further, as the potential to temporarily work with Iran to help Iraq's government with stopping the march of ISIS is now in doubt. ISIS on the other hand isn't waiting around to see what comes of the various attempts to hold back the tide – it just keeps conquering territory.


Steve Bell 17.06.2014Steve Bell on the unlikely meeting of minds over Iraq


On the other hand, one must agree with the view recently enunciated by US president Obama that Iraq's politicians must be able and willing to settle their differences themselves and that no military solution to the problem will have any chance of succeeding unless a political solution to the Shia-Sunni divide in Iraq is found. Still, while these political aspects of the situation are being discussed, ISIS continues to advance. As CNN summarizes:


“With al-Maliki's Shiite-led government losing more ground to militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Kerry has implored the leader to rise above "sectarian motivations" to become more inclusive and more representative of its population.

Kerry will also meet with Iraq's foreign minister as well as both Shiite and Sunni leaders. His trip will "emphasize our highest-level commitment to Iraq during this time of crisis," a State Department official said.

Kerry will also speak with key leaders about forming a new government "in line with the constitutional time line that they're on."

But outside the rooms of high-level talks, parts of Iraq are falling by the day.” 


(emphasis added)

As an aside, following the capture of Mosul and its central bank assets, ISIS is now estimated to be “worth” more than $2 billion, which makes it the richest non-state army in the world. In fact, it is richer than a number of small countries. Here is an interesting report on how ISIS makes its money. 


Inane Commentary from the Original Meddlers

The press seems to think it worthwhile to solicit the opinions of the people responsible for the Iraq invasion of 2003, which ultimately lies at the root of the turn of events we can now observe. These people, from Richard Perle to John Bolton to Paul Wolfowitz to Dick Cheney to Tony Blair to name a few prominent ones, are not only responsible for a huge amount of bloodshed and a truly breathtaking waste of treasure, they have been 180 degrees wrong with literally every single prediction they have ever made about Iraq.

The chutzpa Dick Cheney displayed in a recent op-ed at the WSJ is astonishing. The man has apparently become even more divorced from reality than he already was. Cheney refers to the current events in Iraq as “The collapsing Obama doctrine”,  when it is really the “Bush-Cheney doctrine” that is collapsing. While we have little sympathy for Mr. Obama and his policies otherwise, the mess in Iraq is definitely not his legacy. Among a number of gems in Cheney's op-ed, we find e.g. this one:


“Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”


This is the pot calling the kettle black. It is true that Mr. Obama's estimates regarding the strength of Al Qaeda and the groups loosely affiliated with it have been decidedly over-optimistic, but the above assertion of Cheney's is a picture perfect description of another president, namely G.W. Bush.

Cheney by the way also glosses over the fact that it was Bush who signed the US troop withdrawal agreement with al-Maliki, not Obama (we mention this only because he devotes a large part of his op-ed complaining about the withdrawal).

Other architects of the original Iraq war – prior to which it must be remembered, there were no Islamist terrorists active in Iraq (or in Syria for that matter) – have variously attempted to either minimize their roles, or gone on the counter-attack. Paul Wolfowitz for instance is now saying that he had actually very little to do with the Iraq invasion and that if he had in fact been an 'architect' of the war, it would of course have been handled completely differently!

There are only two possibilities here: either Mr. Wolfowitz has an Alzheimer type problem and urgently needs medical attention, or he believes his audience is composed of complete idiots.


“Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense in the Bush administration, appeared this morning on CNN’s “New Day” to talk about the latest events in Iraq. Co-host Chris Cuomo introduced him as an “architect” of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Wolfowitz protested: “I’m not the architect of the war. If I were the architect, it would have been handled very differently.”


(emphasis added)

Wolfowitz is however correct on one general point: Republicans and Democrats remonstrating with each other over whose fault various foreign policy disasters are (including this particular one) indeed makes little sense – after all, both parties strongly supported the invasion of Iraq (the vote on the war resolution had almost unanimous Republican support and was supported by 40% of Democratic Congressmen and 58% of Democratic senators), and generally speaking both parties are in favor of the welfare/warfare state and the associated interventions, with only their emphasis on one or the other differing slightly.

Tony Blair by contrast tried the Dick Cheney method of going on the attack – Mish has recently published a post on what he calls “Tony Blair's Disingenuous, Self-Serving Analysis of Iraq”, which we have little to add to. Blair was gung-ho to invade Iraq, and made up all sorts of transparent lies to market his and George Bush's war (as we recall, one of the most absurd assertions was that the non-existent Iraqi WMDs could “strike London in 45 minutes”).


Steve Bell 13.05.2014

Steve Bell on who or what is to blame…



The situation in Iraq obviously continues to deteriorate. From today's perspective, it seems ever more likely that the country will eventually split into three parts: a Kurdish state in the Northeast, a Sunni caliphate comprised of the Northern Iraqi provinces and parts of Syria in the North, and a predominantly Shia state in the South. It seems highly unlikely that the Western world will acquiesce to the establishment of such an Islamist caliphate, so unless ISIS can somehow be defeated relatively soon, a further escalation of the conflict in the region is already preordained.




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2 Responses to “Iraq Continues to Unravel”

  • woodsbp:

    Is there anyone reading this, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who is a political decision-maker?

    If so, could you, politely, suggest to them that they read (unless they have already done so) – as in sitting down, undisturbed reading:

    – Edward Said’s, ‘Orientalism’ and,

    – Robert Fisk’s: ‘The Great War for Civilization: the conquest of the Middle East.

    And if they are REALLY interested (which I doubt), try,

    – Charles Allen: ‘God’s Terrorists: the Wahhabi cult and the hidden roots of modern jihad.

    Are our western (US, UK and EU) political leaders actually such ill-informed fools or are they simply mendacious knaves?


  • AustrianJim:

    >>it seems ever more likely that the country will eventually split into three parts: a Kurdish state in the Northeast, a Sunni caliphate comprised of the Northern Iraqi provinces and parts of Syria in the North, and a predominantly Shia state in the South.

    That, of course, would probably be a first step towards real peace.

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