Thursday, June 19, 2014

Global Flash Point: Iraq

The crisis and the near civil war – like situation in Iraq is fast emerging as another global flash points of 2014 and beyond and this is apparent from the nature of conflict that is unfolding and the kind of brutality that is being perpetrated by the jihadi groups, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. India’s interests are likely to be affected by the turn of events in Iraq and a strategy needs to be in place in the event of a full-blown civil war and collapse of the state.

The government in Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era has been weak and to make matters worse, the Sunni-Shia divide has become more pronounced, though the sectarian angle is denied by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki’s spokesman. The influence of Iran, a predominantly Shia state over Baghdad has unnerved the Sunni dominated Arab states of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. The rise of ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or also known as ISIL – Islamic State of Iraq and Levant whose main objective is to establish a Sunni-Islamist state in the region should be viewed in the context of the internal politics as it obtains in Iraq as well as the sectarian divide and mistrust between the Sunnis and Shias. (The final "S" in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word "al-Sham". This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant).

ISIS was formed in April 2013 and grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda, but become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and is making military gains in Iraq. The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi aka Abu Dua and is considered today to be the world's most dangerous terrorist.

The ISIS came to prominence during the takeover of Fallujah in January 2014 and the following month Washington recognised ISIS as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, it has been overtly and covertly been supported by pro-Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. The funding of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, a group which has direct links with the Al Qaeda has given the ISIS more firepower.

On June 10, the ISIS captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. In a few hours, the city's security forces had dropped their weapons and uniforms and fled. Since then, the militants introduced a political charter in Mosul and marched south, seizing additional towns en route to the capital, Baghdad. ISIS gained as much as $425 million in cash, an unspecified quantity of gold bullion, huge amounts of light and heavy weaponry and probably hundreds of new recruits from three main detention centers.

It has descended — and at an alarming pace — from the northwest of the country and is taking town after town, reaching about 60 miles from the capital Baghdad. Such has been the pace of its advancement that by the time the international community took notice and condemned it the ISIS had made great progress.

The ISIS has also taken control of Saddam Hussein’s home town, Tikrit. Earlier they had taken control of Ramadi and Samarra—two important towns. PM Maliki has failed to bring even a semblance of democracy and governance in Iraq and there are groups that see the advance of ISIS as a reply to his misrule. The Mosul takeover has further weakened Baghdad’s influence in the northern regions. This has given the Kurds an advantage in its standoff with the Maliki government.

There were reports that the town of Tal Afar had also fallen to the ISIS. Tal Afar is strategically significant, straddling the main highway from Mosul, the provincial capital, to the Syrian border. However, assuming Tal Afar has indeed fallen to the militants, it does not mean they have a direct link to Syria - the border crossing at Rabia is controlled on the eastern side by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and on the western side by the Popular Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is fiercely hostile to ISIS.

This offensive has been coming for at least two years. After the last American military personnel withdrew from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the then-Islamic State in Iraq began its gradual but determined recovery -- befitting the organization's mantra of baqiya wa tatamadad ("lasting and expanding"). The strategy was meticulously planned and carried out in clear stages.

Principally, in Iraq the ISIS have spent two years breaking senior leaders out of prison and re-establishing a professional command and control structure; expanding operational reach, including into Syria, and exploiting rising Sunni discontent with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, thereby encouraging sectarianism.

ISIS has substantial roots in Mosul, where it has managed to remain a potent force during and after the U.S. troop "surge." This breakaway Al Qaeda affiliate has been raising substantial sums of money in Mosul through an intricate extortion network. This reality, plus Mosul's proximity to ISIS positions in eastern Syria, made the city a natural launching ground for this shock offensive in Iraq, which is ultimately aimed at Baghdad.

Besides the ISIS, there are many other armed Sunni actors involved in what has become, in effect, a Sunni uprising -- groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils.

ISIS may be the largest force involved (with about 8,000 fighters in Iraq), but its numbers are in sufficient to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating Sunni population. But this "relationship" is by no means stable and should not be taken for granted.
The militants' prospects are also dependent on the government and its supporters continuing to advance sectarianism -- something that encourages Sunni actors to accept ISIS. 

Unfortunately, this apparent sectarianism has been consolidated in recent days with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s call for a "volunteer army" encouraging the further reconstitution of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Brigades (three Shiite militias active during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which appear to be receiving a new boost in recruitment).

