Invasion of Mosul may backfire on ISIS in Syria

ISIS now has the resources to recruit thousands of fighters.

al-monitor Uniforms reportedly belonging to Iraqi security forces are scattered on the road after hundreds of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIS) launched a major assault on the security forces in Mosul, June 10, 2014. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

syria, sunni, mosul, iraq

Jun 13, 2014

The regional and international race to contain the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Naqshbandi Army in Iraq has been slow. Mosul was quickly invaded. But it's difficult to create a quick plan that brings together the Iranians, the Americans, the Turks and all those affected by the disruption of the system that emerged after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that Iranian and US interests are being threatened in Iraq.

Hours after Mosul’s fall, the Iranians, in the words of President Hassan Rouhani, proposed to help in “countering terrorism,” before going to a meeting of the Supreme Council for National Security to determine the next steps. President Barack Obama made similar offers, announcing “immediate and short-term military movements that should be done in Iraq, and we are looking at all options.” Meanwhile, the White House was quick to announce that it will not send US troops to Iraq.

Both sides have enough assets in the region (American troops, experts, Iraqi allies and elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) to translate their proposals into actions in the coming hours. Newspapers for Iran's Revolutionary Guard said, “Iran would intervene strongly and when the need arises to maintain its national security on the one hand and to support and assist Iraq on the other.”

The Turkish position seemed ambiguous in the last hours, especially when Syrian oppositionists confirmed that hundreds of foreign fighters, especially Saudis, crossed the Syrian-Turkish border in the two days preceding the attack on Mosul.

According to a Syrian source in the region, Turkish intelligence was aware of the arrival of hundreds of Arab and foreign fighters, and instructions were issued to facilitate their movement. There was a belief that they were going to strengthen ISIS, which was massing more troops to resolve the battle in Deir ez-Zour, expel the rest of the tribal-jihadist alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra, exert control over the oil regions there and link them with neighboring Raqqa and Anbar.

The United States and Iran mobilized politically and media-wise to face ISIS. The United States would have to quickly clarify where its drones will stop. The drones will strike convoys for ISIS and others in the north of Iraq. Will those drones stop at the Iraqi-Syrian Sykes-Picot border? Or will there be an open war against ISIS everywhere? That will mark a significant change in the US position toward the “jihadist” Syrian opposition. It is also not clear whether it is acceptable to change the rules of the game in the region and have the battle be joined by forces that no one can control, in an oil-rich area that is important for the United States, constitutes a strategic depth to Iran and is a barrier preventing “jihadists” from threatening Kuwait or others.

It doesn’t appear that the Iraqis will wait for the maturation of the US or Iranian response. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appealed to Iraqis to volunteer in a proxy army to confront the attack on Mosul and Salahuddin. This is similar to the Syrian formula for resistance. Thus the Iraqi army will be supported by mostly Shiite and tribal volunteers to defend Baghdad and recover whatever can be recovered in the north.

After the battle failed to achieve a quick victory in Syria, the decision to move the battle from Syria to Iraq has been taken by ISIS, by remnants of the former Iraqi army and by the Naqshbandi Army, led by former Iraqi Vice President Izzat al-Duri. The “invasion of Mosul” also points to a decision by Gulf countries, which supported the war in Syria (Qatar or Saudi Arabia in particular), to strike at the “resistance crescent” at its weakest link: its Iraqi heart.

The breakdown seemed great and quick because of the failure of the policies adopted for an entire decade to build a state dominated by Shiites with a tendency to exclude, or contain, the Sunnis, and by not adequately arming the Iraqi army and providing it with the necessary weapons to protect the new state.

Unlike in the Syrian arena, the Mosul surprise showed the flexibility of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The role of Duri and the Naqshbandi Army in the battle on Baghdad is only the facade of a broad tribal and Baathist coalition that is more of a Sunni uprising than a “jihadist” invasion.

