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Wednesday, June 11, 2014 

The taking of Mosul isn't our fault. Well, OK, partly it is.

The panic (by politicians and the media, not by the people of Mosul themselves, who know all too well what ISIS is capable of) at the seizing of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or al-Sham, or the Levant, or whatever you want to call them) is a little curious. After all, for a good couple of years between around 06 and 08 the then mere Islamic State of Iraq had the run of if not control of the so-called Sunni Triangle, with Mosul for a long time forming one of their strongholds.  Then though it was the Americans they were principally fighting and winning against. It was only once the Americans joined forces with the Awakening groups, formed after local tribal leaders grew tired of the brutality and fanaticism of ISI that the group was beaten back, and while never defeated, certainly brought to the brink.

Whether or not those who've taken Mosul and also now Tikrit are ISIS fighters in the true sense or a conglomeration of former jihadis including ISIS as some are suggesting, it does nonetheless signal the group's arguable usurping of al-Qaida as the world's pre-eminent jihadist organisation. This is all the more remarkable considering how earlier in the year Ayman al-Zawihiri removed ISIS's  affiliate/franchise status, following its refusal to patch up its differences with the al-Nusra front in Syria, itself originally an offshoot of... ISI.  Its success in Iraq and Syria also comes in spite of criticism from some of the most influential and respected jihadi thinkers, including Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, both of whom urged support for al-Nusra.

How far this is a victory for ISIS as opposed to a humiliation for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is as yet too early to tell.  ISIS without doubt has some battle-hardened, well-trained and deadly fighters, as is proved by their tightly edited and designed to terrify propaganda videos.  As for how many of their fighters in total have that level of experience and skill is anyone's guess, although it certainly doesn't come close to the 5,000 or so they are estimated to have in Iraq.  Something they do have both in Iraq and Syria is a constant stream of volunteers willing to become suicide bombers, regardless it seems also of whether the target, as in Syria, is their fellow jihadis.  The Iraqi forces, part out of fear, part out of lack of training and part out of lack of loyalty to a Shia-dominated government that has never tried to properly reconcile with the Sunni north since the civil war seem to have mostly melted away, leaving only a police force that soon also abandoned its posts.  Paul Mutter suggests the majority of the functioning Iraqi army is currently trying and failing to dislodge ISIS and other Sunni militias from around Fallujah, making it even less likely Mosul will be able to be retaken soon.

Indeed, as Maliki is apparently encouraging the arming of people's militias, he also seems to doubt whether it can be achieved.  The real key will be ISIS's strategy from here on out.  Where once the group was set on fomenting civil war, relying on holding just a few safe zones and then often under the hospitality of tribal groups rather than through strength, it now de facto controls swathes of both Iraq and Syria, with an even wider operational presence.  In the short-term the aim may well be to recapture some of the territory lost in Syria, with the materiel captured from the Iraqi security forces put into use against the rival rebel groupings there.  Also a major factor will be how the group intends to govern those who haven't fled their advance: promises given that they will not be looking to impose the kind of justice seen in Raqqa are wholly unlikely to convince given the group's propensity for killing first and asking questions later.

Where this leaves foreign policy in the region, or at least should is equally uncertain.  As Juan Cole writes, ISIS could not have survived without the wealthy benefactors in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf who have no qualms about the funding of murderous fanatics if it means the weakening of Iran's allies.  Correspondingly, both the United States and our good selves are now in the position of propping up and supplying a Shia-dominated government in Iraq in its fight against ISIS, while at the same time supplying "moderate" Sunni rebels in their fight against both Assad and ISIS.  We welcome the farcical election of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt (in the words of Patrick Cockburn, he couldn't even rig the vote properly), while denouncing the farcical re-election of Assad in Syria.  We try not to mention Libya at all, while politicians who have spent the past decade telling us we've been fighting in Afghanistan to prevent terrorism here can be safe in the knowledge a group too extreme for al-Qaida now controls much of northern Iraq and a good chunk of Syria, both of which are hell of a lot closer to Europe than Afghanistan is.  And of course, we can also be happy about how ISIS didn't exist prior to the Iraq war. 

Other than that, things seem to be going pretty well.  Sleep tight.

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