Is the tide turning again in Iraq?

The Iraqi army will have to destroy Mosul in order to save it — and it’s not clear whether it can do the job even then.

The Iraqi army will have to destroy Mosul in order to save it — and it’s not clear whether it can do the job even then.

It isn’t so much an army as a vast system of patronage providing employment of a sort for 900,000 people. When fewer than a thousand ISIS jihadis fought their way into Mosul, Iraq’s second city, over the past few days, most of the government’s soldiers just shed their uniforms and fled.

The government troops never felt comfortable in Mosul anyway, for they are mostly Shia Muslims and the vast majority of Mosul’s 1.8 million residents are Sunni. (Or maybe it’s only 1.3 million people now, for up to 500,000 of the city’s residents are reported to be fleeing the triumphant jihadis: Shias, non-Muslim minorities and even Kurdish Sunnis have faced execution in other areas that have fallen under the control of ISIS.)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (an Arabic word that can mean the entire Levant, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) began as “Al-Qaida in Iraq” during the American occupation, but it’s the Syrian civil war that turned it into a regional threat.

ISIS actually spent more time fighting other rebel forces in Syria than the Assad regime, but it gained recruits from all the Sunni Arab countries just by being on the right side. It also got access to the money and arms that were flowing into Syria for the anti-government forces. In the past two years, it has established effective control over most of sparsely populated eastern Syria, and it started moving back into western Iraq in force late last year.

In January, it seized the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, only 100 km west of Baghdad, and the Iraqi army was unable to retake the city although it had suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 1,000 killed, by the end of April. But at least it stood and fought in Anbar. In Mosul on Monday, it just ran.

It ran although it outnumbered the ISIS fighters who attacked the city by at least 15-to-one, and it may not be willing to fight very hard to take it back. The entire Iraqi government is an “institutionalized kleptocracy,” as one of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own ministers said, and the army is no exception. Soldiers who go unpaid because their officers stole their wages are rarely willing to die for them.

The only real fighting force left in Iraq is the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

It is a tough, well-armed force, but it serves what is a separate state in all but name. It apparently still holds the part of Mosul east of the river Tigris, which has a large Kurdish population, but it may not be willing to take the large number of casualties that would be involved in street-fighting to recover the main part of the city.

At a minimum the KRG would want the Baghdad government to make major concessions on the revenue and oil-exporting disputes that have poisoned its relations with the federal government before it commits its forces to a major offensive against ISIS. Or it may just decide to stand on the defensive in the Kurdish-majority territory it now holds, and use the crisis to move even closer to its ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan.

ISIS has sent the occasional suicide-bomber into Kurdistan, but it realizes that its main fight is not with the Kurds. Having taken most of Mosul, its forces are advancing not east into Kurdistan, but south through Tikrit (which fell Wednesday) towards Baghdad. It will not try to take Baghdad itself, most of whose seven million people are Shia, but by the end of this month it could end up in control of most of western and northern Iraq.

At this point the old Iraq-Syria border would disappear and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would become a reality, extending 400 km. from Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq to Deir-es-Zor, Raqqa and near Aleppo in Syria. It would be mostly desert and it would control only about five million people and almost no oil, but it would be ruled by an Islamist organization so extreme that it has even been disowned by al-Qaida.

The remaining bits of the new regional map would be the western half of Syria, still largely under the control of the Assad regime; the semi-independent state of Kurdistan; and the densely populated, Shia-majority core of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra, hard up against the border with Shia Iran. None of this is yet inevitable yet, of course. It’s a war, and wars can take unexpected turns. But it’s certainly a possibility.

It’s also a possibility that the war could get wider, as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all consider whether they need to intervene militarily to protect their own interests. But that’s unlikely to happen this month. Later is anybody’s guess.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist living in London.