ISIS and the Baathists have forged a strong alliance through the role that former Baath officers play in ISIS leadership. Among the 20 members of the “ISIS shura council,” 13 are former army officers, including Samir al-Dulaimi (Haji Bakr), the former Iraqi military intelligence colonel who was killed in the Aleppo countryside, and Abdul Rahman al-Beblawi, a lieutenant colonel of the Republican Guard who was killed in Mosul, before which he led ISIS in Deir ez-Zour and, before that, in Anbar.

The “invasion of Mosul” will have Syrian repercussions, especially in the eastern region. As Baghdadi’s “state” is being drawn from Anbar until Badiyat al-Sham, the power balance in the “jihadist” war will not be safe from being overturned, as the ISIS flags are flying from Deir ez-Zour in the east to Baghdad in the west.

Just hours after Mosul fell, US Hummers and Iraqi army ammunition and weapons moved to ISIS’ fronts in Hassakeh and Raqqa. The results of the “Mosul invasion” will soon change the nature of the battle in the battlefields between the “jihadist” brothers in the Syrian east.

If Mosul is not recovered, ISIS may find more than it needs of land, financial resources and human resources to revive the “rule of the caliphate in Badiyat al-Sham.” Controlling Mosul has doubled ISIS’ ability to recruit thousands of fighters from the new Iraqi human reservoir, after annexing the large Ninevah province. All that depends on tribal alliances stretching from Anbar to Deir ez-Zour. And there are inexhaustible oil resources. The Turkish market will buy looted Syrian oil at the cheapest price across the Tell Abyad crossing, taking advantage of the European Union’s decision to facilitate the sale of Syrian oil to finance the opposition.

ISIS also benefits from warehouses of ammunition, weapons and rockets, as well as military bases and sophisticated equipment. Those are akin to a $14 billion deal between Washington and Baghdad. In two days, al-Shadadi, south Hassakeh, near the al-Hawl crossing with Iraq, has become a focal point for gathering and distributing the spoils of the Iraqi military. Those spoils are starting to flow to the fronts under the supervision of Abu Omar al-Shishani.

The new assets allow ISIS to win the battles in Deir ez-Zour, with or without a fight, after the coalition of “jihadist” factions of Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani failed to contain ISIS’ advance in the Euphrates Valley, grabbing the entire western countryside and linking it to Raqqa. Those battles cost both parties 700 dead in 40 days of fighting.

According to information from the Syrian opposition in the region, “jihadist” groups, the tribes and Golani’s leadership in al-Shahil have reached an undeclared truce with ISIS to support it in the “invasion of Mosul.” The al-Bitar battalion, which includes nearly 1,000 Libyan fighters who pledged allegiance to ISIS, was tasked to monitor the roads north of Deir ez-Zour despite those roads being calm. To ensure their neutrality, the checkpoints in the area were handed over to the “immigrants and Arab fighters.” Tribal members were pulled out from those checkpoints to avoid clashes.

ISIS sweeping away the sand barrier and the Sykes-Picot lines with its convoys returning from Mosul was not all symbolic, as it unites the area of al-Jazeera in Syria and Iraq for the first time since the Ottomans left a century ago. Erasing that border may also result in the rise of “jihadist” statelets and emirates having the necessary elements and resources to survive, and sufficient resources to spread chaos in the region for many years.

The road to Mosul, Tikrit and Salahuddin in Iraq was not a suicide operation. Six months ago, ISIS withdrew from the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. ISIS gave up the fight in a land with no strategic depth. Rather, ISIS relied on a legitimate base in Anbar and expanded in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour and the southern Hassakeh.

Beyond the symbolism, Baghdadi will rule over the believers in a state with strategic depth adjacent to the Euphrates from the Turkish border to the outskirts of Baghdad. If his “jihadists” are not contained, Baghdadi would be able to open multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria and in other neighboring countries.

The Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra have started a battle in the north in the town of al-Rahi to expel Baghdadi from his stronghold closest to Turkey. But that battle is merely a face-saving device for the “jihadists” and intended to ease the pressure on the shaky fronts in Deir ez-Zour.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Mohammad Ballout