Removing the Saddam regime from power in Baghdad seems to have done more harm than good to Iraq: a country that again seems headed (once again) towards sectarian-motivated civil war, with the state security forces offering little to no resistance or simply “melting away” in the face of the tactical superiority of ISIS and its battle-hardened veterans returning from the Syrian civil war…

Territorial Control of the ISIS

The modern nation-state – with borders, governments, foreign relations, and concepts of “sovereignty”, “territorial integrity”, “non-interference”, etc. – was born from the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the agreement that ended the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Dutch Republic. There were 109 signatories to the Treaty of Westphalia, signed at Osnabrück and Münster in Westphalia (part of modern-day Germany), including the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III of the House of Habsburg; the Kingdom of Spain; the Kingdom of France; the Swedish Empire; the Dutch Republic; the Princes of the Holy Roman Empire; and sovereigns of the free imperial cities. This “Solemn, And Ever Memorable and Sacred Treaty” was preceded by the signing of the Peace of Münster between the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of Spain on January 30, 1648 (which was officially ratified in Münster on May 15, 1648) and by the signing of two complementary treaties: the Treaty of Münster (“Instrumentum Pacis Monasteriensis”, or IPM) between the Holy Roman Emperor and France (and their respective allies), and the Treaty of Osnabrück (“Instrumentum Pacis Osnabrugensis” or IPO) that concerned the Holy Roman Empire, the Kingdom of France, Sweden, and their respective allies. In essence, the Treaty of Westphalia defined the principles of sovereignty and equality in numerous sub-contracts, and became the constitution of the new system of states in Europe in the 17th century: it was also precipitated by the socioeconomic needs of sovereigns (monarchs, governments, heads of states) as well as of the European public, which craved an end to the perpetual wars and uneasy peace that had become the hallmark of medieval Europe.

These treaties were the result of the largest and most significant diplomatic congress in modern history, and initiated a new system of political order in central Europe (later called Westphalian sovereignty) which was based upon (i) the concept of a sovereign state governed by a sovereign, and (ii) the establishment of prejudice in international affairs when it came to interference in another nation’s domestic business. According to Stephen Pinker, author of the 2011 treatise “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”, the Treaty of Westphalia not only signaled the end of the recurrent and extremely destructive wars that ravaged Europe, but also represented the triumph of sovereignty over empire, of national rule over the personal writ of the Habsburgs, and most importantly, of the establishment of the first version of international order. The Peace of Westphalia followed the Treaty of Westphalia. This international order continued to be observed and enforced in the 20th century – before the Second World War as well as afterwards, when the world was divided between two global superpowers trying to achieve unipolar dominance and hegemony.

After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Muslim lands in the Middle East became subject to Western colonization: according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, formerly Ottoman lands in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Levant were chopped up and divided amongst the victorious powers, mainly England and France. Most modern scholars of politics and international relations argue, however, that the concept of the Westphalian state has been significantly eroded by the rise of globalization (and the decreasing importance of national boundaries and state restrictions) as well as the increasing power of non-state actors: particularly those individuals and organizations that may be considered “anti-state” actors in the sense that they want to destroy the existing postcolonial state and replace it with a different, pre-modern order that holds significant ideological value for them. Such ideological values are most commonly associated with Islamic radicalism in the 21st century, and the attempts of militant extremists around the world – in Europe and Russia, to Africa and the Middle East, to Central and South Asia, to even the island nations of Asia Pacific – to abolish the modern, post-colonial nation-state and install a “Caliphate” (the absolute rule of a pious, Muslim leader who is also the “commander of the faithful”, or “Amir-ul-Momineen”) in its stead. The downfall of the Westphalian state – the concept, as well as the international order brought into the 20th century by multinational organizations like the United Nations – was heralded by not just the attacks of September 11, 2001, but also by the response of the U.S. to those attacks. A few years later, in 2004, Iraq was also subjected to the Bush Doctrine, and a troop contingent of mainly U.S. and U.K. forces attacked the country and removed the Saddam regime from power.