Just Posted

An incredible closing ceremony capped off the 2019 Canada Winter Games. (File photo by SUSAN JUDGE/2019 Canada Winter Games)
2019 Canada Winter Games Legacy Fund Society hands out $655,000

35 not-for-profit groups across Alberta to get money

Dr. Verna Yiu, president and chief executive officer of Alberta Health Services, says COVID ICU patients have increased by more than 100 per cent in the past month. (Photo by The Government of Alberta)
Record number of people in ICU: says AHS president

The head of Alberta Health Services says hospital staff are treating more… Continue reading

The Red Deer Rebels have acquired goaltender Connor Ungar from the Brandon Wheat Kings, the team announced Monday. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer Rebels acquire goaltender Connor Ungar, forward Liam Keeler in separate trades

The Red Deer Rebels have acquired goaltender Connor Ungar from the Brandon… Continue reading

Alexander Michael Talbot, 29, was found guilty of operating a vehicle while prohibited, flight from police and vehicle theft in Red Deer provincial court recently. (Advocate file photo)
Man charged following police chases in central Alberta last summer is sentenced

Alexander Michael Talbot sentenced to 22 months in prison

Red Deer musician Curtis Phagoo is glad the Alberta government is investing $2 million to help the province’s live music industry, but he would have liked the criteria to be expanded, so the money could be used as relief to cover revenue shortfalls. (Contributed photo by Cory Michaud)
Red Deer musicians welcome $2M in grants to help live music, but would have preferred relief program

The money is for future projects and can’t be used for retroactive expenses

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2021, file photo, exile Tibetans use the Olympic Rings as a prop as they hold a street protest against the holding of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, in Dharmsala, India. Groups alleging human-rights abuses in China are calling for a full boycott of the Beijing Olympics, which is sure to ratchet up pressure on the International Olympic Committee, athletes, sponsors, and sports federations. A coalition of activists representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, residents of Hong Kong and others, issued a statement Monday, May 17, 2021 calling for the “full boycott,” eschewing lesser measures like “diplomatic boycotts" and negotiations with the IOC or China. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia, File)
AP Exclusive: Full-blown boycott pushed for Beijing Olympics

AP Exclusive: Full-blown boycott pushed for Beijing Olympics

Canada's Eric Lamaze riding Fine Lady 5 during the CP International competition at the Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Canada's most decorated show jumper has withdrawn from consideration for the Tokyo Olympics. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze withdraws from Tokyo short list

Canadian show jumper Eric Lamaze withdraws from Tokyo short list

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse questions a foul call during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers Monday, April 26, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. Nurse says it was the COVID-19 outbreak in March that spiked his team's chances for a post-season run.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Chris O'Meara
Nurse faces a busy off-season, much busier if Canada qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Nurse faces a busy off-season, much busier if Canada qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Danielle Goyette speaks to reporters during a press conference in Toronto on Friday, November 10, 2017. Goyette has been named director of player development for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and their American Hockey League affiliate. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette together again on Toronto Maple Leafs staff

Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette together again on Toronto Maple Leafs staff

Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal (11) falls on Nashville Predators center Yakov Trenin (13) during the first period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Staal, Niederreiter lift Hurricanes past Predators 5-2

Staal, Niederreiter lift Hurricanes past Predators 5-2

Washington Capitals center Lars Eller (20) watches the puck get past Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (40) on a shot by Washington Capitals right wing Garnet Hathaway during the first period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series Monday, May 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Marchand scores in OT, Bruins beat Capitals to even series

Marchand scores in OT, Bruins beat Capitals to even series

Toronto Maple Leafs former players Darryl Sittler, centre, Johnny Bower, centre right, are joined by Ted Kennedy's son Mark for a ceremonial puck drop with Montreal Canadiens' Andrei Markov, left, and Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf, right, before NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday, October 8, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Leafs, Canadiens legends eagerly awaiting playoff series

Leafs, Canadiens legends eagerly awaiting playoff series

Conservative MP Ron Liepert rises during Question Period on Parliament Hill, Friday, March 10, 2017 in Ottawa. Ron Liepert says these days, the phone calls and emails from people wanting to talk about his party's climate plan have slowed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Western MP pitches Conservative carbon price with a 24-pack of Pilsner

Western MP pitches Conservative carbon price with a 24-pack of Pilsner

Most Read