Further the call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's to Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS -- have increased the perception of sectarianism inside and outside Iraq.

Iran's role is crucial. Iran has spent recent years painstakingly trying to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq under a central authority in Baghdad. Already, the commander of Iran's external Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, has been in Baghdad, and Iraqi sources have reported 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel arriving in the capital and, allegedly, 1,500 Basij militiamen (Iranian paramilitary force) in Diyala.

Saudi Arabia has been making all out efforts to thwart the rise of Iran and its influence in Iraq. Syria and Lebanon always make for useful proxy battlegrounds, though a Sunni rebellion has little chance of actually toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Lebanon is too fragmented for any one regional player to claim a decisive advantage. The contest has thus shifted back to Mesopotamia, where Iran cannot afford to see its Shiite gains slip and where Saudi Arabia -- both the government and private citizens -- has maintained strong ties with many of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and Mosul provinces that have facilitated the Sunni uprising. All the same there is no love lost between the Saudis and the ISIS. In fact, the Saudis have branded it a terrorist organization and have even uncovered cells of the group on Saudi soil plotting against the kingdom.

Thus a variety of factors may have been responsible for the current situation in Iraq; but primarily the Sunni-Shia divide and a continuing battle for ‘influence’ fought through proxies between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states of the region have converted Iraq into a war zone and has brought it to the verge of collapse.

Impact on India

India’s immediate concern is the welfare of a sizable number of Indians working in Iraq; according to one estimate, as reported in an Indian daily, about 18,000 Indians are in Iraq. With the fall of Mosul, it has been reported that about 40 construction workers had been abducted by the ISIS. Also there are about 46 nurses from Kerala have also been stranded at Tikrit near Mosul. The nurses are claiming that they are safe and the Indian mission in Iraq is trying to evacuate them to safer places.

India is in the process of sending its former ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy to Baghdad to try and establish contact with the abducted Indian workers. Suresh Reddy, who has good contacts in Iraq, is likely to use his local contacts to trace the abducted Indian workers.

It is anybody’s guess as to how the Indian government will go about evacuating its citizens who are stranded and secure the release of the abducted workers as, as of date India does not seem to have much influence over the warring factions or the wherewithal to secure a safe passage from the embattled region. It is virtually impossible to conduct an evacuation exercise on a large scale considering the fighting in various parts of Iraq. And secondly, an evacuation of this magnitude will entail the deployment of armed forces in order to ensure safety of her citizens. If India chooses this option, then it needs to consider the possibility of an armed confrontation with the ISIS. Also an evacuation, if planned, will necessitate the deployment of Indian naval and air assets in and around Iraq.

ISIS, which is being suspected to be behind the abduction of 40 Indian workers in Mosul, has global ambitions and aims to create an Islamic World Dominion of which even India would be a part. A recently released world dominion map by the outfit had parts of north-west India, including Gujarat, shown as part of the Islamic state of Khorasan, a caliphate that the outfit aims to achieve. 

There have been inputs of jihadists from India fighting in both Iraq and Syria and some of these would eventually return and would then become the link between the Middle East outfits and the Indian subcontinent. That is a time, sources said, India needs to prepare for.

The offensive carried out by the ISIS and its allies bring back memories of the Taliban seizing Afghanistan which could increase instability in the entire region. Moreover, a crisis-ridden oil rich country in West Asia will adversely impact India’s energy needs and the deep economic ties which India has had with Iraq.

(At the time of writing this post, the Sunni extremists have reportedly taken control of most of Iraq's largest oil refinery, located in Baiji in northern Iraq. The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 per cent of the refinery," an official speaking from inside the refinery said). 


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

An excellent article particularly strong on the development of ISIS, ISIS reliance ordinary Sunni Iraqis, and the possible impacts on India (sectarian violence, terrorism and energy needs).

I'm particularly interested in possible Saudi government and private funding of ISIS which may be partly to:
- keep ISIS away from the borders of Saudi Arabia
- and to use ISIS as a power projection force for Saudi interests.

Hopefully Abu Dua won't turn out as effective and destructive as Osama bin Ladin. I dare say if the American's don't knock off Abu Dua the Israelis will.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
Iraq and Syria have become the proxy battlegrounds for regional players like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. What these kingdoms don't realise is that groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are like Frankenstein and may go out of control sooner or later.