During the early days of that invasion, U.S. and U.K. forces faced very little opposition from the Iraqi army or even the Iraqi people – who were mostly Shi’a and detested the autocratic Sunni regime run by Saddam’s Ba’ath party. But the first mistake was made when the Coalition Provisional Authority – the replacement governing body for the Saddam regime – issued its second order of May 23, 2003, disbanding the Iraqi Army. While it was claimed that there was “no intact Iraqi force to disband”, the coming years made it obvious that remnants of the disbanded Iraqi army had joined up with other insurgent forces, including Al Qaeda elements such as the militia led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Even though the Shi’a population of Iraq readily took to the opportunities for democracy and liberal freedoms that the American-led intervention offered, an insurgency erupted that threatened to engulf the very freedom and stability that was introduced in Iraq (to a degree) after 2004. During the first years of the war, it became apparent that U.S. forces were mostly targeted in Sunni majority areas: the city of Fallujah is most infamous in this regard, as it required a large-scale military operation to clear the city of rebel insurgents as well as deadly terrorists. In 2006, the country descended into full-scale civil war. It required the novel thinking of General David Petraeus who introduced the idea of a troop surge (which was authorized by President Bush in 2007) and the enlisting of local Sunni tribes (who later became known as the “Sunni Awakening”) to support international forces and the newly-built Iraqi security apparatus against the insurgents and terrorists. The only area that enjoyed relative peace and stability was the autonomous Kurdish north, which was already waging a low-level separatist war against Saddam. And while the U.S. troop surge pushed the ISIS and other terrorist groups (Al Qaeda franchises) and insurgent militias (pro-Saddam groups and Ba’athists) into a condition of incapacity, the surge did not completely eliminate them or wipe them out. The ongoing events in Iraq are proof of that.

During the various phases of the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq, the insecurity had different dimensions: sometimes the attacks were designed to target U.S. and Iraqi security forces, while at other times, sectarian militias hunted members of the opposite sect, targeted their mosques and religious leaders (especially after the February 2006 attack on the Al Askari mosque in Samarra). The fact of the matter was that the Iraqi population in general was disenchanted and disheartened at the incapacity of even U.S. forces at tackling the insurgents and terrorists, and bringing peace and stability to different parts of Iraq – whether dominated by Shi’as or Sunni’s. And another facet of the problem soon emerged: it was not only the Iraqi Sunni insurgents or radical Sunni terrorists that were attacking the U.S., but also Shi’a militias and groups which were being trained and funded by Iran (such as the Special Groups, the Promised Day Brigades, the Asa’ib Ahl-al-Haq, the Kata’ib Hezbollah, and others).

The main Al Qaeda franchise in Iraq, previously known by the obvious name “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in 2004, was the Mujahideen Shura Council (2006). It included AQI and several smaller insurgent groups. In October 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was proclaimed, which in 2013 became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or, to be more precise in Arabic terms, the Islamic State of Iraq and As-Sham (ISIS). By April 2013, the group had expanded its operations into Syria as well, and its opponents included a variety of parties that do not get along with each other: the Syrian Armed Forces and the Syrian Opposition, Iran and the IRGC, Hezbollah, the U.S., the Iraqi Armed Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the Iraqi Sunni “Awakening Councils” or “Sons of Iraq”, the Turkish Armed Forces, the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Al-Nusra Front (which was made the formal organization representing Al Qaeda in Syria in 2013) and the Ansar-al-Islam, among others. Despite military opposition from so many states and non-state militias, ISIS continues to grow in terms of the area it controls and the power it wields, particularly in Iraq. It is also considered “far more ruthless” in its attempts to establish an Islamic state, which it does so by carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing shari’a law immediately. ISIS has also adopted a new tactic in its approach: the use of hearts-and-minds strategies to make itself more acceptable to locals (particularly conservative Sunni Muslims). This means an efficient enforcement of shari’a law in the “Islamic state”, propagation of what constitutes piety and what will invite punishment, and the use of a a highly sophisticated bureaucracy, including operates shari’a courts, public works, religious schools and food kitchens, and a vigilante force to patrol areas under its control.

