June 12, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: ISIS Momentum and the Inevitable Sectarian Fight

• The worst-case scenario is unfolding in Iraq, with high potential to erupt into a regional sectarian conflict

• While the speed of ISIS gains and Iraqi army losses were unexpected, the persistent and unaddressed tensions in Iraq and all its neighbors have made this crisis inevitable

• With hyperbolic tweets and a YouTube video proclaiming “the end of Sykes-Picot” and the “Air Force of the Islamic State is being born,” ISIS online supporters are viewing the Iraq fighting as only the first step in a much larger campaign.

It doesn’t matter how temporary the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)’s control of Mosul and Tikrit, and before them Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, proves to be, since the larger point has already been made: the Iraqi government relinquished to a terrorist group control of its second largest city, Mosul, and is struggling to retain control of it largest oil refinery in Baiji. The point is reinforced as ISIS presses south towards Baghdad and, in the words of an ISIS spokesman, to one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest cities, Karbala. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s attempt to assuage concerns by saying “ISIS doesn’t have the numbers to remain in control of …Mosul” suggests the Iraqi government might have missed the point entirely, as if it only counts if ISIS holds its conquests for a designated time limit. ISIS didn’t need to prove it could hold a city—it just needed to prove the Iraqi government couldn’t.

Worse, the fighting will increasingly divide along sectarian lines, as Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds move to protect their respective interests. Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army battled both US and Iraqi forces during the occupation and transition, has pledged to form “peace brigades” to protect Shi’a shrines and cities. The Kurds, who themselves have a claim on Mosul, will likely move against ISIS as well to reinforce their ‘state-within-a-state’ defenses elsewhere. Sunni groups, both extremist and tribally aligned, will follow in ISIS’ wake, hoping to generate momentum, weapons, and resources for themselves. Already, the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbani (JRTN), an armed Ba’athist group aiming to overthrow al-Maliki, is active on Twitter (which is how most young Iraqis get their news) with photos of JRTN members driving an Iraqi Army Humvee—just one item among the large amount of US manufactured weaponry provided to Iraq’s military.  Iraq has not been this close to renewed mass sectarian conflict since 2006, when al-Qaeda in Iraq blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra and ignited the civil war.

Ongoing events in Iraq have immense regional and global repercussions. Iran won’t stand by while Sunni extremists target Shi’a, nor will Saudi Arabia stand by while Shi’a extremists target Sunnis. Sensing the coming storm, the secretary for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said “ [there] is a need for attention and action from governments and the international community.”

Turkey, which has 80 of its citizens being held hostage in Mosul, including the Consul General, has asked for an emergency meeting of NATO. Given how long the chaotic conditions in Iraq and most neighboring countries have been building, it’s unclear what the international community—however that phrase is defined—can do in the short term.

On social media and the Internet, ISIS supporters are posting triumphant remarks about “the end of Sykes-Picot” (the 1916 agreement that drew the current borders of the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria). A YouTube video depicts ISIS fighters, some arriving in Iraqi Army Humvees, literally bulldozing an earthen berm on a small section of the Iraq-Syria border, giving the hyperbolic tweets a frightening level of credibility, however minuscule. Reports of aircraft over Mosul are tweeted as proof that “the Air Force of the Islamic State is being born.” Just as it’s foolish to engage in mindless rumor chasing online, it’s imprudent to dismiss the millions of people who do, since a great number of Arab youth—ISIS’ main target—get their information almost entirely from Twitter and YouTube. An analysis of ISIS-related social media in the last few days shows that supporters are focused less on the Iraqi government and its handling of the crisis than on a broader Sunni-Shi’a conflict. This is troubling because efforts to counter this thinking—of inexorable sectarian war on a regional scale—don’t reach the core audience in their self-selected Twitter-verse.

A great deal depends on what the Iraqi army does in the next few days in terms of keeping ISIS and band-wagon groups like JRTN away from Baghdad. Just as there is little probability ISIS will remain in control of Mosul, there is little probability of ISIS taking over the Shi’a-dominated capital. But, the finer point is that ISIS has released over 2,000 prisoners from jails in Mosul, captured an unknown but likely large number of modern weapons, and seized an unknown but likely very substantial amount—some reports indicate over $400 million—of money from banks. If ISIS can threaten the capital, however briefly, it will provide the group with something as powerful as weapons and money: momentum and a sense, even if fleeting, of inevitability. 



For tailored research and analysis, please contact:

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 9.32.42 AM