The Facts in Iraq
The situation in Iraq has changed. The relationship between Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds, is now driven by facts on the ground, not USA foreign policy.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)
New boundaries: The Peshmerga (the KRG military) and security forces have occupied most of the disputed areas and Sinjar. They have also occupied the eastern side of Mosul (where most of the local Kurds live), all of Kirkuk, and they are providing security for the related oil facilities. This provides a thick physical barrier between the insurgents and the Kurdish Region. Control over these areas has been a long sought goal of the KRG and it is difficult to envisage them returning these areas to Baghdad. The KRG no longer has to negotiate for concessions from Baghdad, the central government will now have to negotiate with Erbil.
KRG vs. ISIS: While there have been a few incidents, ISIS is purposely avoiding combat with the Peshmerga for three valid reasons. First, the Peshmerga are more than a match for ISIS. They have the same motivation to defend Kurdish lives, as ISIS has to conduct jihad. Second and perhaps more importantly, starting operations against the Kurds would open a northern front against ISIS just as they are on the march south. Third, the Turks would much rather have a friendly oil rich KRG on their southern border than a caliphate run by expansionist Arab extremists. The Turks will intervene directly or indirectly if they see a threat from ISIS developing.
Intent: We need to take ISIS at their word. They say they are going to Baghdad and absent a reversal; they probably will give it a try. At the very least they will be able to create a shock wave of violence, a refugee exodus, and a diplomatic crisis. ISIS is described as a terrorist organization; it is and ISIS uses terror and propaganda extremely effectively in the Iraqi context. It is also a well equipped, experienced, and effective military organization. Their use of captured Iraqi uniforms and equipment, and their sheer audacity, is giving them an ability to infiltrate and spread chaos behind Iraqi lines, setting the stage for their main forces. Marching on Baghdad will take a significant logistical capability to sustain; while they now have enough captured material to push south, organizing this aspect of the battlefield is ISIS’s major vulnerability. However, ISIS will not be deterred by a fear of failure. We may find their tactics abhorrent but ought not doubt their faith in their self.
Maliki: Anytime, a Prime Minister, has to ask civilians to arm themselves and defend the capital; he has a serious crisis. However, Maliki has recently had a few positive developments as well. Ayatollah Sistani, the head of the Shia Hawza (their supreme religious institution) has issued a Fatwa (a religious order) stating that all Shia must join the military and defend the Shia people and institutions. Sistani is much respected and his voice will have an impact. The formal arrival of the Iranian al-Quds (Revolutionary Guard) forces offers Maliki a tremendous military tool. These developments will rally the Shia against ISIS.
Maliki’s dilemma: However, these positives come with strong negatives. Both these developments prove the case of the ISIS, the secular Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds that Maliki and his government is of the Shia, by the Shia, and for the Shia. To make it worse, it reinforces the notion that Maliki is a willing tool of the Iranians. Maliki needs to stoke up the emotions of the Shia to build his military capacity but with each step he takes to do this, he undermines the viability of Iraq as a multiple ethnic/religious nation. The hard part for Maliki will be to keep the specific fight against ISIS from devolving into a general fight against the Sunnis.
Baghdad: If the fighting comes to Baghdad, all bets are off as to the outcome but one fact is inevitable, it will rapidly become a sectarian Battlefield, much like Beirut during the civil war. Even non-radicalized Sunni and Shia will have to take up arms to defend their neighborhoods. By the reckoning of ISIS, this is a desirable outcome. They want to provoke an existential fight for Iraq because they believe they can win it. They might be wrong but, given their recent success, it is hard to imagine they will want to stop now and reconsider the strategy that has brought them so far, so quickly.
Assistance: It is clear from the administration’s most recent statements that little meaningful American assistance is coming. Air, drone, and missile strikes will initially hit highly lucrative targets but that target rich environment will pass unless US Special Forces and intelligence assets are on the ground to provide a constant flow of intelligence. It seems unlikely that the administration will put these boots on the ground. Deliveries of weapon systems, absent a demonstration that Iraqi soldiers will stand and fight, will not change the current military balance. If the insurgents have SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles and understand how to ambush aircraft, they will severely compromise the American’s ability to resupply and tactically support Maliki.
Intel failure: People are already talking about this as yet another intelligence failure. Perhaps, but not in the way it is being discussed. The failure to predict that ISIS was going to arrive at the doorstep of Baghdad this quickly was not a failure to predict that ISIS was going to attack Mosul. This has been the most predicted attack in years. The failure was not to understand how quickly the Iraqi army and security forces would collapse.
Influence on the Kurds: The US government has never had less influence on the Kurds than they have today. The American Embassy has supported Maliki for years on each key issue of dispute. They opposed the KRG’s PSAs and export of petroleum. They allowed Baghdad to throttle back the KRG share of national revenue from 17 to 10-12 percent. They have provided no meaningful support to the Peshmerga and not pressured Baghdad to do so. The KDP and PUK are still on a State Department third-tier terrorist list for having taken up arms against a lawful government, Saddam Hussein. While I am certain the USG wants the KRG to use the Peshmerga to strike ISIS from the north, it is unlikely the KRG will conduct an offensive without major commitments from the US and Baghdad. Instead, the KRG will secure their new borders and wait as the crisis deepens because the worse it gets for Baghdad, the better it gets for Erbil.
Petroleum: A proposal that is starting to make the rounds in the MNR is that the KRG ought to quickly exploit these new oil-producing areas under KRG supervision. The Kurds would create facts on the ground by expanding the areas where they are exploring for and producing oil. It may be too early to start discussing commercial options with the KRG but, perhaps not.
KRG vs ISIS: While there have been a few incidents, ISIS is purposely avoiding combat with the Peshmerga for three valid reasons. First, the Peshmerga are more than a match for ISIS. Second and perhaps more importantly, starting operations against the Kurds would open a northern south. The Turks would much rather have a friendly oil rich KRG on their southern border than a caliphate run by expansionist Arab extremists. The Turks will intervene directly or indirectly if they see a threat from ISIS developing.
Iraq army: As the Iraqi army collapsed in Mosul and Kirkuk, entire units (including three generals) drove north to the Kurdish regime to escape ISIS. The KRG disarmed them, took their vehicles, and put them on planes to get them back to Baghdad. The Kurds were scrupulously polite with the soldiers but very eager to get them out of Kurdistan. The Peshmerga also aggressively took control of significant quantities of abandoned Iraqi army military equipment, weapons, munitions, and vehicles in Kirkuk. So, part of their resupply problem has been mitigated.
Former Ba'this: While ISIS fighters are conducting the bulk of insurgent fighting against Iraqi military and security forces, the previously mentioned former (Saddam era) Iraqi soldiers and security officers are playing a much increased and nuanced role. They are organizing, seizing abandoned Iraqi army material, taking control of their neighborhoods, and seizing key terrain features They are playing by ISIS’s general rules (no smoking, no drinking, no music) and cooperating with ISIS. However, they are waiting to see how the situation develops before committing themselves to combat.
What next: These gentleman are ready to negotiate with Baghdad and the Americans, and work against ISIS, but only if they receive significant concessions and greater control over the petroleum resources in their provinces. According to contacts, a shadow Ba'ath party now formally exists and in the current chaos, is aggressively recruiting members. My Kurdish contacts report, no matter how counterintuitive it seems, the KRG is allowing the leadership of the shadow Ba'ath party to visit Erbil. The Kurds evidently view a secular Ba'ath party, interested in gaining greater control over petroleum in Sunnis Arab areas, as a potential ally in their future negotiations with Baghdad.