In January 2014, rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front launched an offensive against ISIS in and around Aleppo. In February and March 2014, before the Iraqi elections, ISIS threatened to take over the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province – during this time, ISIS was expelled from Syria’s Deir Ezzor province and had fully retreated from Idlib province. An Iraqi military buildup and counter-offensive halted this advance, but as recent events show, they did not dent the power or the will of the ISIS. In May 2014, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the Al-Nusra Front to stop attacking its rival ISIS.

June 2014 marked a new beginning for the ISIS: on June 05, ISIS stormed and overtook the city of Samarra in Iraq, only to be ousted by Iraqi military airstrikes later on. The next day, ISIS militants carried out multiple attacks in the city of Mosul. And the day after that, ISIS militants took over the University of Anbar in Ramadi, taking 1,300 students hostage until they were forced out by the Iraqi military. On June 09, ISIS seized control of Mosul, as government buildings, police stations and the airport came under its control – Mosul has strategic value as it is the crossroads between Iraq and Syria, and would also give ISIS control over oil production. According to Aaron Zelin, The ISIS takeover of Mosul did not come out of nowhere: the group had been reemerging since April 2013, when it officially broke away from al-Qaeda, and began expanding from Iraq into Syria. On June 11, ISIS seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul, and also seized the city of Tikrit. On June 15, ISIS militants captured the city of Tal Afar in Nineveh province, claiming that 1,700 Iraqi soldiers who surrendered had been executed. This ISIS offensive has created an acute morale problem in Iraq that must be addressed forthwith: around 60 of 243 Iraqi army combat battalions cannot be accounted for, and all of their equipment is lost. It will be a mammoth task to put these units back together and rearm them.

Facing almost no resistance and supported by disaffected Iraqi Sunnis, ISIS continued its drive south, overrunning Iraqi military facilities, taking additional towns, threatening Samarra (again) and Baquba, and arriving within thirty-seven miles of Baghdad itself. ISIS has attained great strategic depth in terms of the distance that reconstituted Iraqi forces would need to travel to retake key areas — namely, 350 kilometers of contested terrain from Baghdad north to Mosul. Yet the jihadist group’s east-west strategic depth is as small as 10-30 kilometers in places, underlining the major role that Kurds could play. Key ISIS strong points are within striking distance of Kurdish forces, making it vital to bring them fully into this fight. The Kurds are now sitting on a new “Green Line,” the boundary demarcating their region of Iraq. They have two choices depending on how events turn out: they can push ISIS back by exerting their considerable military pressure on the group, or sit back and witness the potential disintegration of Iraq, Iranian domination in the south, and a jihadist threat at their doorstep.

Stiffening government resistance slowed the advance, as did the mobilization of Shiite militia forces and volunteers, Iraqis returning from Syria, and, reportedly, Iranian forces. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces have secured the northern city of Kirkuk and prevented ISIS penetration into the Kurdistan Regional Government. With a force estimated to number a few thousand, ISIS was able to bring Iraq to the brink of collapse, defeat major army formations, capture large amounts of military equipment, loot hundreds of millions of dollars from Iraqi banks, and begin establishing itself as the governing authority across a large tract of Sunni territory. The group did not do this alone: it cooperated with Sunni tribal forces and former Ba’athists of the Saddam Hussein regime. Jeffrey White notes that while the ISIS advance has slowed, it has not come to a halt – rather, it has created a new reality in Iraq, and its implications for various actors in Syria are becoming apparent. In the near term, ISIS as a whole will be politically and psychologically strengthened. It will be seen as successful in battle, capable of major organizational and logistical accomplishments, and clever and supple in its operations. The group’s image as an irresistible force will be enhanced, and those living in ISIS-controlled areas will see little prospect of relief from its rule.

But having forced ahead with its mission of imposing shari’a law in Iraq, Syria, and the Levant too soon, ISIS now faced a three-front war: against various Syrian rebel factions (including the Nusra Front), against Iraqi government forces, and perhaps against the Assad regime as well, which had largely refrained from directly confronting the group until recently. The escalated fighting in Iraq is likely to continue for some time now that the initial ISIS advance has slowed down. Neither the ISIS nor the Iraqi government has the capacity to quickly or radically change the situation on the battlefield. The fighting is likely to be protracted and indecisive, with similar effects on the situation in Syria. Over time, an ongoing battle of attrition in Iraq may work to the advantage of rebel forces in Syria: while ISIS is well organized and formidable in some respects, maintaining a two- or three-front war will require it to allocate resources against multiple threats, replace combat losses, integrate captured equipment, consolidate its hold on newly gained areas, and stave off Iraqi counteroffensives and opportunistic advances by its enemies in Syria. For an organization of its size, this adds up to a serious challenge.

In the end, events on the battlefield will clarify the true effects of the crisis. If ISIS becomes involved in a protracted war of attrition in Iraq, its position in Syria could weaken visibly. Rebel successes or failures against the Assad regime will indicate whether or not they have been able to take advantage of the situation. While the ISIS advance in Iraq has increased the complexity of the Syrian war, it also presents another opportunity for the United States and its allies to make gains against Assad. Military assistance to moderate Syrian rebel groups would help them take advantage of the situation, allowing them to act more effectively against ISIS, the enemy of all, and the regime, the enemy of most.

But the rapid gains made by ISIS in both Syria and Iraq have forced the U.S. as well as Iran to consider various options (including military support and intervention) to at least stabilize Iraq. Although introducing U.S. airpower into the conflict would not be a “silver bullet”, there are many instances in which a little bit of it could go a long way in facilitating Iraqi operations and boosting morale. This effect was seen in parts of Libya, where French airstrikes turned the military situation around. Air operations in Iraq would also require a Joint Special Operations Task Force on the ground. The United States will once again become the arsenal of democracy, but this time Iraq will likely have to foot the bill rather than the U.S. taxpayer. And if Washington does not give the Iraqi government sufficient backing, Baghdad could turn to another country with a recent track record of protecting its allies: Iran. The Islamic Republic and its Hezbollah proxy have demonstrated their capabilities by bolstering the Assad regime in Syria. Some in the Iraqi government believe they need to use the same formula that Assad has, and maybe some of the same helpers as well — namely, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite militias. If Baghdad or other cities important to Shi’a Islam are besieged and no other party intervenes, it is difficult to imagine Iran not acting: and the consequences of the Sunni-Shi’a “Gotterdammerung” that could emerge from such intervention are beyond calculation.

In effect, while ISIS poses a credible if not existential challenge to the Iraqi state, it has also created a situation where both Iran and the U.S. would directly compete for supporting the Iraqi state against the ISIS. According to Michael Knights, the United States needs to make a credible gesture of military support immediately. Although U.S. officials should play hardball with the Iraqis about coming to a political reconciliation deal between the country’s various Arab and Kurdish factions, Washington must still make a baseline determination about what is needed to stabilize the current crisis. In his view, America must commit to the defense of Iraq, not leave it for ISIS, or the Iranians for that matter. This is why the nature of the U.S. response will be crucial. According to Michael Singh (writing an article titled “Iran is not an ally in Iraq”), the U.S. and Iran share an interest in preventing further advances by the extremist Sunni militia that calls itself the ISIS; nevertheless, accepting Iran’s offer of assistance in Iraq would be a grave mistake.

Whatever the case, if ISIS advances on Baghdad, potentially drawing in Iran, the United States will need to act quickly. The president would also be wise to use the prospect of U.S. intervention as leverage to push for an inter-Iraqi political deal. Yet Washington has failed to get that deal done despite four years of trying, so if the president intends to keep U.S. planes grounded until reconciliation is achieved even as ISIS moves forward, then other actors, particularly Iran and Turkey (and even Syria, if it stabilizes itself), will have more room to shape the playing field.